The Enigmatic Genius of Mike Leach

Photo via Mike Leach Twitter

 

Yesterday, during my long commute to work, I listened to one of my favorite podcasts, The Sports Gambling Podcast with Colby Dant, Sean Green, and Ryan Kramer. The three hosts are some of the best in the business, thanks to their always entertaining banter and vast knowledge of the sports world. This week they were joined by none other than current Washington St. head coach Mike Leach for an exclusive interview. Colby Dant, known as the “Dantabase” due to his famous in-depth knowledge of college football and basketball, recently ranked Mike Leach as the number one active college coach in the NCAAF. This ranking brought coach Leach onto the podcast to show his appreciation, and to talk about all things ranging from Bigfoot to NCAAF scandals.

Credit: @GamblingPodcast

By the end of the twenty-five-minute interview, my adoration for coach Leach had only grown. I decided to write this piece for those who are less accustomed to the genius of one of the most interesting coaches in the world of college sports. What makes him Colby Dant’s number one ranked coach? Why is he considered one of the most exciting yet controversial coaches in college football history? Is he really obsessed with pirates? There is so much to discuss that we have to start at the beginning of his college career.

 

Texas Tech

Before Mike Leach took on the role of Head Coach at Texas Tech, he spent his early coaching years as an offensive coordinator at several universities but most notably under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. It was there that he perfected a concept that has taken over not only college football but the NFL as well, the “air-raid” offense. The fundamental concepts of an “air-raid” system are:

– Notable focus on passing, as many as 65-75%.
– QB has the ability to audible any play based on what the defense is showing.
– Use of the no-huddle, where the QB and the offense race up to the line of scrimmage, diagnose what the defense is showing, and then snap the ball based on the QB’s play call.
– The positioning of linemen is also different, with linemen split between half to a full yard from one another. This allows for easier blitz lanes and forces players to run further to reach the QB to make a sack.

While at Texas Tech, coach Leach put together three nine-win seasons (2002, 2005, and 2007) and an eleven win season (2008). Under Leach, Texas Tech became known for high scoring offenses, and unpredictable come from behind victories. He started a quarterback who has become quite famous as of late, Kliff Kingsbury. Kingsbury found enormous success under coach Leach and his Air Raid offense. In three years, Kingsbury broke the NCAA record for completions in a career. His success in the Air Raid system was an essential reason for Kingsbury’s hire by the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL this past year. They will be implementing the system at 100% for the first time in the NFL, and thanks to Leach, Kliff knows how to do it better than anyone.

One of the reasons that controversy seems to follow Leach is because he is what I consider a real fan of the sport of football. He often shares the opinions of the general public and is willing to criticize when the NCAAF makes mistakes openly. His first foray into controversy was in 2007 when he used all of his post-game press conference to insult and criticize the officiating crew. College football fans often feel as though the “powers that be” ensure that certain teams are favored in certain situations and Leach was not afraid to call them out on it. In this instance, Texas Tech had lost to Texas and Leach speculated that the officials may have favored Texas because the head official lived in Austin, because they were incompetent, and possibly because the conference wanted Texas to appear in a BCS bowl because of the increased appearance fees that such a bowl generates for the conference.

This outburst cost Leach a ten thousand dollar fine, but in true Leach fashion, he was able to use the NCAA punishment to increase his fandom. The community rallied around him, and they were able to raise five of the ten thousand dollars he owed. Leach then used the money raised to help the community and donated it to a charity that purchased 400 hams for the people of Texas. The fans loved him for his blatant honesty, and when asked in other press conferences about the officiating he joked “I don’t comment on officiating. I just give out hams is what I do.”

In 2008, Leach was named Big 12 Co-Coach of the Year and led his team to an 11 win season. The next year, Leach found himself in another controversy because of alleged inappropriate treatment of Adam James (son of former NFL player Craig James). There has been a book written about what led to his dismissal at Texas Tech entitled Double T – Double Cross – Double Take: The Firing of Coach Mike Leach by Texas Tech. It is a fascinating read for those that enjoy college football conspiracies.

