THE PROFESSOR TAKES ON A PUPIL
Excerpt from the book 596 Switch by Ryan Leaf
The smell of coffee poured out like it was coming from a blast furnace. It couldn’t have been any worse in a Maxwell House roasting plant. For some, the smell of coffee is even better than the coffee itself. To me, it causes damn near a gag reflex. I don’t know why, it just does. So my excitement at getting permission from receivers coach Mike Levenseller to watch him break down film of an upcoming opponent was dampened by the realization that Levy was a coffee junkie.
I still get a touch queasy thinking about those first moments in his office in the fall of 1994. The walls seemed to be belching fumes of java. Levy can put down ungodly amounts of coffee. He should just hook up his arm to an IV and do away with the hassle of having to pick up a mug. Levy had a deviated septum, which I didn’t know about at the time, so he’d sometimes do these big sniffs – almost snorts – while watching film. I thought to myself ‘this guy is going to keel over right in front of me and die from all that brown sludge he’s putting into his body.’
Levy’s office was small and dingy, tucked away in the rafters of Bohler Gym. The walls were gray and the air muggy. To get up there, you climbed narrow stairs to an even narrower hallway that required ducking to get through because the ceiling followed the sloped roofline. Inside, there were a few scattered chairs and an ancient TV on rollers hooked up to a Beta machine – a Beta machine! There was no diagramming of plays on the screen. Levy would watch the action, hit the pause button, and then use good old fashioned pen and paper to draw up ways to attack it. Even in the early ‘90s, this was old school stuff. In retrospect, it all fit perfectly because Levy is the personification of old school. He’s no frills and tough as nails. In a lot of ways, he reminded me of my Uncle Greg – intimidating and a bit gruff, but a great human being. I knew Levy spent hours up there in the rafters dissecting defenses so I asked one day mid-way through my first season in Pullman if I could come along. “It’s up to you,” he said in a voice that belied his natural intensity. Levy always talked, for lack of a better word, quietly. I think that was part of the reason everyone paid so much attention when he spoke. If it wasn’t quiet, you wouldn’t hear him. You had to listen. It’s not that he didn’t talk, it’s that he was so non-demonstrative when he did. Even on the sidelines in the heat of a game, he never gets too wound up. He was what you might call a controlled fire. At any rate, his “invitation” to come watch him digest film sounded less than welcoming, but as I got to know Levy I realized he hadn’t been more encouraging because he wanted to see how much I really wanted it.
And so began the education of Ryan Leaf. Mike Price taught me how to play quarterback. And Mike Levenseller taught me how to read defenses.
Two chairs, side by side, devouring film. This was high livin’ in the eyes of an 18-year-old kid who aspired to be the next Terry Bradshaw. At the time, I didn’t know a cover 2 from a cover charge. Every Monday and Tuesday morning for the rest of my freshman season, and most Mondays and Tuesdays for the following three years, I’d watch film with Levy. I never did get used to the coffee, and hate the stuff to this day, but I get a smile on my face when I picture Levy up in his laboratory. As time went by, we got pretty comfortable with each other. Levy has a good sense of humor, heavy on the sarcasm, and used to pitch me all kinds of crap. I wasn’t sure what to expect the first time I fired some playful jabs back at him, but he loved it.
On average, I spent probably four hours a week up in the rafters focused on enemy defenses. I had never dreamt of instruction like this. The subtleties and nuances Levy would spot had my head spinning. That first morning, we were about 45 minutes in when a dreadful realization came over me: I don’t have a #@$!-ing clue how to play quarterback in the Pac-10. By the end of that first season of film sessions, though, I was feeling better. Still, it would be a long time before I’d get to put that knowledge to use in a game. As a redshirting freshman, the closest I’d come to game action was running the scout team against the No. 1 defense. As a second-year freshman the next season, 1995, I sat behind Chad Davis, who was our returning starter from the Alamo Bowl-winning team the year before. I finally got to play some quarterback late in ’95 at Cal. I threw seven passes but was so nervous I wasn’t reading any defenses, or completing many passes. I was just calling the plays that were being signaled in. I was so amped up I could hardly see straight, throwing the first pass so hard it was not only uncatchable but potentially bone breaking.
