National signing day for high school football recruits is Feb. 1. The following morning, Tony Levine, his wife and four kids will board a plane bound for the Twin Cities to visit family and friends.

Maybe then, at 35,000 feet, Levine finally will be able to relax and reflect on how much his life has changed in the past six weeks. Right now, everything is still a blur or, as he describes it, a "whirlwind." He can't find enough hours in the day to accomplish everything on his to-do list as the University of Houston's new football coach.

The St. Paul native and former Gophers wide receiver chose this path 15 years ago, determined to make coaching his vocation but unsure of where it might take him. He hopscotched from one locale to the next until landing, at age 39, his first head coach job at a program that went 13-1 this season, is moving to the Big East in two seasons and is scheduled to open a new stadium in 2014.

"It's a great time to be in this position," he said.

That door opened unexpectedly Dec. 10. Levine played touch football with his kids in the morning and then took them for doughnuts before leaving for work. Houston was scheduled to have position meetings at noon followed by a short bowl practice. Levine, the special-teams coordinator and receivers coach, told his wife he would be home by 3:30 p.m.

Instead, he walked in the house at 11 p.m. as Houston's interim head coach. He was promoted after Kevin Sumlin accepted the Texas A&M job.

The school removed Levine's interim tag 12 days later after conducting a national search. He earned his first victory in the TicketCity Bowl against Penn State. He holed up in his hotel room for three days at the national coaches convention interviewing candidates for his staff. And he has worked the recruiting trail nonstop trying to finalize his first class.

"You can say that I've seen my wife and kids since then," he said, "but I really haven't been there."

Levine figured he'd follow in his dad's footsteps and become an accountant when he enrolled at Minnesota. A walk-on receiver on Jim Wacker's teams, Levine ultimately earned a degree in kinesiology with an eye on sports management. But he caught the coaching bug after spending one season as an assistant at Highland Park, his alma mater.

"That one year convinced me that's for sure what I wanted to do," he said.

Nothing discouraged him, not even the entry-level positions that required long hours and little pay. Former Gophers offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse hired Levine as a graduate assistant at Texas State (formerly Southwest Texas State). Levine made $976 a month, didn't own a car and lived at a funeral home. He rented a studio apartment on the second floor for $175 a month.

"To call it a studio is insulting to the word studio," he said.

Rather than chase him from the profession, that experience made Levine want it even more.

"I remember vividly sitting in my office late at night and Tony would stick his head in and ask if there was anything else he could do," said DeBesse, now the offensive coordinator at New Mexico. "You knew it wouldn't take him long to move up the ladder."

Levine followed a typical nomadic coaching arc, serving a variety of roles in stops at Texas State, Auburn, Louisiana Tech, Louisville and with the Carolina Panthers. Grad assistant, director of football operations, recruiting coordinator, strength and conditioning coach. He coached different positions on offense, defense and special teams. (He also earned two master's degrees along the way.)

He never held a coordinator title on offense or defense, but that didn't eliminate him from consideration when Sumlin, a former Gophers assistant, left Houston with a vacancy, a show of confidence Levine describes as "humbling."

Levine helped raise the Cougars' national profile as an assistant the past few seasons, primarily on the strength of a high-scoring offense. He must replace record-setting quarterback Case Keenum, but he doesn't need to travel far to replenish his roster.

Levine said 112 recruits from the greater Houston area signed Division I-A scholarships last February. High school programs also conduct spring practices in that part of the country, providing another backyard advantage.

"We get in a car and just head down the street," he said.

His life is more hectic now, but Levine knows exactly which direction he is heading.

Chip Scoggins •