Fifty-year-old Mike Leach enjoys talking so much that he even interrupts himself. While explaining how he came to coaching football – the thrust of his book, ‘Swing Your Sword,’ No. 5 in its second week on the ‘New York Times’ best-seller list – Leach stops to tell me a story about the wild roosters scooting past his porch. The former Texas Tech headset-holder, once cast as the villain of the college game, is at home in Key West, Florida, miles and miles from the hot and dry fields where he and his pass-happy offense pushed the Red Raiders toward 10 winning seasons, including an 11-1 establishment-irking run in 2008.
Of course, he is here – listening to the boisterous roosters that drive his wife nuts – instead of in Lubbock because of what happened the following season, when he allegedly locked one of his players an electrical closet. Leach, who was fired that December (just before an $800,000 contractual bonus was reportedly due), remains in litigation with the university over a salary dispute. While seeking his next on-field job, Coach – as he’s still called – is on-air talent for CBS College Sports Network and SiriusXM Radio. He discussed with Men’s Journal his 272-page autobiography, the law degree he earned yet never used, and his experiences both on and off the gridiron.
What’s it like having your name on the binding of a best-seller?
Everybody says marriage is ’til death do you part – and I’ve been married 29 years – but a book is really ’til death do you part. Once you write it, it’s out there. I wanted to be as honest as I could and as straightforward as I could.
You planned the book well before the Adam James incident occurred. How eager were you to include your side of that story?
I’m not a guy who fails to address things. The book was about my path to coaching and didn’t stray from that, but we’ve got two chapters on the Tech aftermath. It does illustrate some of the devious things that go on behind the scenes with various individuals, and what makes those two chapters very powerful is the question of whether there are two sides to the story. Well, there aren’t. There’s one. We included an appendix with sworn statements, memos, receipts, records from the perpetrators, and that’s written not in my words, not in [reporting partner] Bruce Feldman’s words – it’s written in their words.
What first attracted you to coaching?
At an unusually young age, I read Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer, which talked a lot about the Green Bay Packers and Vince Lombardi. From there I was really more a fan of coaches than teams and players. And this was before video games where you’d have – what was it called? – electric football, where there’d be a surface with little figurines bouncing around all over the place. That was fairly unfulfilling, so I’d think and dream up and write stuff down. And then I’d see something on TV that seemed interesting. I guess it was just a healthy curiosity. Anytime something crossed the screen, I’d look at it, pay attention to it, and then it kind of became “what if, what if…”
Why did you stick with coaching, even after earning a law degree at Pepperdine?
I wasn’t ready to go practice law, and didn’t have the money to go see Europe or anything like that. I had a wife and my first daughter, and I figured, “Well, I am already broke, I already owe the federal government $45,000 in student loans, so I might as well get this coaching thing out of my system.” I didn’t want to wait until I was old and retired to do it. I figured I’d coach two or three years at the most and go back and be an attorney.
What convinced you that you weren’t cut out for the courtroom?
I bought a book by Gerry Spence, and he was one of the top trial attorneys in the country. He and I had a similar background. We had lived in some of the same towns. He was older, and he had these big trials against insurance companies, corporations, things like that. He did it fearlessly, but he had to believe in the case. So I write him a letter. I said, “Mr. Spence, you’re the top of the field that I went to law school to be. Do you love law? Do you hate law? If you had it to do over again, would you still be an attorney?” Questions like that. He says, “Yes, I love law. Yes, I hate law. I think about it all the time.” He says, “If you’re consumed by law, go be an attorney. If you’re not consumed by law, do something that you’re consumed with.” And I got to thinking that, between the refrigerator, the channel changer, the car, whatnot, I thought about football a lot and, “It’s probably something I ought to entertain.”
Through the years, you have coached some serious star players: Tim Couch at Kentucky and Michael Crabtree at Texas Tech come to mind. Do you have a favorite?
The guy that came literally from nowhere and has accomplished the most is Wes Welker, who was undersized and slow. He refused the opportunity to walk on at Oklahoma, was offered the opportunity to walk on at Oklahoma State – he had no scholarship offers – and we signed him several weeks after signing day. We thought he’d be a great program guy, would work real hard and be reliable.
When did you realize Welker would much be much more than that?
I remember that first day: There were some great college recruits – they’d been all-conference, all-state – and then you got this short guy that’s just got this look in his eye, and he’s not afraid of anything. Some of them were very unsure of themselves, because this is big-time college football. Not Wes Welker. He reminded me of a chicken on “Foghorn Leghorn.” You’d say, “What time is it?” And he’d build a grandfather clock. He started virtually every college game that he played, he left there the all-time leading receiver in the history of Texas Tech. He didn’t get drafted, bounced around to a couple of teams, and he’s been an All-Pro with the New England Patriots – and he is still slow.
Even with Crabtree and quarterback Graham Harrell aboard, did you think your 2008 team was capable of knocking off the undefeated, top-ranked University of Texas team on its way to challenging for a BCS bid?
I always think we’re going to beat everybody. My process goes a little like this: Early in the week, I’m not sure we can beat Lubbock High School. By the end of the week, I’m convinced we can beat the New England Patriots. As far as putting our best foot forward, expectations are a big part of it. With that said, the 2010 group, which I didn’t get to coach – that was going to be our best team. We had everybody back from 2009, when we won nine games.
Because of the decade-long success – 10 bowl appearances in 10 seasons, the last of which you weren’t present for – it’s reasonable to wonder: Are you the best football coach not currently coaching football?
I would say my body of work speaks for itself. I have a lot of respect for all the coaches that got hired last year, but my body of work is better than anybody that’s been hired the last couple of years.
In the 19 months since your firing, you have kept quite busy: finishing a book, taking to the airwaves, traveling, moving your family from Texas to Florida, hanging out at Matthew McConaughey’s house, visiting the set of Peter Berg’s “Battleship” and serving as an advisor to an American football team based in France. How much do you want to get back to coaching?
I am looking forward to it when it comes. I’m looking for a school that wants to win football games, values graduation rate, and one where the efforts of all entities of the university are celebrated. When things were really rolling at Texas Tech, I was a part of something bigger than myself, bigger than football. You have an impact in a lot of ways, and you get to be a part of it and that’s really thrilling. It affects a lot of people. It’s gigantic. I can’t say the payoff of my time off equals that, but coaching is also limited existence. I have a lot of variety now.
It’s fair to say you’re content away from football, but not completely happy without coaching.
When during my coaching career was I going to get to experience all this? There’s a difference in experiencing it now, when I’m in my prime, instead of when I’m old and retired and forced to do it. Sure, I’m disappointed in some of the maneuvering and the double-dealing, but I’m in my prime years of coaching. I’m looking forward to getting back, but I am not unhappy.