HOUSTON — Tony Levine stepped to the microphone, donned the same red baseball cap he's been wearing to Houston football practices for four years and formally accepted his dream job.
Levine was introduced as the new coach of the Cougars on Thursday, getting a standing ovation from a packed press conference room. Levine replaces Kevin Sumlin, who left to coach Texas A&M.
The assistant head coach and special teams coordinator under Sumlin, Levine was already serving as the interim coach getting the Cougars (12-1) ready to play Penn State (9-3) in the TicketCity Bowl in Dallas on Jan. 2.
Levine said his staff will remain intact at least through the bowl game. He met with his assistants on Wednesday night, and plans to meet with each of them individually to map out who will stay and who will leave.
"I think continuity is important," he said. "There are coaches on this staff, like myself, who have said, 'No,' to opportunities the last couple of years, and I know there are coaches on this staff that will have other opportunities moving forward."
Levine, though, said he plans to stay in Houston for a "long, long, long time," a comment that drew another round of applause.
Athletic director Mack Rhoades said Levine was one of eight finalists for the job. Some had head coaching experience, Rhoades said, which Levine does not.
But the 39-year-old Levine won over Rhoades and Houston president and chancellor Renu Khator by showing his commitment to the program.
"We wanted somebody that wanted to be a head football coach, but not just a head football coach, but the head football coach at the University of Houston," Rhoades said, "somebody who had great passion, great desire, great fire in the belly for the University of Houston."
Levine also brings unique experience to Houston, which is expected to move soon to the Big East. Levine was the director of football operations and later an assistant under Bobby Petrino in Louisville during that school's transition from Conference USA into the Big East.
The Cardinals were already playing in a new stadium in the early 2000s, while Houston is still raising money to build one of its own. Levine said the 2011 Cougars conjured memories of the 2005 Cardinals, who were also ranked in the Top 25 much of the season and were one of the nation's highest-scoring teams.
A year after Levine left, Louisville won the Big East and beat Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl, its first Bowl Championship Series appearance.
The Cougars won their first 12 games this year and were headed for their first BCS berth until losing at home to Southern Miss in the CUSA championship game on Dec. 3.
Levine says he understands what it will take to push Houston to the next tier because he went through the process with Louisville.
"I'm not a big deja vu guy, but there is some," Levine said. "I think that will help me, having gone through that with that program and learning so many things of how we did that transition successfully."
But Levine says the conference move won't change his recruiting range, adding that one of the main draws for him to the Houston job was the city's rich talent pool. He said that last year, 112 high-school seniors who lived within a 60-mile radius of Houston signed letters of intent to play at Football Bowl Subdivision schools nationwide.
"When you can drive down the street and recruit players to come play for you here, and win 12 or 13 games every year, that's part of making this job my dream job," he said.
The players, meanwhile, were glad to get some closure to the coaching search after almost two weeks of uncertainty.
"I have confidence in him and I feel like he has confidence in the players," freshman defensive end Eric Braswell said. "I think he's going to lead this program to great things."
Departing quarterback Case Keenum, who became the FBS career leader in total offense, yards passing and touchdown passes this season, gave Levine a handshake and hug after the press conference.
"It's all been seamless, from Coach Sumlin to Coach Levine becoming the interim and now to this," Keenum said. "It's going to be seamless, and I think that's what a big-time program is able to do. Everybody handled the situation with class, in a first-class way, and I think that says something about the people we have here. It's a first-class program, this is how things should be done, and it's exciting because I think it says a lot about where we're headed."