PULLMAN – After nearly three years of taking orders, Eric Mele is ready to give them again. Make a plan. Trust your course but be willing to change direction in a split second if your gut tells you and then do whatever you can to prove your instincts right.
In football, it’s the only way to do special teams, and for Mele it’s the only way to do life.
Typically, comparisons between the game of football and warfare are almost as crass as they are cliché. But with the extra danger and violence inherent to special teams, which the NCAA has attempted to wean from the game by shortening kickoffs, there’s something to be said for a bunker mindset.
And for a group that’s undergone a swift leadership change due to poor play that must rapidly improve, a new mentality is probably the only way to see drastically different results.
So when Mele took over as interim special teams coordinator following the midseason dismissal of Eric Russell he laid the wartime imagery on thick.
“It’s a natural fit for special teams,” Mele said.
“Unlike offense or defense, it’s not as much tactical and schematic – it’s going to be crazy for 6 seconds and you just need to execute your assignment but it’s going to be 100 miles an hour.”
It’s all about giving the WSU special teams a unique identity. So when the unit comes out of the tunnel before Saturday’s game against Arizona one player will carry a camouflage briefcase with something “top secret” inside, given to the previous week’s top performer on special teams. Other players will get grenades for big hits, along with other incentives and motivational tools Mele’s devised over the years while preparing for this opportunity.
Really, the fact that the military touchstones of surprise and suddenness inform Mele’s coaching philosophy shouldn’t come as a surprise – they’re the tactics he used to get his last two coaching jobs.
Mele was a special teams coordinator and running backs coach at Wingate University, a Division-II school outside Charlotte, North Carolina, when he popped open a Web browser and found Mike Leach’s address in Key West, Florida. Leach wasn’t coaching at the time but Mele sent him a message anyway, saying that he’d love to work with him. He included a phone number but didn’t expect much to come of it.
But Leach called back when Mele was at a coaching clinic in Oregon with Wingate head coach Joe Reich, who prodded him to do whatever he could to get in front of Leach. In fact Reich, knowing that Mele, who had a wife and three daughters at the time (he has a fourth little girl now) and was breaking the bank for flights to Key West, even paid for his young assistant to meet Leach once under the guise of professional development, knowing that Mele was trying to catch on with the offensive innovator and telling him, “bring back whatever you can for us and do whatever you can for yourself.” Reich says he takes pride in the assistants he sends on to more high-profile jobs and besides, he couldn’t begrudge Mele cold-calling another coach. That’s more or less how he’d ended up at Wingate in the first place.
“I had a defensive back position that was open and I got a call from him. Before I even responded to that he showed up at the door one day,” Reich recalled. “But we already had somebody lined up.”
Mele took a teaching position in the area and helped out where he could, eventually becoming one of Reich’s most trusted assistants and a sounding board for the sports psychology that both coaches seem to value as much as X’s and O’s.
“It’s one of those where you don’t really realize what you’ve got and then all of a sudden you’re like ‘oh my gosh, this guy’s really good,’” Reich said. “I’d go home to my wife and be like, ‘I don’t know how we got this guy but this guy’s really good and he’s like a part-time guy for us.’”
Now, major college football coaches of some notoriety receive lots of cold calls from ambitious young assistants and they meet even more at the various yearly conventions and get-togethers designed for this sort of networking.
The calls rarely work out and coaches who say they’ll do anything for an opportunity seldom will.
“You’ve got to start from the ground up,” Leach said. “A lot of them aren’t willing to break away from a more comfortable lifestyle to assimilate themselves, but he was.”
So when Leach took the job at WSU he offered Mele a spot, but not as an assistant. Instead he would be an offensive quality assistant, making PowerPoint presentations, breaking down film, keeping and comparing old notes, making quarterback wrist bands and all the other administrative duties that keep a Pac-12 program humming.
He’d also be making less money than he was at Wingate. But nobody would spend more one-on-one time with Leach and by being part of the coach’s inner circle he would not only learn a lot, he’d have the chance to impress the big man and eventually move up, like he has.
“The biggest thing with special teams is the ability to keep a lid over a lot of people, a lot of moving parts, and he’s really good at that,” Leach said. “He’s really efficient, really smart, a lot of dimension to what he can do.”
Mele arrived in Pullman with a five-year goal of becoming one of Leach’s nine assistant coaches and he’s ahead of schedule, but only for now. Whether the interim label is dropped may depend on the special teams performance the rest of the year, and it may depend on factors outside Mele’s control.
“We didn’t really get into logistics with it and I understand what it means and my mindset,” he said. “I don’t need it to be on there for it to motivate me, but it motivates me.”
But he has his shot and if he has to prove himself in a hurry, well that’s just life, and that’s just special teams.
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