New Special Teams Coordinator Kevin Spencer has enjoyed a long and lengthy career as a successful coach in the NFL.
Now, as he enters his 23rd year in the league and first in San Diego, he credits one man in particular for helping him get to where he is today.
“No matter who you are, there is always somebody who gave you the break you needed,” he said. “For me, whoever would have thought it would be some long haired guy from Annapolis, Maryland playing for some small school in Connecticut would be my key to the NFL. I wouldn’t be here without Bill Belichick. He truly is the guy who got me here and taught me how to be an NFL coach.”
Before getting too far ahead of ourselves, starting back at the beginning, Spencer’s path to the NFL was an unconventional one. A New York native who grew up mainly on Long Island, Spencer got into football at an early age, saying he was inspired by those he called “the smallish DBs” in the league such as Larry Wilson and Pat Fischer. He attended Springfield (Mass) College, where he played both football and lacrosse before realizing his true calling was in coaching.
“I went to college and I realized I wasn’t very good at playing football,” he laughed. “So as they often say, the next best thing to playing is coaching. So I got into that as a Physical Education teacher with coaching a part of that.”
Spencer got his masters at Cortland State, but arrived too late to join the football staff there. Still, as coaching quickly became his passion, he stayed active by coaching their lacrosse and wrestling programs. After graduating, he took a position at Detroit Country Day School in Michigan, which was his first real teaching assignment. He taught fifth and sixth grade Phys. Ed. and coached three sports for both boys and girls. He spent four years there before moving into the college ranks, taking a steep pay cut to pursue his passion. Spencer accepted a position as a graduate assistant at Cornell University, where he stayed for two seasons before moving on to the Gilman School in 1980. Two years later he was named the head freshman coach at Ithica University and eventually became their offensive coordinator before becoming the head coach at Wesleyan University in 1987.
Accepting the position at Wesleyan is where his story gets particularly intriguing as the connection that got him the gig eventually jumpstarted his successful NFL career.
“Back when I was in Detroit I was coaching lacrosse and a guy came driving across the school into the parking lot,” Spencer reflected. “And it was Bill Belichick. He looks at me and says ‘You’re Spencer, the guy from Springfield, right?’ and I said ‘Yeah, you’re Belichick from Wesleyan.’ We had played against each other in college, and at the time Bill was a quality control guy for the Lions. So we connected because we played against each other as athletes and then became really good friends. Well long story short, I stayed in touch with Bill and he was a Wesleyan alum. He called me up in 1987 and asked if I ever thought of being a head football coach. I was never really goal oriented then when it came to coaching; I figured I’d take it as it came. But I thought ‘What the heck?’ and so I went there because they wanted a new vitality and became a head coach.”
So from 1987-91, Spencer coached at Wesleyan. But that doesn’t mean it was a smooth ride the whole time.
“We struggled at first,” he said. “It was a very liberal school so it doesn’t attract the prototypical football player, so it was tough. But we did have some success there and it was fun. I look back on it as great years.”
In 1991, Belichick was hired as head coach of the Cleveland Browns and called Spencer to see if he was interested in joining his staff. Spencer joined the Browns in November after Wesleyan’s season came to an end and he has coached in the NFL ever since. He was a coaching assistant in Cleveland from 1991-94, spent three seasons with the Oakland Raiders coaching quality control, assistant linebackers and then as a defensive assistant before his first true season as a special teams coach in 1998 with the Indianapolis Colts. Once again, he credits Belichick for helping him get into that line of work.
“With Bill, when you’re coaching he doesn’t hire you for just one job,” he explained. “It’s very similar to what he does now. I was working in the weight room, and he assigned that person to the kicking game. So I was Scott O’Brien, who is right now the Patriots special teams coach, I was Scotty’s assistant. So I was with Scotty and I found out real quickly that there weren’t many people who knew about the kicking game or wanted to do it. It’s different than it is now. So that’s what got me into that.”
Spencer has thrived in the role ever since, enjoying stints as special teams coordinator in Indy from 1998-01, the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2002-06 and the Arizona Cardinals from 2007-12 before joining the Bolts for the 2013 season.
In 2003 while with the Steelers, Spencer was named Special Teams Coach of the Year. To this day, he remains very humble about the accolade and credits his players for the success.
“This is a player driven league,” he said. “It’s about the players. I had guys like James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel and Antwan Randle-El. I was blessed with great players. And great players will always make you look a lot smarter than you really are. Yeah, you have to direct them, but for me to say I made Troy the player he is today? I mean, come on, really? You just have to be at the right place at the right time. But that was a special time for me. We had a special group of kids who did a great job.”