A week later, when Davis was deep into Coach Price’s dog house, I took all but three snaps in a home game against Stanford. We lost, but we put up 24 points – the first time in a month we broke 14. On my third play from scrimmage that day, I had what you might call a Luke Skywalker moment. The Stanford defense lined up in a cover 2 alignment, with the right corner playing up to jam our receiver. This was exactly what Levy – my Yoda – knew I would see at some point during the game. As I stood over center, it was almost like Levy’s voice was speaking to me from the Bohler rafters, telling me exactly what to do. With the corner up like that, our film studies showed that the safety basically held his ground for a few seconds after the snap. That resulted in a little pocket of open space between the two DBs that I could hit if I took a three-step drop and threw a ball with absolutely no arc on it. I called an audible and the play worked perfectly. Chad Carpenter, our terrific receiver from Weiser, Idaho, made a sweet catch down the right sideline for an 18-yard gain. It’s hard to describe the thrill I felt when Chad caught that ball. To turn theory into practice, and to have it work, sent a shot of adrenaline through my system. I’ve loved the game of football since I was a little kid and now to be playing at this level, with this type of understanding, was almost intoxicating. For Levy, it was just another day at the office. For me, it was magical. There was a timeout after the pass to Chad and when I got to the sidelines Coach Price cautioned me about the potential pitfalls in making a throw that allowed so little room for error. I just turned to Levy and said, “We knew we could do it.”
The next week, in a thriller at Washington, I made the first of what would be 24 straight starts at quarterback for the Cougars. None of those starts would have been possible – or at least as productive – without the education I received from Levy. Before that game, during warm ups, he came up to offer me his version of a high five. He called it The Cougar Claw. Instead of slapping hands, you interlock your fingers and then clasp down hard. We did that before every single game from then on, the last one being in Pasadena on a sunny January day in 1998.
The season after that trip to the Rose Bowl, a column in one of WSU’s game-day magazines said all the twists and turns that came together to produce our championship year made it seem like it was destiny. I’ve pondered the idea of destiny and come away with no eureka-type thoughts about it all. But I do know this, without Levy teaching me how to read defenses, I can’t imagine having the goods necessary to quarterback that Cougar team to Pasadena. So if destiny is going to be part of the discussion, the place to start isn’t with me or the Fab Five or the Fat Five or any of the rest of that incredible team. It actually starts a couple decades earlier with a fateful decision, by a fellow Montanan that changed the course of Levy’s life – and the fortunes of WSU football. Back in 1975, Levy was a sophomore receiver for the Cougars and the head coach was Jim Sweeney of Butte. Coach Sweeney ran the triple-option veer offense, which meant the ball wasn’t in the air all that often. In the final game of the ’75 season, the Apple Cup in Seattle, Levy was on the sidelines talking with backup quarterback Jack Thompson about how this run-first stuff was for the birds. They decided they were going to transfer to the University of Puget Sound, where Levy’s brother was playing, or maybe San Diego State. Two days later, after eight seasons on the job, Coach Sweeney resigned. He said he did it for health reasons – the fans were getting sick of him. Levy and Jack decided to wait and see who the new coach would be before moving on. When Jackie Sherrill was hired, he made it clear that the Cougs were going to start airing it out. So Jack and Levy stayed. Together, they became record-setters and All-Americans whose names are still in the books. That is what you call destiny.
LEAF BROKE MULTIPLE PAC-10 RECORDS IN 1997.
In 1992, the love of WSU that was fostered for Levy in the 1970s brought him back to Pullman, as receivers coach for Coach Price. He had been coaching in the Canadian Football League for a number of years following his retirement as a player. In one of the rare interviews where he talked about himself, Levy told Carter Strickland of the Spokesman-Review that the need to be near family and friends brought him back. That need was driven by tragedy – something I didn’t know anything about until just a couple years ago. Levy and his wife Allison’s first baby, Kaley, died in 1990 from a rare complication following heart surgery. She was just three and a half years old.
