By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Larry Lewis was assistant head coach and special teams coordinator at Washington State when Jeff Banks punted for the Cougars in the late `90s, and they formed a strong working relationship.
As head coach at Idaho State, Lewis hired Banks as an assistant before the 2001 season. Banks left after three seasons to join former Wazzu coach Mike Price’s staff at UTEP, but he and Lewis still talk regularly and combine their efforts to put on offseason clinics featuring college and NFL special teams coordinators.
And so when Banks recently left UVa, after less than a month, to pursue a coaching opportunity at an SEC school, Lewis emerged as a natural candidate to fill the vacancy on Mike London’s staff.
It all came together quickly. Lewis flew to Charlottesville on Thursday night and met with UVa officials and coaches Friday. London announced Lewis’ hiring as special teams coordinator and running backs coach Saturday night. Those were Banks’ roles on the Cavaliers’ staff.
“We’ve gone from the pupil to the teacher,” London quipped in a phone call.
Lewis, 55, brings a wealth of experience to a staff that recently added Tom O’Brien, former head coach at Boston College and NC State, and Jon Tenuta, a college assistant for more than 30 years. A starting linebacker on the Boise State team that won the NCAA’s Division I-AA national title in 1980, Lewis was head coach at Idaho State from 1999 to 2006 and has been an assistant at Weber State, Washington State, Colorado State and, most recently, Nevada.
His players at Idaho State included Jared Allen, now a Pro Bowl defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings. Lewis joined Chris Ault’s staff at Nevada last summer as special teams coordinator and running backs coach. Ault, who created the Pistol offense, retired recently after guiding the Wolf Pack to a 7-6 record in 2012. (Nevada’s new head coach, Brian Polian, came to Reno from Texas A&M, where he was an assistant.)
Lewis, who’s from Oregon, said Saturday night that the opportunity to coach for the first time at an East Coast school appealed to him.
“It was a big factor,” Lewis said from Reno, where he was packing for his move to Charlottesville.
“Let’s just put it this way: There’s more football per square mile there than there is on the West Coast. You have to go a long way to get to it out here.”
Another draw was London and his staff.
“It’s an opportunity to learn from some guys that have some pretty good knowledge in the game of football,” Lewis said. “That’s the same reason I took the job here at Nevada, to be able to learn the Pistol offense from the guy who developed it.
“I got to sit in staff meetings for a whole year with this guy. It was just amazing to me, how smart [Ault] was.”
Until he got to Charlottesville last week, Lewis had never met London. “But I know of him,” Lewis said, “and I know people that have been around him and have always spoken very highly of him. It sounded like the kind of program I wanted to be involved with.”
The administrative staff in the UVa football program includes Bob Price, whom Lewis knows from Price’s days as a coach at Eastern Utah. Lewis also needed no introduction to UVa’s executive associate athletics director, Jon Oliver, or its sports psychologist, Jim Bauman.
Oliver, also a Boise State alumnus, worked at Washington State from 1995 to 2001, so he overlapped with Lewis in Pullman. Bauman, too, worked at WSU during Lewis’ tenure there.
Moreover, Lewis is close with Gregg Brandon, who spent the 2009 season on Al Groh’s staff at UVa. Brandon raved about the Charlottesville area, Lewis said, and the University’s traditions.
Lewis first began coordinating special teams in 1995, at Washington State. He continued to oversee most of those units — Banks handled the kickers and punters during his time on Lewis’ staff — after taking over as head coach at Idaho State. He ran the special teams for four seasons (2008-11) at Colorado State before moving to Nevada, where Ault previously had divided those duties among several assistants.
Asked about his philosophy for special teams, Lewis said he stresses effort and attitude.
“I think those things are really, really big in the special teams area,” he said. “Play hard, have fun. It’s got to be fun for the kids, and they’ve got to buy into the fact that we’re a team. It’s the only group where the offense and defense are on the field together.
“You have to develop of culture of believability in what we do.”
As for using starters on special teams, Lewis said, that’s “up to the direction of the head coach. That comes from the top. But I always used to have a philosophy that if you weren’t good enough to play on special teams, you weren’t good enough to play on offense or defense.”
As an assistant, Lewis worked on the defensive side until 2011, when he took over the running backs at Colorado State.
But early in his career, he said, “I always knew that I was going to be a head coach at some point in my life, so [offense] was something I always paid attention to. And as a head coach I had a lot to say about what we did on the offensive side of the ball.”
In 2012, Nevada tailback Stefphon Jefferson rushed for 1,883 yards and 24 touchdowns. He ranked second nationally among FBS players in each category and was one of 10 semifinalists for the Doak Walker Award.
As with his special teams units, Lewis said, he stresses to the running backs the importance of “attitude and energy. I have to have a relationship with those guys, and they have to understand I’m here to help them be as good as they can be. I think that’s what Stefphon bought into.”
National signing day is approaching, and UVa will host many of its Class of 2013 recruiting targets this coming weekend. Lewis said he plans to be back in Charlottesville on Thursday.
“My wife and I, we don’t like to move that much,” he said, “but we’re really excited about this one.”