Cougfan at 15: The supreme technician

MIKE LEVENSELLER

A SIMPLE TEXT MESSAGE from a former pupil now in the NFL serves as a microcosm on the coaching acumen of Mike Levenseller. When the former WSU receivers coach sent Marquess Wilson a text recently congratulating him on his stellar debut with the Bears, the response back spoke volumes.

"Are you kidding, did you see the game? My pad level was way too low," Wilson texted back.

That's a fitting reply from a Levenseller student, because the mentor was a stickler for detail and confident that no matter how well you did, you probably have the potential to do more.

For an unprecedented 20 seasons, from 1992 through 2011, Levenseller was ol' reliable for the Washington State football program. His coaching tenure spanned three head coaches and three athletic directors.

Thirteenth in a series of feature stories (15 for 15) CF.C is running in the days surrounding its 15th anniversary on August 15.

Counting his playing days in Pullman in the 1970s, his time on the Cougar sidelines extended across seven head coaches.

Levenseller played or coached in 279 Washington State football games.

He not only produced many of the greatest receivers in school history, but helped mold the likes of Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Leaf, Jason Gesser and Alex Brink as well.

In the modern history of Cougar athletics, Levenseller is one of the most important, and certainly lasting, figures to roam the Palouse.

"On the list of people we put together to feature in our 15-for-15 series commemorating our 15th anniversary, Levy was a clear choice," said Cougfan.com co-founder Greg Witter. "This is a man who has devoted much of his life to Washington State and, in the process, helped create so many lasting memories for Cougar fans."

SOME WOULD SAY THIS ABOUT Levenseller's coaching style: He demanded just one thing -- excellence.

He didn't coddle players and he was the supreme technician. From hand position to route running to blocking angles and everything in between, Levenseller preached doing all the details right, all the time.

"I'd say demanding, never demeaning," Levenseller said in describing his coaching style to CF.C in a recent phone interview from his home in Pullman. "I had Mike Price and I had Otto Stowe (Levenseller's position coach at WSU in 1976) and I learned from both of them. A lot of the stuff I taught I learned from Otto Stowe, and he learned it from (Dolphins Hall of Famer) Paul Warfield.

"I always tried to make it muscle memory for guys. If you drop your back arm, there's no way you can get to that ball thrown behind you. Everyone is different but if I drop my arms, my shoulders are going to go up and everybody is the same in that way. And you're not going to be able to make that play ... If I could teach them to take three steps correctly, I could teach them to play great football.

"I was adamant about doing it right. My motto was to do things right."

LIKE THE CONSUMMATE TEAM GUY he is, Levenseller shies away from naming just one when asked to pick the greatest receiver in his two decades as a WSU coach.

Hill? Pointer? Darling? Bobo? Davis? Jackson? Gibson? Bumpus? Wilson?


Chris Jackson was one of the Fab Five receivers of 1997.

"It's really groups of guys," said Levenseller. "The Fab Five group (Chris Jackson, Kevin McKenzie, Shawn McWashington, Shawn Tims and Nian Taylor), and that first group in 1992 -- they may have been the best of all. I had Calvin Schexnayder, Deron Pointer, C.J. Davis and Phillip Bobo -- I just fell into that! And then we stumble into Mike Bush, we stumble into Devard Darling. Bush came out (for the team) just to show me up, I think (laugh). He worked so hard in the summer. I love Mike Bush. I love all those guys."

Asked to single out former receivers who he thinks may have been under-appreciated by fans or media, he doesn't hesitate for a second.

"Look at a guy like Chad Carpenter, or Leaford Hacketwho was in those void years (1998-99)," said Levenseller. "We recruited him off the glow of that first Rose Bowl, and he never, ever complained. He worked as hard as he could and became the best receiver we had for that stretch ... And now he's a very successful young man. He's one helluva human being. If I'm having a bad day and Leaford calls, I have a great day.

"Shawn McWashington was another, just tougher than nails. I don't think people appreciated how tough he was. He had 10 knock downs (blocks) in one Apple Cup. And there were a lot of guys, I hate singling one out and not all the others."

AFTER THE HIGH OF THE 1997 season, the Cougs were in for some dark days from 1998-2000, although that 2000 season saw them lose three games in overtime. But as much as the losses stung, Levenseller said he knew good times were coming again.

"The architecture was now different," he said. "We recruited to that quality kid and filled spots with that JC player here and there ... I went on KJR three years before it happened and said we were going to be conference champs in three years.

"When (athletic director) Rick Dickson left he gave Mike a 7-year contract and told him ‘Don't band-aid it with all JC players.' And that's what built those three 10-win seasons from 2001-03 and the second Rose Bowl. People don't realize that about Rick Dickson, how important he was to that success."

Those three straight 10-win seasons by the Cougs were the first in the Pac-10 in more than 50 years, since USC last achieved the feat in the early 1930's.

"When Mike Bush just emerged in that 2001 year, then I thought we were ahead of schedule -- I didn't know we would be as good as we were in 2001. I was always able to stay grounded and slow everything down enough to enjoy it -- more than anything I think I appreciated the players."

ONE OF THE TOUGHEST TIMES in the program, he said, happened in the middle of one of the best: When Mike Price accepted the job at Alabama.