He certainly did as Spencer won Super Bowl XL with that group during the 2005 season. It was a moment he’ll never forget as he was vividly descriptive in describing the scene and the emotions he felt about that season and the big game itself.
“We were 7-5 and just lost to Cincinnati and probably weren’t going to repeat as division champs,” he said. “The only way we were going to get in was winning the Wild Card. Coach (Bill) Cowher broke it down and said it was really a four-game season. And we approached it like every week was a playoff game if we wanted to get that six seed. It seemed like we were on the road for every big game. We had to beat Cincy in Cincy, Indy in Indy and Denver in Denver. So it was a long tough road and then you’re standing pregame at the Super Bowl with thousands of people and I’m thinking ‘Holy smokes!’ It really dawned on me right then. You try telling yourself it’s just a game, but you realize it’s the Super Bowl. And it’s incredibly overwhelming and emotional. And then we get into the game and we started poorly and I’m thinking we might lose this thing. I thought of what John Madden said how there is only one team that’s happy, and that’s the one that wins the whole thing.”
As a special teams coach, Spencer explains how there is never any time to relax and think the game is over and you’re going to win it. You never know what happens where all of a sudden you need to have the hands team out there to recover an onside kick. That’s why it wasn’t until the final seconds of the game that it hit him that he was winning the Super Bowl.
“We had a great linebacker on our team who played special teams too,” he said, reliving the moment. “His name was Clint Kriewaldt. He was one of our core special teams players and a phenomenal human being. He hit me on the back with three seconds left and said ‘Hey Spence, you’re our World Champion.’ And I started crying and the confetti was coming down. It really is an emotional moment.”
It was also a moment he knew he had to share with his family. He remembered when the New York Giants won the Super Bowl back in the 1980s one of the players had his children with him on the field after the game, and he knew he wanted to do the same thing.
“I remember seeing him with his kids on his shoulder and thinking ‘Wouldn’t that be cool to do that,” he said. “So before the game I went to a guy and said if we win this thing, I’m coming here and I want my kids down on the field with me. And it was really cool because the wall was really tall, and the guy literally held my six year old son down by his ankles to me. So I have pictures of my kids down on the field with me and it’s a feeling that I can’t even describe. It really was special and humbling because a lot of great players and coaches never get a sniff. And I’m thinking who am I? Really? So it really is overwhelming.”
Spencer got to the Super Bowl again in 2008 with the Arizona Cardinals, but unfortunately they lost in the final seconds to his former team, the Steelers. Now, he looks forward to working with
“You have to be a motivator and you have to be a teacher as a coach,” he said. “And I’m looking forward to working with those guys. I remember working Mike out when he came out of college. And I still tease him to this day telling him how he was fat and out of shape and I didn’t think he’d ever punt in this league. And then of course he’s been phenomenal. So it’s neat. I always admired him from afar and now I get to work with him. We have a good relationship because of our banter. He’s a really good kid and a great performer. And Nick, I remember working him out at the University of Maryland. He’s one of those kids that is on everybody’s list when they need a kicker, and I think he’s found a niche here. He’s performed very, very well. He is a hard worker and he’s improved himself so I look forward to working with him.”
Even though he is entering his 23rd NFL season and has had much success, his first year in San Diego will mark the first time he’ll have an assistant on his staff dedicated to special teams in Craig Aukerman. It was something he and head coach Mike McCoy discussed and now Spencer is eager to see how it plays out.
“I didn’t even know Craig before this,” Spencer said. “But he’s come with a number of great reviews and recommendations. This is the first time I’ve ever had an assistant, and I’m only concerned because this is the first time I’ve had to delegate and share responsibilities. But I’m really looking forward to it. Coach wanted me to have an assistant but he wasn’t going to run having one down my throat. Coach McCoy had Craig when he was in Denver, but I had three other guys recommend him as well. So I’m excited. This is what he wants to do. Now I have somebody to bounce ideas off of and share the work. I’m so used to doing this by myself, and the routine in this job can be tedious. It feels like Groundhog Day a lot and then I’m Bill Murray. So I’m excited to have somebody in this with me who I can delegate and share with and make my job more efficient.”
Overall, Spencer is looking forward to getting to work in a new environment with McCoy, who he respects a great deal.
“I’m excited about working with Coach McCoy,” he said. “I’m excited about what we have here and I look forward to getting to work. It’s going to be a different experience for me, but one I’m looking forward to.”