SAN DIEGO — In his nine years of military service, Texas Tech offensive line coach Lee Hays can’t remember ever visiting the USS Ronald Reagan.
Seventeen years later, Hays and the entire Tech and Arizona State football teams visited the immaculate aircraft carrier Sunday while it was in port at Naval Air Station, North Island, across the bay from San Diego.
“I think once we get out there, that’s when it hits you,” Hays said last week. “We’ll talk a little about the price the men paid for their freedom. One thing we do talk about is, ‘Hey, you could be in Afghanistan right now. You better be happy and proud every day. I don’t care how hard it is out here on this football field. It’s nothing compared to what people are sacrificing in Afghanistan.’
“I think it’s going to be great to go out there because I want them to understand what a privilege it is to play for Texas Tech and an honor it is and how lucky they are,” he said.
As part of the Holiday Bowl festivities, the Red Raiders and Sun Devils were treated to a Navy & Marine Corps luncheon and tour aboard the aircraft carrier, which is 1,092 feet long with a 4.5-acre flight deck.
Between 1987 and 1996, Hays rose to the rank of staff sergeant and served as both a staff noncommissioned officer and as a recon Marine.
When asked how he got involved in the military, Hays chuckled before responding.
“My dad invited me for lunch and took me to the Marine recruiter depot,” he said. “It worked out. They were persuasive when I got there.”
Hays’ father, Jack, was a Marine himself.
From there, Hays said it felt like “about a week” from when he walked into the Marine office and left for training.
“I wasn’t really prepared like I should have been,” Hays said. “It was eye-opening, to say the least. It was a great experience and I’m thankful that my dad did take me down there that day.”
Joining the reserves in 1987, Hays started out at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego and then went less than an hour away to Camp Pendleton, in Oceanside, Calif., for infantry training school.
He went on to volunteer for reconnaissance school in Virginia and also took a scuba course.
“I thought it was going to be something completely different than it was,” Hays said. “I thought it was going to be a lot of secret-agent stuff and it turned out to be a lot of hiking, marching and not a lot of sleep and food for reconnaissance school. That was a different deal.
“But after boot camp, I really enjoyed what I did and was actually going to make a career out of it, and then I met my wife and she didn’t like the aspect of me moving all over. In the Marines they said if they wanted you to have a wife, they’d issue you one.”
Hays met his wife, Roxanne, in 1994 when he was in the reserves.
“She actually helped me make my ghillie suit for sniper school,” Hays said. “She’s been around it a little bit.”
In 1995, Hays decided to go to, and later graduated from, the Marine Corps Scout Sniper Instructor Course in Quantico, Va.
Hays said you had to shoot expert two times before your unit could send you to sniper school.
“It’s a challenge,” he said. “It’s just something I kind of always wanted to do. It was actually mentally challenging, but at the same time you really enjoyed everything you were learning. It wasn’t just a beat down.”
Scout sniper teams go out in pairs — a spotter and a shooter.
“You do both,” Hays said. “You have to do both. Everybody wants to be the shooter. Nobody wants to be the spotter. They teach you the fundamentals of being a scout and with that you have to be the sniper part of it. By the time you get through there you really learn both.”
In 1996, Hays and his wife married and he became inactive.
Before he joined the Marines, Hays completed two years of school at Cisco Junior College while playing linebacker, as well as adding in a one-year stint at Abilene Christian.
He returned to college the same year he married and graduated with his bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M-Kingsville.
The next year, Hays began his coaching career as the tight ends and tackles coach for the Javelinas.
“There was a little bit of time from when I played high school football in 1985 and then getting back into it that there was a little bit of a transition,” Hays said. “In the Marine Corps, there were no privates that rolled their eyes at you or anything like that. You had to adjust to where you couldn’t just snap somebody up. You had to adjust from a discipline aspect and understand that you’re not dealing with a highly trained individual.
“They’re young kids and they’re somebody’s son. They’re going to make mistakes, and you’ve got to be there to help them. When you tell somebody to be on time at 3:15, they better be 15 minutes early. I’m still a little hard I guess when it comes to that kind of stuff.”
Texas Tech sophomore center Jared Kaster calls Hays’ workouts “fun.”
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Kaster said. “He’s very disciplined in what he does and what he teaches us. If it’s the little things, being on time, we’ll get punished for that. A couple of up-downs or pushups or whatever it is just to keep us on our toes so we always know what to do.”
Recently, he’s made coaching stops at Houston (2012, 2010), Tarleton State (2011), Baylor (2006-07) and West Texas A&M (2003-05).
Hays worked with Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury at Houston at 2010 before rejoining him this season in Lubbock.
“He’s done a great job,” Kingsbury said. “He brings a lot of energy, brings that military background to the practice field which is fun for the players and coaches to watch him coach. He’s demanding. He demands a certain level and gets it out of those guys.”
According to Kaster, Hays’ impact on the offensive linemen goes beyond the field.
“He’s a great guy to be around,” Kaster said. “He inspires us in many ways, on the field and off the field. He teaches us the lessons of life and growing up, being a strong man and what you need to know later in life, not just in football but in general.”
Tonight at Qualcomm Stadium against Arizona State, Hays will complete his first season at Texas Tech.
“It’s been an unbelievable year,” Hays said. “It’s probably been one of the funnest years I’ve ever had in my career being with the guys on staff and our kids. At the same time it’s been one of the most stressful times of my career just because we were dealing with some young guys and a bunch of injuries this year. As a position coach, same as the player, you never want to let anyone down so you’ve got to find a way. The way I feel about these guys on the team and the kids, you want to make sure you’re doing the best job possible.”