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Why Purdue's Special Teams Coordinator Left Football to Open a Chick-fil-A

Tony Levine walked away from his coaching career to return to Houston and open a franchise of one of the South's most popular restaurants, but running a kick coverage team and running a kitchen may have more similarities than you'd expect.

Three weeks after Purdue won its first bowl game since 2011, Boilermakers fans were caught off guard by some news: Tony Levine, who is considered one of the top special teams coordinators in the nation and engineered four successful fake punts during his first year in West Lafayette, had resigned. Head coach Jeff Brohm’s statement was brief, only saying that Levine was pursing opportunities outside of coaching. The next day Levine took to Twitter to offer a longer explanation, expressing his desire to make his four kids—ages 12, 10, 8 and 6—more of a priority and move the family back to Houston, a city they’d fallen in love with when Levine served as the University of Houston’s head coach from 2011 to ’14.

Turns out, the 45-year-old Levine has embarked on an interesting second act. Levine, who has coached at every level from the NFL to third grade flag football over the past two decades, is now the owner/operator of a Chick-fil-A franchise that is set to open in about six weeks in the Houston suburb of Missouri City. It all seems like quite the adjustment for someone who doesn’t have much experience in the kitchen—aside from making some mac and cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, his wife jokes.

“The reasons when I was 23 years old that I wanted to get into coaching, the things that I’ve been passionate about for most of my life—developing people, team-building, identifying and recruiting talent, competing—while I had a love for those, I saw an opportunity with Chick-fil-A to become an owner/operator where a lot of those same things that I was passionate about I could keep doing, and the ability to stay in Houston was very important to my wife and I and our family as a whole.”

The seeds of Levine’s career change were sown about three years ago, after he had been let go following a 21–17 run over three years as the Cougars’ head coach. He spent the next 14 months out of coaching.

“I noticed a change in him,” says Levine’s wife, Erin. “Maybe it was perspective. He got a chance to be around home more and be around the kids more.”

Levine says he loved being able to coach his two oldest boys’ flag football team, go to their daughter’s dance recitals, be involved in piano lessons and watch their basketball games. A friend who owns several Chick-fil-A franchises in the Houston area and had told Levine about the flexibility to be home when he needs to be.

Even though Levine returned to the sidelines in 2016 under his old buddy Jeff Brohm at Western Kentucky and then moved from there to Purdue along with Brohm last year, the idea of bringing his family back to Houston and a more stable lifestyle intrigued him.

Getting the opportunity to own a Chick-fil-A franchise, though, isn’t much easier than landing a five-star recruit. In 2016, the company had about 40,000 owner/operator applications, and less than 100 were selected, according to Carrie Kurlander, Chick-fil-A’s VP of External Communications.

“The selection process is rigorous,” she says. “We look for proven leaders with a heart for service, commitment to thoughtfully and strategically develop talent, while also having a desire to give back to their communities. Tony is all of the above. Our operator community is made up of professionals who come from an interesting and broad experience base. We have former Navy SEALs, Fortune 500 executives and even a winner from Shark Tank. Tony’s experience at the highest level of coaching makes him a compelling selection, and we are thrilled that he has chosen to spend the next chapter of his career in business with us.”

The new franchise is just two miles from the home the Levines lived in during his days as Cougars coach and never sold. Levine couldn’t wait to break the news to his kids. “They were so excited to be coming back,” Erin says. “They were getting to go right back to our home and their old neighborhood and their friends, and they wanted to be around Daddy.”

The Levines knew Purdue's Foster Farms Bowl victory in Santa Clara would be Tony's last game on the sidelines.

The Levines knew Purdue's Foster Farms Bowl victory in Santa Clara would be Tony's last game on the sidelines.

Levine told Brohm of his intentions a few weeks before Purdue’s appearance in the Foster Farms Bowl against Arizona.

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“I know he loved coaching and you could tell it was tough,” Brohm says. “It’s a different path to go and it takes a lot of courage to do. But I think he’ll do great because he’s such a man of high integrity and it’s a great move for him and his family. I did tell him, ‘If you ever change your mind down the road, I’m a phone call away.”

The move back to Texas, though, wasn’t the only major change the family would have to deal with. In mid-December, Erin was diagnosed with breast cancer. Since then, she has had three months of chemo treatments, with one more session to go.

“I’m doing O.K.,” she says. “It’s kind of a roller coaster. I have good days and bad days, but I’m ready to get through it and come out on the other side.”

As scary as the diagnosis is, it helped knowing that her husband has more flexibility to help around the house with the kids and the family can rely on a support system it has built over the past decade.

“I saw that the Lord has worked this all out,” she says. “We don’t have family here but to have Tony be home more, it’s been such a relief for me. That’s allowed me to take a breath or take a nap when I need to.”

In the run-up to the grand opening, Levine has been meeting with Chick-fil-A brass and dealing with permits, utilities and all of the little behind-the-scenes details that need to get sorted out. Next up is staffing.

“We have to put together a team between 75 and 90 members to operate and run the restaurant,” he says. “I feel like that is going to be a lot like recruiting. I enjoyed identifying and recruiting talent, and I think absolutely there’s a lot of similarities in doing that. There’s a lot of meetings and decisions that have to be made.”

In a meeting with Chick-fil-A’s grand opening supervisors, Levine’s coaching pedigree was pretty apparent when he was asked about how he would ideally manage the organizational chart of his restaurant.

Levine’s response: “If I look at the kitchen director as the defensive coordinator and the front-of-the-restaurant director as the offensive coordinator, and I don’t have another director, than I see it like a football program that has an OC and a DC but they split up the special teams among the staff, and sometimes it doesn’t necessarily get the importance that it deserves. So I want a special teams coordinator from day one, and I want a drive-thru director from day one.”

The grand opening supervisor loved the analogy.

Levine expects to miss the game-planning and relationships of big-time coaching, but he thinks his new franchise can fill part of that void. “I already see some of the parallels with what I’ll be doing now with our team members and also in the decision-making, strategy and systems and processes within the restaurant,” he says.

In addition, he plans to help coach his sons’ flag football teams, and he also won’t have to look too far to get a taste of the competition of coaching. His old friend and neighbor David Bailiff, who was fired this winter after 11 seasons as the head coach at Rice, is a member of the ownership group for a new franchise of the NOLA Poboys sandwich chain that opened right down the street from him about two months ago.

“It is maybe two football fields from our Chick-fil-A,” Levine says. “Our competition will be very friendly.”