Mike Leach Is Thinking …

About pirates, quarterbacks, the spread offensive, how to beat UT again, whether punting is ever a good idea, the futility of huddles, and what else he might do to completely reinvent the game of college football.

September 2009By Comments

Leach, photographed on July 19, 2009.
Portrait by Lionel Deluy

The clock on the wall of Mike Leach’s office reads eleven p.m. He likes the deep night hours, when he is free of the constant demands of his job and can pursue his many intellectual interests, which include Apaches, sharks, whales, pirates, Australia, Daniel Boone, the tango, Wyatt Earp, Vikings, Doc Holliday, chimpanzees, Winston Churchill, grizzly bears, Napoleon Bonaparte, the philosophy of John Wooden, and the dynamics of the offshore surf breaks at San Onofre, California. Tonight he is working on an article for the Texas Tech Law Review about the relationship between practicing law and coaching football. He can do this because he is the only head coach at a major football university to have a law degree and because he is, well, the sort of person who would be inclined to do such a thing.

I am meeting with him in the sanctum sanctorum of Texas Tech football, a cramped conference room that is festooned with skull-and-crossbones flags, a painting of Leach in imitation of a Van Gogh self-portrait, a photograph of Sarah Palin, a sign that reads “You are either coaching it, or you are allowing it to happen,” and several drawing boards full of football hieroglyphics, in the middle of which appear Leach’s weight and cholesterol counts. He has a large, elegantly appointed office next door that contains such curiosities as a copy of Geronimo’s death certificate and a motion-activated, six-foot-tall pirate skeleton that says, “Yarrrr,” and scares the daylights out of the cleaning people.

But the 48-year-old Leach has no real use for such luxury. He meets various grandees and visitors there when he has to; he sometimes uses the room to entertain recruits by doing card tricks and telling pirate stories. He prefers the intimate clutter of his conference room, where he spends most of his time watching film and huddling with his coaches. (He also has at his disposal a domed practice facility meant to shelter his players from the blazing heat and bitter cold of the High Plains. He has no use for that either, insisting that his team experience the full fury of the local weather.)

Leach and I are talking football—specifically, what makes him so good at coaching it. Like many football fans around the country—especially those who followed Texas Tech’s dramatic run at a national championship last year—I am fascinated by how such a personality, one that suggests rather more of a bohemian intellectual than a square-jawed drill sergeant, can also house one of the greatest offensive minds in the history of the game. Leach has developed an offense that is as close to unstoppable as anything we are likely to see and that has been working brilliantly for so long—twenty years at five colleges in three collegiate athletic divisions—that his success cannot be regarded as a fluke. During his nine-year tenure as head coach at Texas Tech, Leach has never had a losing season, compiling a 76-39 record. He has done that while playing in one of the nation’s toughest conferences and using players that few or no other elite college football programs wanted. In five of those nine years, Texas Tech led the nation in offense, routinely hanging ungodly numbers of points on opposing defenses. Its quarterbacks have led the nation in passing eight of the past nine years. In 2007 and 2008 Graham Harrell became the first player in college history to throw for more than 5,000 yards in consecutive seasons. Unlike almost all major college coaches, Leach is his own offensive coordinator; he calls the plays.

Though Tech has had many big wins during the Leach years and even flirted with a top-ten finish in 2005, nothing compares with its string of victories last fall. For a scintillating month or so, millions of fans who had never paid attention to Texas Tech football were suddenly focused intently on this sprawling, monumental campus in West Texas. In one spectacular three-game run, the Red Raiders put up 158 points against the nineteenth-, first-, and eighth-ranked teams in the country. As Tech knocked off one ranked team after another, the hordes that descended on Lubbock were as interested in the team as they were its coach, a man who never played college football, rode the bench in high school, and, as Lubbock radio talk show host Ryan Hyatt puts it, “looks like he just got off tour with Jimmy Buffett.” Texas Tech is not exactly America’s team, but for a few shining moments last autumn it was the team much of America was rooting for.

Then it all came crashing down. On November 22 Texas Tech, ranked second and seemingly unstoppable, rolled into Norman, Oklahoma, and suffered one of the worst losses in school history. The lopsided score, 65—21, does not fully convey the extent of the damage the Oklahoma Sooners inflicted: Tech simply did not look as if it belonged in the game. Leach’s Red Raiders had arrived with the leading Heisman Trophy candidate—Harrell—and a team that not only was undefeated but had beaten Oklahoma two out of the past three years. And suddenly, in the bloody chaos of a second quarter in which the Sooners outscored the Red Raiders 35—7, it was all gone: the national title hopes, Harrell’s Heisman, the magic of the greatest season in Texas Tech history. Tech would go on to lose its bowl game to Ole Miss and finish twelfth in the country.