I spent literally hundreds of hours with Levy, just the two of us, in my four years at WSU and I had no idea. He’s a pretty private guy and tougher than crap, too, but his heart is as wide as the Palouse. That valley between gruff and warm makes so much sense, knowing now of the real-life perspective Kaley’s passing must have brought to him. You have to wonder how a blow like that affects a person’s outlook. The urge to withdraw and become bitter, I think, would be immense. That clearly didn’t happen with Levy and Allison. They would invite me over for family dinners with their kids, J.T. and Jordan, and I always thought Levy and Allison had a unique bond, almost like a hand and glove the way they fit. It’s difficult to describe. Just a real united couple. Kaley’s passing no doubt had something to do with that. It could have torn them up but instead made them stronger. To be invited into a home like that helped turn a big campus into a smaller, more welcoming place for an immature kid who hadn’t really ever been outside Montana. Later in life, when I was coaching at West Texas A&M and my addiction to prescription painkillers found its way into the newspapers (and the legal system), Levy was on the phone immediately lending moral support. If that doesn’t tell you something about the depth of his friendship and loyalty, nothing will.
Those two sides of Levy – tough on one side, big hearted on the other – are fitting contrasts because one thing I know about him is that he can’t be pigeonholed. Take coffee, for example. He only drinks the good stuff. He wouldn’t be caught dead waking up with something as pedestrian as Folgers in his cup. He also breaks form when it comes to harder forms of beverage. You might think Levy was a Rainier Beer guy through and through, but he’s actually a bit of a wine connoisseur. On the football field, he’s the same way – blending old school ways with modern thinking. Levy is almost like a scientist when it comes to the art of playing receiver. The number of steps required to run each route, the way hands and elbows are positioned, the lean of the body relative to the defender, the way blocks are leveled and sustained. He has geometrically dissected every facet of playing receiver. Precision doesn’t even begin to describe what he teaches and what he expects of his guys. And when I say precision, I mean precision. One look at the lawn in front of his house is all you need to know about his attention to detail. The thing puts the greens at Augusta National to shame. It’s so perfect you don’t want to step on it. In fact, I never did. Knowing Levy, I would have gotten one of those piercing stares of his if I did.
Levy played three years in the NFL and four in the CFL, but he attributes much of his approach to coaching to Otto Stowe, his position coach at WSU in 1976. Stowe was a receiver on the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins and learned much of his craft from one of the all-time greats, Paul Warfield. He came to WSU as the receivers coach under Jackie Sherrill. Levy was entering his junior season, and up to that point was probably viewed more as a linebacker – he loved to hit – trapped in a receiver’s body. As Jack Thompson tells it, when Stowe arrived in Pullman it was like the world opened to Levy. They were a perfect match. Stowe, like Levy, was a tireless worker who could do crazy amounts of cardio without tiring. But he also was a student of the game and expected that all his players would be too. For Levy, this was like pouring fuel on a few embers that had huge potential but hadn’t really sparked yet.
Today, all these years later, the impact of it all can be seen in full view. When you combine his WSU playing career with his WSU coaching career, you have one of the giant figures in the modern history of Cougar athletics. As a player, he outlasted three head coaches and helped position a fourth (his 1977 offensive coordinator, Jim Walden) to take over. As an assistant coach, he’s been alongside Mike Price, Bill Doba and Paul Wulff for the highest highs and lowest lows, all the while turning player after player into more than the sum of the parts. When Coach Price left for Alabama, he didn’t ask Levy to go with him. You know why? Because he knew the response would not only be no, but HELL NO. You often hear the phrase “Cougar Pride.” For nearly 40 years, Mike Levenseller has been the walking, talking embodiment of what that means.
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Levenseller (21) in Cougar playing days with, left to right, Jack Thompson, Gavin Hedrick and Dan Doornink