You know how sometimes, on the last play of a close football game, the team that's losing will keep lateraling the ball around, looping and zigzagging all over the field in a way that you know serves some larger purpose, but still, from the sidelines, looks like total chaos?
That's sort of what it's like having a conversation with Mike Leach.
One early-summer day, the greatest mind in college football is sitting in his new office in Pullman, Washington, eating almonds and talking about, well, everything. He'd embarked a few minutes earlier on a conversation about his new job, as head football coach for the Washington State University Cougars, which he started last December. But before long he'd veered off into an aside about Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen – a Cougar alum – and the rock & roll museum Allen started in Seattle, which got him talking about all the great seafood that city has to offer, and why fishing in the Florida Keys is so good, and before you knew it, Leach was off the rails entirely, ping-ponging from New York City real estate to the U.S. government's "dry foot" policy toward Cuban refugees and then, somehow, to the juices he makes in his Vitamix in the morning, and by the time he lands on the subject of the best hotels to stay in on recruiting trips, it seems like the most natural thing in the world. "Most coaches like Marriotts," Leach says with the solemnity of Martin Luther discussing the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, "because they're nicer and closer to the airport. But I like Holiday Inns. They're convenient; they're clean; nobody messes with your bags or your car. You can just pull in and pull out."
When it comes to football, Leach is just as unconventional. He once signed a kid who had kicked a 30-yard field goal in a radio contest. In his previous job, as the head coach at Texas Tech, he was a gunslinging iconoclast, probably the most innovative play-caller of his generation. Leach employed an offense known as the spread – an unorthodox formation in which the players line up several feet apart, essentially widening the field of play, turning every skill player into a potential receiver, and giving the quarterback free rein. Basically, Leach turned college football contests into sandlot pickup games.
Under this system – nicknamed the Air Raid – his Red Raiders went from barely an afterthought in their own state to one of the marquee names in the country, winning 84 games in 10 seasons, going to 10 straight bowls, and leading the nation in both total offense (three times) and passing yards (six). Comparing the years before he arrived with the year he left is like comparing a pee-wee league with the varsity state champs – 300-plus more passing yards, 20-plus more points per game. Of the top 10 scoring seasons in the university's history, all occurred on Leach's watch.
Leach, rightfully, was hailed as a gridiron genius. He was profiled glowingly for '60 Minutes,' filmed a cameo on 'Friday Night Lights,' and received three national-coach-of-the-year awards for 2008. In just one of many signs of his amazing reach, of the top seven passing offenses in the nation last year, every one was designed by either Leach or one of his former assistants. He was also a dedicated academic who improved Tech's graduation rate from one of the worst in the nation to, among public schools, one of the best.
But then it all fell apart, in spectacular, near-operatic fashion. In December 2009, a couple of weeks before the team was set to play in the Alamo Bowl, a little-used Tech wideout named Adam James showed up to practice with a concussion. Leach had had run-ins with James before: His father, a bombastic ESPN talking head named Craig James, had a reputation for meddling, and Leach didn't like the son's entitled attitude. When Adam came to practice in a backward baseball cap and sunglasses – a violation of team rules, even for injured players – Leach sent him off the field and told a trainer to put him somewhere that wouldn't hurt his eyes. Not long after, it was being reported that James had been locked in an equipment shed and kept from leaving by a guard. School officials suspended Leach; he responded with a lawsuit and was subsequently fired for "a defiant act of insubordination."
The controversy encapsulated all sorts of issues currently roiling college football: the danger of concussions, the influence of big money, the power of the media. When the story first broke, Leach was portrayed as the villain – a tyrannical monster who valued toughness over safety and punished an injured player. But as more facts emerged – the "shed" was actually a garage-size equipment room, the door was never locked, James himself texted his dad that the whole incident was funny – it started to look more like an old-fashioned railroading. There were emails between university administrators, in which they discussed how best to get rid of Leach so they wouldn't have to pay his $12 million contract. That he was fired on December 30 – just 24 hours before a clause that would have paid him an additional $800,000 kicked in – seemed to seal the case.
But all this would be revealed only later. In the meantime, Leach went into a sort of coaching exile. He and his family moved to Key West, Florida, where he spent two years swimming and biking and waiting for the phone to ring. A couple of times he got close to another job, but the stigma and baggage ultimately proved too much. "It was sad," his wife, Sharon, says. "Two years in the prime of his coaching career."
But now he's back – a bit thinner and tanner from the Florida sun, but with the same perplexed, slightly hangdog expression that belies the machinations going on inside. He certainly has his work cut out for him: The Cougars haven't been to a bowl game since 2003, and in four seasons under their previous coach, they managed a total of just nine wins – as many as Leach had in his last season alone. At Tech, though, he was a master of doing more with less, taking players the big names in his conference – Oklahoma and Texas and Texas A&M – had passed on and turning them into stars within his system. One indication of how much his players overperformed is how few of them went on to the NFL, a sign that it wasn't their talent but how Leach used it.
Leach's brain seems almost preternaturally wired for coaching football. He thinks about the world in deeply spatial terms and gives directions almost like he's drawing up a play. His approach to football, meanwhile, is nearly Zen-like in its simplicity: Get the ball where the other guys aren't. He first started thinking about how to maximize space back in the 1980s, when he played rugby, not football, at BYU. Rugby isn't played between hash marks; the scrum happens, and then the players fan out all over the field.
Leach excels at maximizing his resources. Among Leach's favorite disciplinary measures at Tech – one time, a player skipped class, so he put a desk at the 50-yard line and made him study there – was something called the Tower of London. Players who were late or who screwed up would have to run around the whole campus holding cinder blocks over their heads, supplementing their physical workout with a mental one – reciting Shakespeare in front of the English building, say, or doing a math problem in front of the school of engineering. He hasn't done anything like this at WSU yet, but he can't wait. One can't help but wonder, though: Isn't there a chance the punishments won't be as hard? After all, the Tech campus was one of the largest in the country, while WSU's is considerably smaller. "Yeah," Leach says, grinning. "But it's hillier."