Leach, a man of exquisitely even temperament, was unbowed and unshattered. He even seemed to enjoy his new celebrity. In the off-season he won two prestigious coach-of-the-year awards (the George Munger and the Woody Hayes). He was invited to the White House to meet President Bush and was featured on CBS’s 60 Minutes. His name was mentioned in almost every coaching search, and he interviewed for a job at the University of Washington. Then came a long, nasty contract dispute with Tech. All of which prompted Raider fans to wonder: Was Leach going to desert them now? Just when they were starting to hit the big time?

In the end Leach signed a new contract and Lubbock breathed a sigh of relief. He was staying. But now fans are asking another set of questions. Was last season an anomaly? Or was it the dawn of a golden age in Tech football? Are Leach and his ragtag band of rejects finally ready for full-time prime time? And, perhaps most important, the question that has been asked everywhere Mike Leach has ever coached: How in the world does he do it?

One afternoon during spring football, Leach and I were camped out in the conference room, studying film. Unlike most coaches, he is completely unguarded around reporters. He does not edit what he says, nor does he have any apparent sense of, or need for, privacy. In a world typically veiled in secrecy, he is an open book. He was seated in his favorite chair at the head of the table, remote control and laser pointer in hand. He is an interesting-looking man, with a round, softly contoured face that can best be described as cherubic, a prominent nose, and a pair of startlingly bright blue eyes. He has a low-pitched, gravelly voice that he rarely raises and that often comes out no louder than a mumble. On-screen: the Texas Tech—Oklahoma State game from November 8, 2008, a superb example of what the Leach offense can do. OSU was ranked number eight with an 8-1 record, having beaten number three Missouri, piled up 56 points against Texas A&M, and lost to top-ranked Texas by less than a touchdown. The Cowboys had their best team in years.

“The basic idea here is that you have to make the defense cover the whole field,” Leach said as the film rolled. “Not just part of it. If you do it right, it makes life very difficult for them.” Instead of a dense, seemingly impenetrable offensive line, Tech’s linemen are spaced three to four feet apart, twice the norm, leaving enormous gaps that seem to invite tackles and linebackers to stroll right through them. The quarterback operates from the shotgun, and on most plays four or five receivers are spread across the breadth of the field. This creates huge amounts of space between players, making the whole thing look porous and vulnerable, even skeletal, until it swings into action. Which it does between 85 and 90 times a game. A typical offense snaps the ball 65 to 70 times a game, but Tech never huddles. It is all attack, all the time. Leach attempts few field goals and rarely punts, even when he is deep in his own territory. When the ball is snapped, you can see how the magic works. Receivers stretch the field from chalk to chalk, taking the defensive backs with them. The defensive linemen—who are forced to spread out too, lest they lose their rushing angles—must therefore attack from longer range, creating even more room. Suddenly the grid opens up, and the quarterback is looking at what Leach calls “pieces of space.” Lots of them.

On the first set of downs against Oklahoma State, Texas Tech lost a fumble, and the Cowboys promptly marched in and scored. What happened next, though, amounted to a clinic on offense, conducted by Leach at OSU’s expense. Tech scored on its next seven possessions. On film the mismatches caused by the spread were easy to spot, as was the horrific task the defense had of covering such a vast expanse of real estate, while receivers like Michael Crabtree, who appeared to be equipped with bat sonar, worked the spaces of the grid. Final score: 56-20.

So how did Leach figure out the system? That is what everyone in the football world—pro, college, and high school—wants to know. There is certainly no shortage of theories on how to stop him. Sports Illustrated reported this year that the market is booming for “instructional videos, Internet forums, and dissertations in publications by coaches from high school to the pros” that address how to stop spread-style offenses, which have begun to proliferate—not coincidentally—in the wake of Leach’s success. The answer lies entirely in his past. Leach’s offense actually came into being two decades ago, long before he ever set foot in Lubbock.

Leach grew up in a Mormon family in Cody, Wyoming, and attended Brigham Young University, where he was nowhere near talented enough to make the football team. But he studied hard and made it to law school at Pepperdine University, in California, graduating in 1986 in the top third of his class. Bright and personable, he appeared destined for a successful law career. Except he did not want to be a lawyer. After graduation he decided, to the dismay of his wife’s parents, that he wanted to be a football coach. He had coached various youth sports before, and the idea stuck. So he did what no sane Pepperdine law school grad would do: He enrolled in the United States Sports Academy, in Daphne, Alabama, to earn a master’s degree in coaching.

Over the next few years he managed to land a couple coaching jobs, in spite of his complete lack of experience. The first was with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a Division II school in California. For $3,000 a year, he coached safeties and offensive linemen. It is not clear how he knew how to do that. He supplemented that income by working as a substitute teacher; his wife, Sharon, became an administrative assistant at a local vineyard. They were raising a daughter and somehow made ends meet. In 1988 Leach got a job coaching linebackers at College of the Desert, in Palm Desert, California—a junior college—where his salary jumped to $12,000, while Sharon worked at an office on campus. Early the next year he accepted a brief engagement coaching professional football in Finland, where the players smoked cigarettes on the bench.

