A talk with Mike Leach about life, animals...and Cougar football
by Larry Clark ’94 | © Washington State University
I understand how the interview with Washington State University’s new head football coach Mike Leach drifts from Cougar football to life in Pullman and pirates in Key West (I asked that one), but bulls in ancient Rome? The Tokyo fish market?
It starts out on track, as I meet with Leach at his office in Bohler Gym looking onto the practice field and the south side of Martin Stadium. As workers on scaffolds rush to complete the new addition to the stadium before fall, Leach points out proudly how the project is on time and under budget.
He grabs several posters of the proposed football operations building between the playfield and the stadium and explains details of the study halls, weight room, lockers, and offices.
Leach then launches into his take on the WSU football team and his impression after spring training.
“As a group you don’t tell them things a whole bunch of times. You tell them a couple of times and you see improvements,” he says. “They’re loyal to one another and pulling in the same direction.”
He names many of the players on the team—Logan Mayes, Leon Brooks, Ricky Galvin, Jeff Tuel, Dominic Williams, and more—emphasizing strengths of each. Leach says he wants to see steady improvement for a successful season, taking one game at a time. “The most games you can win in a week is one, so we will try to focus on that.”
He’s ready for conference play, but doesn’t want the team to think too far past the next game. “Respect everybody and fear nobody,” he says.
Before Pac-12 play, the Cougars will take on Brigham Young University, Leach’s alma mater. Even though he says sentimentality goes out the window when you get on the field, Leach does remember a bit about his time at BYU. “When I was in college I was on the moving crew, which is based underneath that stadium. If a professor needs a new desk, somewhere under the stadium is that desk and we’d haul it to the office,” he recalls.
Leach is an easy person to talk to, a natural storyteller with a steady delivery, but his eyes display a restless curiosity.
In Leach’s bestselling book, Swing Your Sword, he applies his fervid imagination and knowledge to the game of football. For example, Leach writes about maximizing one’s own strengths and overcoming fear through an analysis of David vs. Goliath. The book ranges across Leach’s mental landscape and applies his lessons to life as well as football, as when he writes about going for it on fourth down: “You think it through, and if you believe the benefit outweighs the risk, then you need to do it.”
Unusually, he did not play football at the college level. Leach earned his law degree from Pepperdine, before realizing his love was coaching. Taking a risk, he graduated from the United States Sports Academy and went into collegiate football.
He comes to WSU after ten years as head coach at Texas Tech and jobs as an assistant coach at Kentucky, Oklahoma, and several smaller schools. At those teams, Leach and Hal Mumme developed the “Air Raid” offense, a fast passing attack that relies on short strikes to move down the field.
Leach manages the moving parts during the games, calling plays and coordinating with assistant coaches, but he keeps a relatively straightforward playbook. “You want to be as efficient as possible. You don’t want to be so complicated that your guys can’t pull the trigger. The smartest ideas in the world won’t be helpful if your players on the field are hesitating,” he says.
The vaunted “Air Raid” offense had great success at Texas Tech. In addition to five bowl wins and ten consecutive winning seasons, the Red Raiders led the NCAA in passing yardage for four years in a row under Leach. He earned the National Coach of the Year award in 2008. Tech also boasted the highest graduation rate for a Division I football team.
Leach has always emphasized academics for football players, with an optimistic but tough view toward their success. “Down deep, most of them want to get a degree, even if they’re not great students. You try to reinforce that,” he says. Players will get extra study halls and tutoring, and they’ll run up and down the stadium if they miss or fall asleep in class.
Leach says it’s clear that students have plenty of peer support at WSU, partly because of Pullman’s unique college town atmosphere, which he witnessed soon after he arrived.
“When we first got here, we drove around town at 10:30 on a Friday night, and I was thinking I’ll see students hanging around, but nobody’s downtown. I said to my wife Sharon, ‘What day is it? School’s going on, right?’
