IOWA CITY, Ia. — The life of a football coach can be hectic, so Richard Sanchez developed a ritual last season.
Each day at noon, his alarm would ring, a reminder that it was time to have lunch with — and learn from — Kevin Spencer.
Sanchez, the head coach at powerhouse St. Augustine High School in San Diego, Calif., didn’t want to pass up any chance to talk with a guy who’d spent a quarter-century on NFL sidelines. And Spencer didn’t disappoint.
“His heart is always open to sit down with young coaches to teach the game,” Sanchez said of his lone season with Spencer. “His humility was the No. 1 thing we liked about him. Is he a coach that knows and acts like he knows? That’s a coach we don’t tolerate too much around here. He was a coach that knows and doesn’t act like he knows.”
Spencer was “semi-retired” after establishing himself as a special teams guru for six NFL franchises. The final one, the San Diego Chargers, made him the scapegoat for a 3-8 start in 2015, firing him that December.
In 2016, Spencer fell into Sanchez’s lap, asking to help coach at St. Augustine in his youngest son Jack’s senior season.
A funny thing happened that fall. Spencer enjoyed it so much that the itch to coach returned. And that’s how the 63-year-old ended up joining Kirk Ferentz’s staff this summer as a quality control assistant on special teams.
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“You really feel like when you walk off the field that you’ve done something positive outside of football for a kid. Even though those kids all come from pretty good environments, they still need mentoring,” Spencer said of his season in the high school ranks, which also included coaching inside linebackers. “This is very similar.”
Spencer has college coaching experience at the Division III and FCS levels. But he’d never before experienced life in the FBS.
It was his son Timmy, a student at Arizona, who first alerted Spencer to the possibility. The Wildcats were in the market for a new special teams coach last year, and Spencer was intrigued enough to do some digging. He found out that many major-college programs were adding special-teams consultants to their staffs.
Spencer spoke to a few schools, even interviewing at Washington, and then reached out to an old acquaintance in Ferentz. The two had been on the same staff with the Cleveland Browns in the 1990s. Ferentz has a first-year special teams coordinator in LeVar Woods, who also handles tight ends. So an experienced hand will be welcomed.
“This is like an NFL environment,” Spencer said, nodding toward Iowa’s practice fields during the Hawkeyes’ media day earlier this month. “The amount of support staff they have, even the way they conduct practices, is an NFL model.”
NCAA rules limit the amount of time Spencer can spend working directly with athletes, so he said his role will be more behind the scenes, diagramming formations, studying film, and offering Woods his thoughts gleaned from an NFL career that included a Super Bowl championship with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006.
“The thing you find when you do the kicking game is you’re usually all by your lonesome. You’re like the Maytag washer repair guy,” Spencer said, dropping an Iowa reference into the conversation. “No one comes and sees you. So maybe it will help LeVar to bounce ideas off of me.
“I’m an Irishman, it’s hard for me to keep my mouth shut. So if I see something, I might have to say something. I have to make sure I stay within my confines. I just can’t dive in the middle of a drill. It’s not my place to do that.”
Spencer arrives during a time of transition in Iowa’s special teams units. Not only is Woods coordinating the group for the first time, but the Hawkeyes are in need of a new punter to replace Ron Coluzzi and have a place-kicking competition going on between Keith Duncan and Miguel Recinos.
Keith Duncan's 33-yard field goal helped the Hawkeyes beat the previously undefeated Michigan Wolverines, 14-13, on Nov. 12, 2016. Duncan's entering his sophomore season in a battle at kicker with junior Miguel Recinos. Chad Leistikow/The Register
Not to be overlooked, Spencer pointed out, is the selection of a new kickoff and punt returner after Desmond King handled those duties with a flair last year.
Spencer will watch practice film, track statistics and offer opinions to Ferentz and Woods. He said he’s heartened by the importance Ferentz places on a phase of football that can be overlooked.
“I don’t think there’s been a meeting or a post-practice scenario where he has not said something about the kicking game to the guys,” Spencer said of Ferentz. “He gets it. He’s not one of those guys who cares about it just on Saturday. There’s a lot of those guys around.”
Spencer became a special-teams specialist by accident, which is the normal path. Bill Belichick gave Spencer his first NFL job in 1991 when he took over as coach of the Browns. Spencer had been head coach at Division III Wesleyan in Connecticut.
His job with Cleveland was to assist with the kicking game, help out in the weight room, and break down tons of film. Eventually, Spencer said, he realized that there was an important niche he could fill.
“There’s only 32 of these jobs (special teams coaches) in the NFL, and nobody wants to do it. There’s a lot of guys who want to coach linebackers; nobody wants to coach the kicking game,” Spencer said. “So I figured maybe I should try to carve out a living in the NFL, and you’re really like a head coach. You have to have relationships with every guy on the team, including the quarterbacks.”
Spencer became well-regarded enough to earn the NFL’s special teams coach of the year honors in 2005. He also saw the flip side, with his dismissal in the middle of his third season with the Chargers. Coaching special teams can be like umpiring baseball games — you’re only noticed when something goes wrong.
“You like to do your darnedest to fly under the radar, not stand near the head coach during the game where the camera’s on you,” Spencer said.
“But special teams are huge. They truly are a third of the game. It’s all about field position and, can you put your defense in the optimum position? And then don’t be bashful about sticking the ball in the end zone or blocking a kick. We need to do our part to help the team get momentum.”