When people talk about Pete Lembo, the conversation isn’t necessarily about football. The screen saver on his phone isn’t Steve Spurrier, it’s Steve McQueen from The Great Escape. His ringtone isn’t Sandstorm, it’s Smoke on the Water, a 1973 hit from Deep Purple.
The associate head football coach and special teams coordinator at the University of South Carolina is known as a history buff, lover of World War II movies, and curator of pop culture, particularly television shows and classic rock. While all that he knows isn’t football, he somehow connects to football, beginning with his unconventional descriptions of football formations and the creative nicknames he gives some Gamecocks players.
“It’s really cool to hear him come up with ones right off the top of his head,” USC kicker Mitch Jeter says. One of Mitch’s favorites is Mangrum P.I., a mashup of wide receiver Payton Mangrum with Tom Selleck’s popular 1980s TV show. “He’ll pull one out of a historical event or one of the movies he’s seen. If it’s a good one, it will stick.”
The witty repartee carries over to conversations with the media. In an era when players and coaches at all levels churn out well-rehearsed nonanswers to interview questions — we’re just going to take things one game at a time — Pete’s unorthodox responses are journeys into the mind of someone who thinks deeply and connectedly.
He might refer to the Paul Simon album Negotiations and Love Songs, actor Peter Sellers and his Pink Panther films, raspy-voiced 1980s songstress Kim Carnes, the 1980s TV series Simon & Simon, or the 1968 World War II movie The Devil’s Brigade. A question about the difference in duties between an assistant coach and an associate head coach elicits a Faulknerian contemplation that ebbs and flows from descriptions of meetings among current Gamecocks to recollections of coaches from 25 years ago.
One memorable analogy came after Xavier Legette returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown against Texas A&M in 2022. Pete said USC’s coaching victims on the opposing sideline may have felt like they were standing on a sidewalk, watching their girlfriend drive by in another man’s car.
But he’s no Friar Tuck to head coach Shane Beamer’s Robin Hood, providing comic relief and occasional wisdom. Many consider Pete one of the best assistant coaches in college football. In two years in Columbia, he’s helped change punts and field goal attempts from an excuse for a head start to the rest room to must-see events.
Shane grew up in a house where special teams were indeed special. His father, Frank Beamer, led Virginia Tech squads that used blocking kicks as a calling card in their evolution from college football also-ran to a program that competed for championships. But when Shane became head coach in late 2020, special teams coordinator was not guaranteed a place on the Gamecocks’ organizational flowchart.
“I wouldn’t do it unless I had the opportunity to hire the best special teams coordinator in the country,” Shane says. “If I couldn’t hire who I thought was the very best, I would have done special teams myself. And I’m still very, very much involved.”
The Gamecocks excelled at the special teams basics in 2022, ranking No. 1 in an efficiency rating compiled by ESPN. Pete was a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, which goes to the assistant coach of the year. Football statistics guru Phil Steele named Pete his Special Teams Coach of the Year for the second time in the past four seasons.
When the Gamecocks choose not to kick the ball, Pete’s fourth-down ambushes evoke military precision. Over the past two seasons, the Gamecocks have turned fake punts or field goals into touchdown passes at Tennessee, at Florida, and in a bowl game against Notre Dame.
“I feel like special teams has become a big part of our culture,” Pete says. “It’s become part of our brand. We have countless coaches that want to come visit with us now, who want to talk about special teams.”
The real difference, Pete says, is how it impacts the players. First, the fundamentals learned on special teams are transferable to offense and defense. Second, Gamecocks who have interviewed for NFL jobs say their special teams acumen has helped increase their marketability.
When DQ Smith was making the transition from quarterback at Spring Valley High School to defensive back at USC, he first made an impression on special teams. He returned a blocked punt 26 yards for a touchdown in the 2022 season opener against Georgia State.
“Coming in, special teams is one of the things I was looking forward to being on,” DQ says. “Coach Lembo is a straightforward guy. He’s gonna tell you what it is and what it isn’t. He taught me a lot of things.”
Mitch was first recruited by Pete when Pete was assistant head coach and special teams coordinator at the University of Memphis. He says Pete coaches hard and treats every player the same way. “He makes sure that things are done the way he wants things done.”
Whether or not a coach demands that all players give their best is something players pick up on, Pete says. That, along with attention to detail and preparation, which includes his preparation for meetings, is part of how he builds trust.
“If you’re not willing to coach your best player and challenge your best player, then there’s something wrong with the whole philosophy of it,” Pete says. “A lot of interesting dynamics are involved, and somehow we’ve been able to make it work. It starts with a lot of support from Shane to give me the time and commitment from above.”