“Then we drove up by the college. It was the liveliest, most thriving student community. You talk about college atmosphere; you go up there, there are students everywhere. You look in the windows and there’s a ping-pong tournament, people having a debate. It’s 37 degrees out and still they’re playing shirts and skins basketball.”
After that experience, Leach says he finally understands the knowing smiles from WSU alums when he asked what was great about WSU.
I mention my own experience at WSU meeting Japanese students and studying abroad, which grabs Leach’s attention and leads him to reminisce about his own time in Japan. He had gone on a nine-day coaching clinic, eating foods new to him, sleeping in too-short beds at the “Lost in Translation” hotel, and trying out a traditional Japanese tub. He lingers on the details of his trip, including the foray to the Tokyo Bay fish market.
“We got up at three or four in the morning, and you’d be amazed at the stuff they pull out of the ocean...tunas almost the size of a pickup,” he says. “It was a really impressive operation.”
Our discussion leads to his recent bear hunting expedition to northern Canada for the Outdoor Channel, where he nabbed a seven-foot-four male black bear that was threatening cubs. Leach describes the hunt—five hours of only seeing a woodpecker, then the big bear appeared—which leads me to the “Who would win... ?” question.
For the last couple of years, reporters and others have been asking Leach about theoretical battles between different animals, such as who would win between a grizzly and shark? Leach answered, “If it’s salt water, I’d pick the shark. If it’s fresh water, I’d pick the grizzly.”
I join the fray with a question of who would win between a bear and a sabertooth cat. Leach answers with a historical reference.
“In the Roman empire, in the Colosseum contest between lions and bulls, bulls won every time. If I think about it, cats are quicker and more explosive, but they fatigue quicker. Once they’re out of gas, they’re done. My suspicion is that bull got clawed up a bit, and when the lion tired out, the bull would finish him off.”
We analyze but don’t resolve the question, and I suspect he might still be thinking about researching it.
And then there’s the pirate story when I ask him about Key West—where he moved in 2009 after Texas Tech—and its rich buccaneer past.
“My radio show on Sirius with Jack Arute would finish about three, so about four my wife and I would go to this coffee shop and sit on the porch,” he says. “I’d see this guy dressed in full pirate gear come racing up the street on his scooter with a parrot holding on tight to his shoulder. He had the fluffy sleeves, the fluffy pants, boots, the whole thing. He looked like a real pirate except he’s on a scooter.
“I nudged my wife and I said, ‘I’m gonna die if this guy gets off here and he has a wooden leg.’ Sure enough, he flops his outside leg over and he’s got a wooden leg.”
Leach jumps up and demonstrates the clever hinged knee on the pirate’s wooden leg. He follows up with another story, of when reporter Spencer Hall was visiting to interview Leach and spotted a different pirate in a restaurant.
“Spencer says, ‘I’m a reporter and I’ve been all over the country, but you look like a real pirate, straight out of another time. You’re the most authentic pirate I’ve ever seen. Have you seen anybody that compares?’ The pirate drops his eyes, and he shakes his head and says, ‘There’s one.’ Spencer says ‘What does he have that you don’t have?’ The pirate says, ‘He’s got a wooden leg.’”
The conversation ranges even further afield. We talk about restaurants in Pullman (Swilly’s, Black Cypress, and a bunch more), gargoyles and music at Rico’s, his kids’ impressions of Pullman schools (they love them), and Jimmy Buffett (Leach is a fan, but has yet to meet him). We eventually return to football.
Leach says for the fall season Cougar fans “can expect steady improvement and a dedicated effort. We’re a team that’s emerging and that’s always exciting.”
As I prepare to leave, Leach tells me about another of his books, Sports for Dorks, in which people with a wide range of expertise apply their knowledge to athletics. I tell him about some WSU faculty who study the movement and anatomy of insects. Leach’s eyes show that intense curiosity.
“We are working on another volume, so ask them to call if they’re interested in sports. I’d love to talk to them,” he says.
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