Les Steckel called it “a God thing.”
For a man whose faith always has been at the center of his life and who served more than a decade as president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, there was no reason to think it would be anything else. Those who aren’t as convinced of a higher power would be hard-pressed to find a better – or even another possible – explanation.
After all, it was last fall as he watched a football games that Steckel jumped up from his couch, pounded the table and shouted, “How crazy is that? What were the coaches thinking about?”
That is when Chris, his wife of 46 years, saw it.
“You miss coaching, don’t you?” she asked.
“No I don’t,” he replied.
“Yes, you do,” she countered.
“I said, ‘If somebody calls me and said, Would you come coach the team for two weeks or maybe even two months? I would do that,’” Steckel said. “But that’s it.”
Guess what happened next?
It was January when Andy Frye, the head coach at Centre College (Danville, Ky.) since 1998, reached out to gauge his interest in a short-term role on his staff. Centre, a Division III program, was in the midst of some coaching turnover ahead of an abbreviated season that had been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, with his 75th birthday coming this summer and nearly two decades removed from his last full-time coaching assignment, the man who directed the Tennessee Titans’ offense in Super Bowl XXXIV is the offensive coordinator for Centre, which is halfway through its four-game schedule. The Colonels are 1-1 and have scored more than 30 points in each contest.
Steckel originally was hired as quarterbacks coach. Within days of his arrival, however, the program lost its offensive coordinator and the one-time NFL head coach (Steckel led the Minnesota Vikings in 1984) promptly was promoted.
“We’re utilizing the offense they had here, and we’ve made a couple changes,” he said. “… I told the players I felt like I parachuted in into Italy, I can’t speak Italian and no one here can speak English. Their ‘Y’ was my ‘V.’ Their ‘V’ was my H.’ And their ‘H’ was my ‘Y.’ With formations and such, my brain really had to readjust.”
What has not changed is how he performs the job. He structures practices the way he did when he was offensive coordinator for the Titans (1998-99), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2000) and the University of Colorado (1992), which are among the numerous stops he has made in a coaching career that began at Colorado in 1973.
He still gets up early in the morning – “very early,” he said – and retreats to the on-campus cottage that the school provided sometime around 10 p.m. He still designs his call sheet as he always has, based on potential plays for any situation at any spot on the field.
“Everything is right in front of me — all the answers are,” he said. “You don’t just pick plays at random and throw them in there. Eighteen years ago was the last time I called a play in a game. But I developed a system I was very comfortable with, and I’m pretty sure no one else has ever used it.”
Steckel did have an Earthly connection with the school prior to Frye’s out-of-the-blue phone call.
He had a long-standing relationship through the FCA with John Roush, who retired as Centre’s President in 2020 after more than two years on the job. It was Roush who recommended that Frye contact Steckel, whose focus in recent years has been on building relationships with his grandchildren.
The fit has been a bit of heaven on earth for a man who was a colonel in the U.S. Marines before he got into coaching.
“There’s some quality, fine young me here,” Steckel said. “I’ve been around long enough now that eventually you will show your character, and these kids are special.
“Andy Frye has been here 30 years because he sincerely cares about these kids. And the culture here is amazing. I feel like I’m in the Marine Corps because these kids say, ‘Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir, No, sir.’ They are all so polite and cordial and friendly and bright, really bright kids.”
Centre will conclude its regular season Saturday with its one and only home game. One contest was cancelled because of coronavirus complications. The two they have played were contested at Nashville-area high schools, the first at Brentwood Academy and the second at Lipscomb Academy (roughly three hours from campus).
Then comes a postseason matchup with a team from the Southern Athletic Association’s West Division. Centre is in the East and will play its seeding counterpart.
With that, Steckel’s coaching renaissance will end and he will wait to see what comes next. After all, no one said anything about a second season back in the fall.
“I know there’s a reason I’m here, and hopefully I’m building good relationships with the players and coaches to hopefully make a difference,” Steckel said. “This is a really good stop, particularly during the COVID situation. So, it’s been great. And these kids have been great.
“It’s been a special experience and I’m glad to know I still have the energy. To do this for a few more years? No, I don’t think so.”