Mike Westhoff was a patient at what is now the Sylvester Cancer Center in Miami on July 3, 1988 and he was feeling the brunt of a five-month round of chemotherapy treatment, strong chemo drugs, and a surgery to remove a malignant tumor from his leg.
Laying in his bed in the shadow of what was the old Orange Bowl just beyond his window, Westhoff could see and hear early Independence Day fireworks and a band playing.
And during the show climax, as they played the Star Spangled Banner, the man who had lost all his hair, had battled a killer disease for months, and was laying alone in the hospital on a holiday thought about how fortunate he was.
“I promised myself that every time I heard that song, I would repeat a pledge that I would show my thankfulness to this wonderful country and how much I appreciated what so many people had done for us — myself very much included,” Westhoff writes in the prologue of his new book.
“Figure It Out” is Westhoff’s book that comes out July 12, or 34 years after that fateful night at the hospital. Since that time Westhoff, who coached in the NFL for the Baltimore and Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and New Orleans Saints, gained a reputation as one of the league finest special teams coaches.
And one of the most cocky, too — something he doesn’t deny.
The book subtitle kind of confirms that: “My thirty-two-year journey while revolutionizing pro football’s special teams.”
That night in the hospital, “set the tempo for how I saw my career and life,” Westhoff said this week when he got back on shore after a morning of fishing for sharks in the Gulf of Mexico.
“It’s a good story,” Westhoff said of the book. “It’s a good story about a part of football, particularly the NFL, that’s been watered down and diluted to the point it’s not even close to being the same. And the guys that were very much involved in it, as coaches and players, I think I chronicle it very well. And I was in the middle of it.
“I came along at the exact right time and exact right place.”
In 1982 when Westhoff got in NFL he wasn’t a special teams coach. He was a strength coach, tight ends coach, assistant offensive line coach, and assistant head coach. Teams didn’t have 25-man coaching staffs and much specialization then.
Frank Kush was the Colts head coach then and told Westhoff he was going to fire the special teams coach. Westhoff asked to have the coach moved to working with the secondary and he took over the special teams.
“I knew nothing,” Westhoff said. “I didn’t know anything about it. But the notebook he had should have come with crayons. The thing I found out was there was almost no innovation and no creativity and absolutely no regulation [for special teams]. You could do anything, you just had to have the guts to figure it out. And that’s what I did.”
The book chronicles how Westhoff became something of a special teams savant as he moved from the Colts to the USFL and on to the Miami Dolphins under Don Shula.
“I didn’t think he liked me very much the first two years I worked for him,” Westhoff said.
Turns out that wasn’t true.
Westhoff coached under Jimmy Johnson in Miami and then Dave Wannstedt for one year after Johnson resigned. Then he went on to the New York Jets. During his 10 years with the Jets, Westhoff had nine different guys that led the NFL in one special teams category or another.
“Nobody’s getting that record,” Westhoff said.
Wannstedt, who fired Westhoff after the 2000 season, is not mentioned in the book by name. But there is at least one unnamed reference to him, which you’ll have to mine as you read.
And, no, Westhoff hasn’t forgiven him.
“I never like saying that name,” Westhoff said. “I had the best year in NFL [special teams] history and I get fired.”
Coincidently, Westhoff had an informal interview for the Dolphins’ head coach job with then-owner Wayne Huizenga after Johnson left and before Wannstedt was hired.
“I had a great plan,” Westhoff said. “Dan Marino came to me and Dan didn’t want to retire. And Dan was at the end and he knew it. The leg was a problem with the Achilles and he had hurt his neck some. What they were trying to get him to do at the end, he couldn’t do anymore.
“What I was going to do is keep George Hill as the defensive coordinator because they were [third] in defense the year before. I had the best special teams in the league and was going to bring in Joe DeCamillis, my friend with the Rams now, to take over that part of it.”
And Westhoff was going to hire then-Colts running backs coach Gene Huey as the offensive coordinator.
“I was going to put in the Peyton Manning offense in for Dan Marino at the end of his career,” Westhoff said. “Dan would have gotten in the shotgun, and either hand the ball off or fire it. Dan would have thrown for 5,000 yards. I had a hell of a plan.”
Obviously, it did not happen.
Westhoff shares stories, anecdotes about Marino, Shula and others — personal stories people simply do not know about. He writes about special times with Bear Bryant, Bobby Knight, Al Davis, Bill Walsh, who offered to hire him twice, Sean Payton and Mike Ditka.
The Ditka story to this day gets Westhoff to well up with emotion.
“This stuff is all true,” Westhoff said. “I had the greatest experiences anyone could ever have.”
And, yes, the confidence that borders on cockiness bursts off the page.
“Jimmy thoroughly believed there was three parts to the game — offense, defense and the kicking game,” Westhoff said. “He believed you had to win two of the three phases.”
Johnson added special teams core players to the roster starting with his time in Dallas.
“They raised the bar,” Westhoff said. “Now, I believed I could beat them, mainly because I was smarter. I believed I could take my five guys and beat their 10 guys. And that’s what I think I excelled at. And that’s what I really wanted to write about.”
So he writes about how he got Zach Thomas drafted and helped make sure the team would keep guys like Larry Izzo and Bernie Parmalee.”
“It’s not a story about the $160 million quarterback, it’s just not,” Westhoff said. “It’s about a kid you never heard of, where did he come from, how’d he make it, and what did I do to get him an opportunity.”
And all this while going through the medical situation that slowed but never beat him.
“I didn’t let it define who I was,” Westhoff said. “It slowed me down a little bit and probably kept me in some ways from getting a [head] coaching job. Nobody wants to see a guy who’s a cancer patient walking around with a cane and crutches being your head coach. But I fought through it and I always wanted to talk about it.”
Today? Westhoff is retired in Florida.
“I’m doing great,” he said.
He recorded the audio version of the book himself over a three-week span and that too will become available.
“I’m proud of it,” Westhoff said of the book, “and I hope when people read it they feel they’ve read a good story and they enjoy it.”
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