MIKE LEVENSELLER’s goal was to hit 300 and then add a couple dozen more. He came close, by our count racking up 279 games in crimson over the span of his playing and coaching career at WSU. So Saturday night, when he took the podium at the Cougars’ season-ending football awards banquet, he had to take a couple of deep breaths to make it through his remarks without choking up.
It’s been a remarkable run for the 56-year-old receivers coach whose tenure, as a player and staffer, spanned seven head coaches and rewrote the record books.
For three reasons, heading to the microphone Saturday put a lump in his throat.
First, he was presenting the Randal Simmons Award for character and citizenship. Randal was an old Cougar teammate of Levy’s and a regular visitor every time the Cougs were in southern California for a game. He was killed in the line of duty three years ago as a Los Angeles Police Department S.W.A.T. team officer.
Second, the award was going to senior receiver Jared Karstetter, one of his all-time favorites.
And third, this moment would effectively be the capstone to Levy’s 20-year-long coaching run with the Cougars. Mike Leach doesn’t plan to bring any Cougar coaches on board with him.
“I don’t think I choked up too bad, but it took a couple of deep swallows to get ‘er there,” Levenseller told CF.C on Monday.
For perspective on the emotion of the moment, consider Levy’s personality (no-nonsense and hard to rattle). Also remember the personal tragedy that has shaped and tempered his view of what’s truly critical in life (he delivered the eulogy at his 3-year-old daughter Kaley’s funeral so many years ago).
In other words, it takes a lot to give Levy pause.
“I spent most of the night just looking around the room at the different faces and reflecting,” Levy said. “After the coaching change, there was some discussion about whether the banquet would be held. I’m glad it was. We needed to do it for the seniors and for all the kids ... It would have been a lot easier if we didn’t care for the personalities on this team. I enjoy these kids. They’re good-character guys. I’m going to miss them. They’re a helluva group.”
For old times’ sake Saturday, Levy asked junior receiver Gino Simone if he’d grab him a cup of coffee. Simone laughed and gladly obliged. For 20 years, a rite of passage for every freshman receiver at WSU was to ensure that Levy -- a coffee nut -- always had a full mug.
Levy cleared out his office yesterday. Today, for the first time since his pro career ended three decades ago, he isn’t sure what tomorrow holds. “It’s a strange feeling, for sure,” he said as he now sits down to fully consider options.
WHEN LEVENSELLER LEFT WSU for the NFL and CFL following the 1977 season, he did so with a load of records and honors. He was the first player in school history to break 1,000 receiving yards in a single season, with a total that stood atop the Pac-10 for 17 seasons. But his work as a coach is what he’s most proud of.
Of the nine other Cougars who subsequently reached 1,000 receiving yards in a season, all but Tim Stallworth were coached by Levy. “Twenty years ago I was invited to come here to build a receiving corps for Drew Bledsoe. It’s been quite a ride.”
Asked to name the five greatest receivers in his tenure at WSU, Levenseller diverts the discussion. “Rather than individuals, I think it’s best to look at the respective groups, because they all worked together,” he said.
Among that long list is the Fab Five from the 1998 Rose Bowl season; the Darling-Bush-Riley-Lunde-Henderson bunch from the 2003 Rose Bowl; the Davis-Pointer-Bobo-Schexnayder collection from the 1992 Cooper Bowl; and the Hill-Bumpus-Gibson crowd of the Doba years.
The group he leaves behind could be the best of them all, he says wistfully.
Pressed to pick just one guy as THE receiver in his 20 years on staff, Levenseller relents. “Given what he’s done so far, the growth I’ve seen in him over the last year, and his overall potential, I’ll say Marquess (Wilson)."
His best one-on-one receiver was Brandon Gibson, he adds.
And the nod for toughest receiver is a toss up between Chad Carpenter and Shawn McWashington.
But that’s as far he’ll go in singling out individuals. “It’s a team sport,” Levenseller emphasizes.
That's a message he's preached on the Palouse for two decades, and one he's proud to reiterate as he packs up a lifetime of memories.
For more insight into the life and times of Mike Levenseller, click to this exclusive excerpt from Ryan Leaf's new book 596 Switch.