Mike Leach: We zigged and he zagged
Shocking as it is to know that Mike Leach has died, it’s completely in keeping with Mike Leach. Naturally, he would check out in contrarian fashion, at 61 and with ostensible decades left to live, leaving us to sort out the life and times of a complicated man.
In his memory, I’ll be contrarian as well. It’s been said that his hire at Washington State in 2011 was a great hire, even the best hire the school has ever made. Because it worked, famously.
With apologies to Bill Moos, the athletic director who pulled the trigger, I’d argue it was a union of convenience, the ultimate shotgun wedding. Washington State was desperate coming off the 9-40 tenure of Paul Wulff, and Leach was similarly needy, wanting to get back in the game after a two-year hiatus caused by his messy departure from Texas Tech.
During that time, he was widely viewed as radioactive in college football. So, yes, the hire took some stones, but given the straits of each party, it was a natural.
On Nov. 14, 2011, I met up with Moos in Spokane to sound him out about the failing program at WSU. I brought up Leach’s name, and Moos, while non-committal, gave off the vibe he was intrigued. A couple of days later, Moos was in a Key West, Fla., hotel room, where Leach, in flip-flops and cargo shorts – the man should have had a cargo-shorts endorsement deal – was interviewed.
He was announced at WSU a couple of weeks later, so I found myself reaching out to Wes Welker, the Patriots slot receiver who had played for Leach at Texas Tech.
“If you ever want to sit down with him, take a seat,” Welker advised. “You could be there a while.”
You know about that side of Leach, the one in which he helped write a book about Geronimo, studied the history of pirates, talked about the art of Jackson Pollock and issued marital advice on radio shows. When he was at Texas Tech, a couple of Dallas sports talk-show hosts had a weekly segment – I think they called it “Maybe Mike Leach” – because every so often, he’d call in to it, semi-unscheduled, and away they’d go.
He hunted for grizzly bears in northern Canada and went to New Zealand to shoot tahr, a mountain creature Leach described to a magazine as “a scatback that can go in any direction at any time and do it very athletically, and a strong safety because it looks like it wouldn’t mind hitting you head-on.”
When everyone else zigged, he zagged.
Back in 2013, he took his second WSU team to Oregon, which had the Cougars badly outmanned. The Ducks blew to a 62-24 lead early in the fourth quarter, when any coach thinking conventionally would have pulled the starting quarterback and worried about getting him ready for next week.
Mike Leach, of course, wasn’t conventional. Connor Halliday stayed in that game, and stayed in it, and stayed in it, until he’d thrown an NCAA-record 89 passes. Oregon won, 62-38. Halliday told me much later that he’d banged up his shoulder in an out-of-bounds dash well before the end of the game, but it didn’t matter. He stayed in. Why, I have no idea.
Afterward, Nick Aliotti, the Oregon defensive coordinator, tore into Leach verbally about amassing fluff passing stats – stats that misrepresented the Ducks’ worthy defensive effort. Leach responded that he’d coach his own team, and he was right; Aliotti was out of his lane, and Leach was correct (if a little wacko for leaving Halliday in).
Before that season began, Leach got sideways with me when defender Logan Mayes left the program. You might recall Mayes as the guy who prompted a near-iconic Apple Cup ending in 2012, when he rushed Washington quarterback Keith Price into throwing an overtime blooper interception that lumbering lineman Toni Pole ran all the way to the opposing five-yard line.
Well, Leach’s defensive chief decided in the off-season that Mayes wasn’t fast enough to play in coverage, so he had to be a defensive end. Except he told him, according to Logan’s dad Rueben, that he’d never crack the two-deep, and that August, he didn’t, and decided to transfer to Cal Poly. Essentially, I wrote that it was a hell of a way to treat the Mayes family, since Rueben was in both the WSU and College Football Halls of Fame, and one of the classiest people ever to pull on a crimson jersey.
I don’t think Leach cared. And in that saga, he told us something about his view of his life’s work: There was no place for feelings and sentimentality and deference in college football. This was a ruthless business, without exceptions. All the sideshows were just that when it came to the non-negotiables.
Looking back, a lot of things happened that season. He coached the bejesus out of that ’13 team, got it to 6-6 a year after a fractious debut season in which some players and their parents pushed back against his unflinching demands, including WSU’s infamous “sand pit” for lapses in discipline and execution. That 2013 team broke a 10-year bowl drought, beating three Pac-12 teams on the road, including USC and Arizona as two-touchdown underdogs. It didn’t back into a .500 season, either, opening with Auburn on the road.
But, as often happened, there was that other side. A winning season would have to wait, as Leach mismanaged the clock in the New Mexico Bowl and blew a late lead against Colorado State. Clock management was one of those silly conventions other people embraced. Leach would have none of it.
After that game, a reporter asked him if he had any second thoughts about handing the ball off in the late going to a running back who was getting his first carry in the game. The back fumbled the ball away, a key turnover in WSU’s demise.
“Wha’ da hell kind of question is that?” Leach snarled.
Then there was the enduring mystery of his relationship with the Apple Cup rivalry with Washington, a piece of sacrosanct territory for WSU faithful. Seemingly, the better the Cougars got – and they did – the less threatening they became to Chris Petersen’s Huskies, and their defensive guru, Jimmy Lake.
Leach refused to acknowledge the import of the rivalry, and his game plans for Washington reflected that – never a tweak, never a wrinkle, rarely a run, even when the defensive alignment screamed for it. I always felt if you told Leach his team was going to gain 500 yards, he’d rather it be 450 through the air than 350.
“I think he understood how important it was,” Moos told me in a November conversation, referring to the Washington series, “but he didn’t want to acknowledge it.”
Leach won more often than some of his WSU predecessors, like Jim Sweeney, Jim Walden and Mike Price. Every three or four years, though, those guys were able to ambush the hated Huskies, and it strikes me that the affection among longtime Crimson fans may be as great, or greater, for them.
But Leach’s years at WSU shouldn’t be minimized. He had a 26-10 league record from 2015-18, a startling achievement at the school. He won 11 games there in a season. ESPN GameDay came to Pullman because of what he built. He had a better conference record than any WSU coach since Jim Sutherland (1956-63), and to the degree Cougar football rests today on a solid foundation, he’s largely responsible for it.
His Air Raid offense is a staple of the game at multiple levels, and his coaching tree imposing.
All the while, he trafficked in dry wit, and I can imagine him cackling today over a one-liner he delivered once to ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap.
“When people write the Mike Leach obituary,” Schaap asked him, with Schaap’s characteristic heaviness, “how do you want to be remembered?”
“Well, that’s their problem,” Leach answered lightly. “They’re the one writing the obituary. I mean, what do I care? I’m dead.”
Leach knew the bottom line, both for his offense and his livelihood, was winning. But he wasn’t opposed to the great theater around it.