The situation explained as simply as possible was that James was concussed and Leach apparently asked him to stand in the equipment room near the practice facility. James family did not appreciate that and demanded an apology from Leach. Obviously, the outspoken coach disputed the characterization of events as reported by the university and said that James had been treated reasonably in light of his condition.

On December 31, Leach spoke with The New York Times in his first interview since being fired from Texas Tech. He said that he did not know where James had been taken, having only ordered him taken “out of the light.” He claimed the controversy stemmed from Craig James’ constant lobbying for more playing time for his son, whom he characterized as lazy and feeling entitled.

When all was said and done, Coach Leach was ultimately let go by Texas Tech (coincidentally on the same day he was owed a big tenure bonus). In a world where most coaches refused to sway from the tyranny of the NCAA, Leach declined to apologize for his actions and stood by his decisions — again proving that he is a man of the people. He valiantly fought the school board, and his case even ended up at the Texas Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the ruling wasn’t in his favor, but you cannot deny that his tenacity was impressive.

Once let go, Leach worked as a color commentator with CBS College Sports Network. It was during the time that Leach opened up about one of his favorite past times, his love for pirates. He wrote the book: Swing Your Sword: Leading the Charge in Football and in Life. The book debuted at number six on the New York Times bestsellers list and drew national attention to the comparisons of football players and pirates (yep, pirates).

 

Washington St.

In 2012, Leach was hired at the head coach at Washington St. He made the team bowl eligible in just two years, something they hadn’t done in a decade. From 2015 on, Washington St. has never won less than eight games and reached their zenith last year with an impressive 11-2 season. Last years season hinged mostly on Leach recruiting QB Gardner Minshew and his success in the Air Raid offense. They won the Alamo Bowl 28-26 and were 7th in major polling.

One of the reasons that Mike Leach is so popular is because of his quirky attitude and honesty. When asked why he incorporates pirates so often with his teams, he said:

“Pirates function as a team. There were a lot of castes and classes in England at the time. But with pirates, it didn’t matter if you were black, white, rich or poor. The object was to get a treasure. If the captain did a bad job, you could just overthrow him.”

When giving a rallying speech to his team, he often tells them to just “swing their swords.” This seems to be working because Washington St. has rarely been so successful, whoever could have guessed that pirates and football could have so much in common.

Outside of Football

The reason Leach connects to so many fans of the sport is that he makes us feel like he is one of us. He has fun hobbies like pirates, Geronimo, grizzly bears, whales, and Jackson Pollock paintings. He wants to see a faster, more exciting game of football, and he isn’t shy when it comes to criticizing the NCAA. During the Sports Gambling Podcast interview, Leach explains how an expanded 64 team playoff system could work in football. Whereas I am slightly less optimistic for 64 teams, Leach just wants the system to be fair and representative.

Mike Leach is also using his offseason time to teach a class with former state senator Micheal Baumgartner. Can you imagine what it is about? The class is called “Leadership Lessons in Insurgent Warfare and Football Strategies.”

His accomplishments for the game of football have been vast, but his ability to connect to a football fan has been even more impressive. His resume speaks for itself; there are not a lot of coaches that could have taken two somewhat obscure teams and led them to success. He basically invented an offensive scheme that revolutionized college and NFL football. I firmly believe he belongs atop any poll of current NCAAF coaches.

If any of that wasn’t enough to get you to fall in love with Coach Leach, then just picture the following in your head. When you walk into his office, not only do you see a museum of pirate memorabilia but also prominently displayed on the wall is a very George Costanza-like portrait of Leach shirtless.

Coach Leach is a bright spot in a coaching world full of black and white. If the coaching world were a museum, Mike Leach would be the one and only Jackson Pollock painting on display. He is one of a kind, and the NCAA is better because of him.

 

*If anyone doesn’t already follow The Sports Gambling Podcast, I strongly recommend that you do so. Check them out on iTunes and wherever else podcasts are available. They will keep you entertained for hours.* 


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