Former Jets special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff recently published a book,...

Former Jets special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff recently published a book, “Figure It Out: My Thirty Two-Year Journey While Revolutionizing Pro Football’s Special Teams,” written with longtime Associated Press football columnist Barry Wilner. Credit: Joe Epstein

From his chance meeting with Bear Bryant to his imaginative work under Don Shula to a colorful career alongside Rex Ryan with the Jets, Mike Westhoff has had about as rich and fulfilling a career as any NFL assistant coach could imagine.

He’s just glad he coached when he did, because if Westhoff began his NFL run today, there would be no celebrated career as one of pro football’s most impactful coaching pioneers. Not with the recent rules changes, many designed for safety reasons, that have made special teams far less relevant.

“Not a chance,” Westhoff, 74, told Newsday this past week from his home in Fort Myers, Florida. “I’ve been asked every year to go back to coach and I say, ‘No, thank you. What the hell am I gonna do?’ ”

But when Westhoff began his NFL career with the Colts in 1982, he had a unique opportunity to create special teams innovations that helped change the game. It was a veritable blank canvas on which the coaching artist could create.

“What I realized in a hurry was that with special teams, everybody kind of did the same thing,” he said. “I realized there was no innovation. Then I realized there was no regulation. You could do whatever the hell you wanted. So I could start drawing things up and I became extremely creative and innovative.”

Westhoff shared the coaching secrets amassed in his impressive career in a recently published book, “Figure It Out: My Thirty-Two-Year Journey While Revolutionizing Pro Football’s Special Teams,” written with longtime Associated Press football columnist Barry Wilner.

“I thought it was a good story to tell,” said Westhoff, who worked for the Jets from 2001-2012 under Herman Edwards, Eric Mangini and Ryan. He finished his career as a Saints assistant in 2017-18.

“I helped take a part of the game that had been in relative obscurity and I think moved it to a point of prominence. Here you have a part of the game that rose to the highest point it had ever been and now, with all the rules changes, it’s diluted and now back to being relatively obscure. I just wanted to tell that story.”

It is rich with anecdotes from his time as a young player in western Pennsylvania, to the University of Wyoming and then Wichita State — and an unfulfilled dream of transferring to Alabama — to his five stops as a college assistant and finally to the NFL.

It was a chance meeting with Bryant years ago, when Westhoff was an offensive line coach at Northwestern, that helped change his life.

Bryant, retired after a legendary coaching career, happened to be in his office when Westhoff visited the campus on his drive back from a vacation with his wife. He invited Westhoff for a chat, and they toured the campus. Bryant imparted two invaluable tips that Westhoff carried with him his entire career.

“All I wanted to do was see the university, and all of a sudden, here’s Bear Bryant sitting by himself in an office,” Westhoff said. “Next thing you know, we’re walking around campus. He said, ‘I’m going to give you two things you should remember. The first: Don’t be afraid to change. The other was that the better the player, the harder you can push them. They want to do it right. Being a good coach is not about being the most popular guy.’ ”

Westhoff took both lessons to heart and never veered from those tenets.

“The only time I wanted to be a popular coach was on Monday after a win and I’m seeing the film saying [to a player], ‘That’s a hell of a job, buddy.’ ”

Westhoff got to say that more often than not in a career that spanned more than three decades, and he was one of the most respected assistants in the game. In 2019, he was given the Paul “Dr. Z” Award for lifetime achievement by an NFL assistant. The award was voted on by the Pro Football Writers of America.

Some of his best years were with Ryan’s Jets, who went to the AFC Championship Game after the 2009 and 2010 seasons.

“I loved the team we put together and the philosophy we had,” Westhoff said. “We’re going to run the football, we’re going to be multifaceted on defense, and we’re going to play good special teams.”

And despite Ryan’s bravado, which included plenty of comments that filled the back pages of the New York tabloids, Westhoff said Ryan ran a disciplined operation.

“We did everything the right way as a football team,” he said. “Rex did a lot of that crazy stuff just to take the pressure off the team.”

Westhoff also detailed his difficult journey through a diagnosis of cancer in his left leg in 1988. He nearly lost the leg because of complications but underwent a 12-hour procedure at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to have a titanium rod inserted into the femur. He eventually regained most of the use of his leg thanks to Dr. John Healey.

“You can’t let an illness define who you are as a person,” Westhoff said. “You have to fight through it.”

And fight he did. Westhoff battled back from cancer during a career that helped redefine and reimagine special teams like no one before him.

“I just wanted to tell this story,” he said, “about a kid out of nowhere and had a viable contribution that changed the game.”

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