Mike Levenseller: Master Gardener
THERE ARE TWO THINGS you might not know about Mike Levenseller. The first is that he's a workout fiend, although he's had to scale things back since operations on both knees this past February. Former WSU assistant Robin Pflugrad once said he'd never been around another coach who worked out as hard in the weight room or on cardio as Levenseller.

The second thing about him is that his yard is a work of art. Ryan Leaf said in his 2011 book that it "puts the greens at Augusta National to shame. It's so perfect you don't want to step on it." That caution was well-founded.

There was a time when players would come over to the Levenseller home and they weren't allowed to wear shoes ... on the lawn.

"What? You could wear them in my house. You just couldn't wear them on the lawn," Levenseller says with complete seriousness.

Losing Price was hard enough. But having him stay on to coach the Cougs in the Rose Bowl at the same time he was trying to do recruiting for 'Bama was a distraction leading up to that 2003 Rose Bowl.

"I think it very much affected us, but I don't think he could have done it any other way," said Levenseller. "Mike didn't want to distract from what we had accomplished. But players are human ..."

The idea of replacing Price for the Rose Bowl made no sense, Levenseller said, because he was taking half the staff with him to Alabama. "You couldn't do it any other way."

His admiration for Price remains unquestioned, though.

"Mike Price taught me more -- just simply how to treat people. He's a great football coach but he's a greater person ... We all got along, we had the Sports Page night after wins. We would just have fun. A very close knit family, it was everybody together rooting for everybody else."

LEVENSELLER ADDED ALL THE YEARS up the other day: he's been playing or coaching football every season for the last 50 years. Fifty. But 2013 will be the first in all that time he won't be on the field in one form or another. He spent last season coaching receivers at Idaho with Robb Akey, but the entire staff was let go at year's end.

"I haven't fished for silvers in 25 years, so I am looking forward to that," said Levenseller. "I already have that set up with Tim Ochs, one of the all-time great Cougars. It was a great year to get my knees fixed. I can move well again and move down stairs like a normal person, not one-at-a-time anymore. I'll get to spend a lot of time with Allison (wife) which is really going to be great and we'll travel a little bit. I'll also go watch my alma mater Curtis, and watch my brother (Steve) coach Peninsula."

Will he return to coaching at some point?

"I don't know if I'll coach again," he said. "What I'd like to do is teach kids the technical side of the game early so they don't develop any bad habits. The younger you get them the better it is. That appeals to me. The difference between a high school player and a JC player is that a JC player has two more years of bad habits. I would like to do some of that, that may be where I'm headed."

4 TOUGH QUESTIONS FOR MIKE LEVENSELLER:


Shawn McWashington nabs Ryan Leaf pass in 1997 Apple Cup.

1. Pick the most memorable victory in your 20 years as a Cougar coach?

"The '97 Apple Cup. Why? Sixty-seven years. Those guys made it so much fun, it was a building process to get to that stage -- the Fat Five did a pretty damn good job for us, Ryan put us on his shoulders and said he's taking us to the Rose Bowl. That was special."

2. Who were the biggest recruits you thought you had and lost at the last minute?

"Troy Polamalu, we lost him in the last minute. He was from a small school (in Oregon), nobody knew about him early and I got close to him. He called my wife and kids to let them know he wasn't coming. We really fell in love with that kid on his visit, a great kid, a good, tough football player ... Another one was Jake Plummer. He had a bunch of layover time (on his official visit) before he flew out so he came over to the house and played with my kids, took a nap on my couch. Washington State in that era, everybody talks about being a family, but there you really had it at that time."

3. If there are five seconds left in the Apple Cup and the Cougs are on the Husky 4-yard-line and trailing by four, who do you want at QB: Jack Thompson, Mark Rypien, Timm Rosenbach, Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Leaf, Jason Gesser or Alex Brink?


Circa 1977: Cougar greats Jack Thompson, Gavin Hedrick, Dan Doornink and Mike Levenseller.

"Oh, geez! I want them all. I have tremendous respect for every one of them. You know, I never appreciated Jack enough. I'll tell you what, I'll be selfish and go back to my era, you ready? Jack Thompson. You should never go back and watch yourself on tape because you're never as good as you thought you were. Then I put up some old footage of Jack Thompson recently and he blew that theory of mine out of the water. Jack was better than I ever thought and I had thought he was pretty damned good. I went back and looked at old video, I hadn't had a chance to do that when I was coaching. And Ryan Leaf, he was a great leader. Jason Gesser, he was a great leader. All of them were. And Jack Thompson, he was that first leader. He was just that good."

4. Who was the most productive player who also was your biggest headache?

"It could have been Phillip Bobo. Nah, he ‘got it,' he just ‘got it' later. I don't know if there was a guy like that. I'll tell you a story, though. Deron Pointer is on the verge of setting the all-time single game yardage record against ASU, (255 yards). I had told Deron that week, when you start popping off, you don't play as well. And he's going at it out there with some guys. So I pulled him out of the game. I mean, he's about to set the all-time record and I've got him sitting next to me! And he's really quiet and looks at me and he says, 'Can I go back in?' and I say, 'Yes you can.' (laugh) He was a helluva player. That was really fun and I was so pleased he was able to do that. They're young and they are kids and you gotta discipline ‘em -- but you also have to let ‘em back in the ball game."

For more insight into the life and times of Mike Levenseller, click to this excerpt from the Ryan Leaf book 596 Switch.

Of the 11 players in Cougar history who eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in a season, Levy coached all but two: himself, and Tim Stallworth.

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