The Resurrection of Mike Leach

 Photograph by Jose Mandojana

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.”

One morning in Pullman, Leach is giving a speech to the team’s incoming freshmen. He lists three violations that will get them kicked off the team immediately (stealing, hitting a woman, and smoking pot). He talks about his own philosophy of the game. (To one defensive lineman: “Oh, that’s the funnest one. You get to go out and just wreck stuff.”) And to his surprise and delight, he has nothing but praise for the Washington State athletic department. “I’ve dealt with academic institutions for years,” he tells the kids, “and a lot of them are merely banana republics.” Blank stares. “Um, that would be disorganized governments, for those of you who haven’t taken History of the Caribbean.” Leach, naturally, has taken History of the Caribbean. Seriously – he audited a class on it when he was a coach at Valdosta State.

It’s one of many subjects he’s taken an interest in (including, most recently, Davy Crockett, bear hunting, modern art, vegetarianism, and Geronimo). The silver lining to Leach’s forced sabbatical was that it gave him time to explore some of the things he’s curious about. He did color commentary for CBS and hosted a radio show for Sirius from his home. He thought about using his journalist credentials to finagle his way into Cuba, but he never got around to it. He hunted wild pigs from a helicopter in South Texas and consulted for a football team in France. (“I’ve always thought the French were a little misunderstood,” he says. “Even the snotty ones are odd enough to be interesting.”) He also spent a week on the set of the movie ‘Battleship’ – he’d met the director, Peter Berg, while working on ‘Friday Night Lights’ – and recently Berg said that he was basing the plot for the FNL movie on Leach’s firing.

His new home has already embraced its oddball coach. When the university first announced Leach’s hiring, demand for tickets crashed the website. The campus bookstore can’t keep his memoir, Swing Your Sword, in stock. When he goes out, kids constantly ask him for photos, and he obliges every one, usually quizzing them for a few minutes about where they’re from and what they’re studying – rarely, if ever, talking about football.

Leach has said that Tech still hasn’t paid him for the 2009 season, and his lawsuits against Craig James, the school, and ESPN are still working their way through the courts. Earlier this year James ran for U.S. Senate in Texas’ Republican primary, and Leach, on a book tour, couldn’t help but sneak in a few digs. He autographed one book “Anybody but Craig James for senator,” and another with “Craig James is a douche.” In any event, it’s clear whose side most Texans are on. When the ‘Dallas Morning News’ conducted a poll asking voters whom they’d prefer as their senator, James or Leach, they chose Leach by a margin of 20 to one. James eventually finished with four percent of the vote.
The next day, Leach is in his office with a couple of assistant coaches, talking about recruits. They’re way ahead of where they expected to be so far ahead of signing day. Leach’s special-teams coach, Eric Russell, feels his cellphone vibrate. It’s a recruit.

“You better give me some good news,” he says. The kid talks on the other end. “You’re a Coug?” says Russell.

“That’s awesome. We’re fired up.” He hands the phone to Leach, who tells the kid what an honor it will be to coach him and how much fun they’re going to have, and then hands it back. “All right, bud,” says Russell. “If you need anything, just give a shout, that’s what I’m here for. Tell your folks congratulations – I look forward to meeting your mom.” 

He hangs up the phone. “Shit. I hope his mom’s not dead.”

Recruiting is one of Leach’s big worries at Washington State. The closest town of any significance is Moscow, Idaho, a few miles east on Highway 270, but it may as well be Moscow, Russia, to an 18-year-old. He’s hoping a current $80 million stadium expansion will help. So will the windfall from a $3 billion TV deal the Pac-12 recently signed, which will provide WSU an extra $12 million a year to play around with – a big chunk of which went toward Leach’s $11 million contract. Which is another great irony: The same TV network that Leach is suing for helping run him out of his last job is partially responsible for landing him his new one. 

Leach spends the rest of his day attending to the peripheral responsibilities that make up the bulk of a coach’s off-season. He has some player meetings, gets his photo taken for a bobblehead doll. He sits in on a demo for an impressive new 3D-video system, developed by a WSU engineering professor, which the university hopes might revolutionize the way coaches and spectators see the game. (Leach, talking to another coach about it later: “You can check out the tuba player over here, zoom in on this hot chick over there….It’s kind of an incredible deal.”)

In a lot of ways, Washington State looks like the kind of place in which Leach might thrive. The administration seems to be hands-off, committed to winning but also giving him free rein. From early appearances, the stage may be set for a perfect comeback story. Leach says his goals for 2012 are the same as they are every year: Work as a team, do your job, and be the most excited to play. But listen to him talk with players and coaches, and it’s clear that he’s aiming a little higher: He wants to go to a bowl, he wants to break Pac-12 records, and, most of all, he wants to win, and win by a lot.

But first, he has one last vacation. He and Sharon are flying to Key West in the morning; they have to take three flights, and they’re leaving at 4:30 am. They’ll be there all month, until practices start up in August. As a matter of fact, Leach says, come on down and visit. “It’s awesome,” he says. “The snorkeling is off the charts.” They’ve got a nice little bungalow near the middle of town; it’s an easy bike ride to the movie theater or to his favorite bar. It’s really easy to find. “So you know where Schooner Wharf is?” he says. “OK. So from Schooner Wharf, you go three blocks…”