The Most Interesting Coach in the World, Mike Leach
Although I teach at UCLA and my alma mater is Stanford, my favorite team during this upcoming college football season will be Washington State. The reason? Its coach, Mike Leach.
Leach is widely considered an offensive genius, known for transforming the game with his version of the "spread" offense. When he became head coach at Texas Tech in 2000, the Red Raiders were known as a mediocre, primarily run-oriented team. Once Leach took over, however, the team would typically pass more than 50 plays in a game, and it would often score more than 50 points in a game. By 2008, Leach had led the team--which consisted mainly of players who had been rejected by bigger name schools such as Texas and Oklahoma--to the number 12 ranking in the nation.
The next year he was fired. One of his players suffered a concussion and was ordered not to practice by a doctor. At the next practice, while that player watched from the sidelines, Leach thought the player had become a distraction to the team. Leach punished him by ordering him to stand in an equipment room near the team's practice facility.
Leach did not coach during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Washington State hired him for the upcoming 2012 season, and on August 30, he will coach the Cougars in its opener against Brigham Young.
Leach is widely considered one of the most colorful characters in all college football. Here's what Sports Illustrated wrote about him recently:
In May, five months after he was hired to coax Washington State football out of its coma, Leach bagged a 7½-foot black bear on a hunt in Canada, then tweeted a picture of himself, posing beside his trophy/victim. Thus did he manage to antagonize the Cal Bears, UCLA Bruins and PETA, all in one blast. Leach did not shrink from the inevitable blowback, speculating on Seattle radio that if he really "got to know" the animal rights activists who disapproved of his hunting, "I'm sure I could find plenty of things that they do that I disagree with." His olive-branch takeaway: Life would be "pretty boring" if everyone had the same opinion.
In 2005, Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short, wrote a fascinating 9,000-word article about Leach. Here are a couple passages:
"Thinking man's football" is a bit like "classy stripper": if the adjective modifies the noun too energetically, it undermines the nature of the thing. "Football's the most violent sport," Leach says. "And because of that, the most intense and emotional." Truth is, he loves the violence. ("Aw, yeah, the violence is awesome. That's the best part.") Back in the early 1980's, when he was a student at B.Y.U., he spotted a poster for a seminar, "Violence in American Sports." It was given by a visiting professor who bemoaned the influence of football on the American mind. To dramatize the point, the professor played a video of especially shocking blows delivered in college and pro football. "It had all the great hits in football you remembered and wanted to see again," Leach recalls. "Word got around campus that this guy had this great tape, and the place was jammed. Everybody was cheering the hits. I went twice."
Mike Leach, 44, entered the locker room with the quizzical air of a man who has successfully bushwhacked his way through a jungle but isn't quite sure what country he has emerged into. "When you first meet him," Jarrett Hicks, a junior wide receiver, told me, "you think he's an equipment manager." Leach's agent, Gary O'Hagan of I.M.G., who represents dozens of other big-time college and N.F.L. coaches, put it this way, "He's so different from every other football coach it's hard to understand how he's a coach."
Leach shouted, "All right, everybody up!" Seventy players pushed into the middle of the room and bent down on one knee. ("That's the great thing about football," Leach says. "All you gotta do is yell.")
Leach isn't really sure that there's anything a coach can say to football players minutes before a game that will inspire them to put aside their pain and their problems and play their best. He thinks that revenge is a silly motive and that waxing poetic on how history will judge you is distracting. Two weeks earlier, his team was ranked seventh in the country but then lost badly to the University of Texas, the nation's No. 2 team, which ended Texas Tech's surprising shot at a national championship. Now they were 7-1, ranked 15th and still within sniffing distance of a major bowl game. Not worth mentioning, in Leach's view.
"Everyone find someone," he yelled. Hands sought hands and clasped. The room swelled with the disturbingly deep rumble of 70 football players speaking in unison. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.. . .("Basically I'm a religious person, but with some clear obedience and discipline issues," Leach says.) "All right," he cried, after the Lord's Prayer. "Three things." He jumped up onto a little green stool and looked down on his players, all larger than he. "Do your job. DO - YOUR - JOB!"
He was talking to the entire team, but his mind was on the offense, which Leach coordinates, unlike most head coaches. He watches the tape, draws up the game plan, schools the quarterbacks and calls the plays.
"No. 2," he said, "play together with great tempo."
He had been harping on tempo all week: he thinks the team that wins is the team that moves fastest, and the team that moves fastest is the team that wants to. He believes that both failure and success slow players down, unless they will themselves not to slow down. "When they fail, they become frustrated," he says. "When they have success, they want to become the thinking-man's football team. They start having these quilting bees, these little bridge parties at the line of scrimmage." His 45-second pregame speech set a certain tempo, but he had one final thing to say:
"Your body is your sword. Swing your sword."
Each off-season, Leach picks something he is curious about and learns as much as he can about it: Geronimo, Daniel Boone, whales, chimpanzees, grizzly bears, Jackson Pollock. The list goes on, and if you can find the common thread, you are a step ahead of his football players. One year, he studied pirates. When he learned that a pirate ship was a functional democracy; that pirates disciplined themselves; that, loathed by others, they nevertheless found ways to work together, the pirate ship became a metaphor for his football team. Last year, after a loss to Texas A.&M. in overtime, Leach hauled the team into the conference room on Sunday morning and delivered a three-hour lecture on the history of pirates. Leach read from his favorite pirate history, "Under the Black Flag," by David Cordingly (the passages about homosexuality on pirate ships had been crossed out). The analogy to football held up for a few minutes, but after a bit, it was clear that Coach Leach was just . . . talking about pirates. The quarterback Cody Hodges says of his coach: "You learn not to ask questions. If you ask questions, it just goes on longer."
Hodges knows - the players all do - that their coach is a walking parenthesis, without a companion to bracket his stray thoughts. They suspect, but aren't certain, that his wide-ranging curiosity benefits their offense. Of all the things motivating Texas Tech to beat Texas A.&M. this night, however, the keenest may have been the desire to avoid another lecture about pirates. Even now, their beloved coach had his left arm in the air, wielding his imaginary sword.