And then, deep into a special teams meeting that may include 75 to 80 participants, Pete clicks to a PowerPoint slide that references a pop singer or famous battle. Mitch says it helps keep the team engaged, although Pete admits they may sometimes elicit an eye roll.
“I do think our players understand there’s a sincerity about what I do,” Pete says. “If you’re comfortable with yourself and they see that you’re making them better and they see that you’re taking them down a path to reach their goals, they will accept you, they will buy into your plan, and they will work hard for you, even if you’re very different from them.”
And Pete is different. “The nicknames usually come along with doing something well, so it’s almost a rite of passage,” he says. He can’t explain what spurred his interest in the history of modern warfare, but he’s believed a genetic component exists ever since watching his then-4-year-old son, AJ, become immersed in The Longest Day, a 1962 film about the D-Day invasion.
“I’m careful not to compare the dangers of war to football on equal terms, but I do think a lot of analogies relative to leadership and decision-making — good or bad — can be learned from history,” Pete says, adding that a lot can be learned from football, too. “The values that this game ingrains in you are becoming more and more uncommon in our society today. We are training unselfish men in an increasingly selfish world.”
A native of Staten Island, New York, Pete was not born in a football hotbed south of the Mason-Dixon line. He says he and his sister grew up in “very much a blue-collar family,” with a dad who was a New York City police officer and a mom who worked as a secretary. His early resume includes outposts of the tweedy East, from playing at Georgetown to assistant coaching at Dartmouth, Hampden-Sydney, and Lehigh.
“Pete is smart enough to know how to relate to the people he’s with,” says Kevin Higgins. When Kevin was head coach at Lehigh, he hired Pete as an assistant, and Pete ended up succeeding him when Kevin took a job in the NFL. “Pete fit in extremely well. He was extremely organized. He had good relationships with the players. He was a good recruiter and he had a great work ethic.”
For his part, Pete remembers when Kevin bought a house in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Pete’s wife, Jenifer, helped Kevin’s wife, Kay, paint the interior. When Kevin left for the Detroit Lions, Pete bought Kevin’s house. Kevin is currently football general manager at Wake Forest, and the families have remained close over the years, so much so that Pete and Jen recently attended the Charleston wedding of Kevin’s daughter Katie Rose, a former USC golfer.
“I hope very much that Kevin and Kay are at our kids’ weddings someday,” Pete says. “He was a tremendous mentor to me. We talk all the time. I still call him for advice all these years later. If I can do that for some of our young coaches in any way, shape, or form, I feel that’s part of my job as well.”
Pete says his family has enjoyed immersing themselves in Columbia’s college-town culture, something they’ve tried to do at every career stop. Daughter Sophia recently graduated from Elon, where Pete was head coach from 2006 to 2010. AJ is a student at Texas Christian. Daughter Victoria is a rising senior at Hammond School.
“Pete is also a very good family man,” Kevin says. “He has not sacrificed his family for football. He’s found a way to be successful at both.”
Ironically, a decision made along those lines went sideways. After five years as head coach at Ball State, Pete decided to leave Muncie, Indiana, for an assistant head coach job at the University of Maryland in 2016.
“The D.C. area was very familiar to us because my wife and I are both Georgetown grads, we had a lot of friends and family in that area, and we knew that area would expose our kids to a lot of really interesting things as they got to a critical age in their development,” he says. Two years in, however, the Maryland program was faltering. “We made a pretty difficult decision for me to go to Rice University in Houston while the family stayed put in Bethesda, Maryland, so Sophia could graduate from high school.”
After spending 2018 with the Owls, Pete and his family relocated to Memphis for two years before coming to Columbia. Pete and Shane met through Lincoln Riley, Shane’s boss at Oklahoma, and bonded over wide-ranging phone conversations during the pandemic. Relationships are something Pete says he’s tried to cultivate and maintain, from athletic directors to local reporters.
“That’s been the great thing about this ride,” he says. “The wonderful people we’ve met along the way, the long-lasting relationships — and this stop in Columbia has been as special as any, for sure.”
At the end of 2022, Pete received a contract extension that carries through the 2025 season. By then, Victoria will be well out of high school. Would that mark the time for Pete to seek another head coaching job? He says some days he “absolutely” would like to try again.
“And then there are days when I look at some of the things I had to deal with, or Shane has to deal with now, and I kind of chuckle a little bit, and it’s a good reminder of how fortunate I am to be in the position I am,” he says. “I love the job I have right now, and if at some point down the road an incredible opportunity comes along and there’s a chance to do that again, we’ll worry about that then.”
He says nobody should wonder whether he’s 100 percent committed to the Gamecocks. So, this fall, players will continue to stay on their toes for, and benefit from, the latest creative tactic that ties into pop culture or historic battles, authored by a cop’s kid who took an unconventional route to SEC football. As Gen. George Patton said, “If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”