In 1989 he found the job that would change everything: offensive line coach at Iowa Wesleyan College, in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, a school with eight hundred undergraduates and a bad football team. Most aspiring coaches would have considered it a backwater; for Leach it was a revelation. That was because of the remarkable man who had just taken over as head coach. His name was Hal Mumme. In the early eighties Mumme (rhymes with “tummy”), while at the University of Texas at El Paso, had been a sort of prodigy—the youngest Division I offensive coordinator in the country. But he had fallen on hard times. After the head coach at UTEP was fired, Mumme lost his job and wound up coaching at perennial loser Copperas Cove High School, in Central Texas. Leach was one of the first coaches Mumme hired at Iowa Wesleyan. “He probably thought I was ambitious and would do anything he told me,” Leach says. “He was right.”

Mumme, as it turned out, was on to a big idea. He was a disciple of LaVell Edwards’s, the brilliant Brigham Young coach who in the eighties was lighting up college football with the most potent passing attack in history, one that won him a national championship in 1984. Mumme had studied Edwards’ schemes closely, and at Copperas Cove he had put those ideas to work. He installed a radical offense that featured widely split linemen, passed on most downs, and used four or five receivers. In less than two years he had turned Cove into one of the state’s most prolific passing offenses, knocking off such powerhouses as Austin Westlake, Killeen Ellison, and Temple—which had beaten Cove 70-0 the last time they’d met. Each spring Mumme made a pilgrimage to BYU, where Edwards would open the film room to him.

By the time Mumme arrived at Iowa Wesleyan, he knew exactly what he wanted to do. Leach hit it off with him immediately, meeting at BYU in the spring to watch practice and later spending most of his free time driving with Mumme all over the country to study other teams’ passing schemes. “Hal was really driven as far as studying football,” Leach said. “We’d drive through snowstorms and rainstorms. We’d go to some little high school that had something we were interested in seeing. We would go visit the Chicago Bears, the Green Bay Packers. We would weasel our way into the Packers offices, and [head coach] Lindy Infante would talk to us. We went to countless colleges, anywhere that had somebody who was throwing the ball.” Though Leach was the student and Mumme the master, the two men developed their offense together. “We spent a lot of time talking on our trips,” said Mumme, who now coaches at McMurry University, in Abilene. “Florida is a long way from Iowa.”

At Iowa Wesleyan they put their theories to work. In 1989 they began adopting the shotgun as their primary formation. In 1991 they installed a no-huddle offense. Like theoretical physicists, they began to investigate the nature of time. “We just saw time differently than other coaches did,” said Mumme. “You can replace personnel. You can replace equipment. Time is the only thing you can’t replace in a game. So we wanted to run as many plays as we could in the time allotted.” Most teams want to eat up the clock, using ball control to increase their time of possession. Mumme and Leach wanted nothing to do with slowing down the game. Time of possession did not matter. Running ninety plays did. Scoring quickly did. The game itself—now with up to five receivers streaking across the field on almost every play—became faster.

And all of it was based on simplicity. Where many so-called genius offensive coaches keep thick playbooks, Mumme and Leach had no playbook. They ran roughly twenty basic plays, which they disguised by running them out of different formations: double tight ends, four-receiver spread, two running backs, et cetera. The routes the receivers ran were the same, but of course the defense did not know that. To the defense, each play looked more hellishly complicated than the last. Mumme and Leach’s rule was that if they added a play, they had to subtract one. Their idea was to keep things as simple as possible for their players. The simplicity helped with the speed too. As former University of Texas coach Darrell Royal once observed, “If a player is the least bit confused, he can’t be aggressive. Tattoo that on your wall. Or better still, on your wallet.” Confused players could not, as Leach would say, play fast.

The result was startling. Iowa Wesleyan had gone 0-10 the year before Mumme and Leach arrived. Over the next three years the program went 25-10. In 1991 Mumme’s Tigers became the first team in school history to make the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics playoffs, with a 10-2 record. The 1990 team led the nation in passing offense; in 1989 and 1991 it finished second. Over a three-year stretch, Iowa Wesleyan quarterbacks threw for more than 11,000 yards and broke 26 national records. For Leach, who considers Mumme “one of the greatest coaches there is,” it was a formative experience. Like many coaches at small schools, he did a bit of everything. He was offensive line coach, offensive coordinator, recruiting coordinator, video coordinator, equipment coordinator, and sports information director. For his labors he was paid $13,000 and eventually got a raise to $22,000. He taught classes in criminal justice and history to make extra money. He also took several courses so that he could defer his student loans. “I would talk to my law school friends, and they were talking about condos and tax shelters,” Leach said. “But they were fascinated by what I was doing.”

In 1992 Mumme and Leach moved to Valdosta State, in Georgia, another school with an abysmal record, where they did even better. Over the next five years, they went 40-17-1. The once faltering team now ranked consistently in the top twenty Division II schools in the country. In 1994 Leach’s offense shattered 35 conference records and 7 national marks. Quarterback Chris Hatcher was named Division II player of the year.

Leach, meanwhile, was finally making enough money to live on his coaching salary. “We had a great two-bedroom apartment in a complex with two pools,” he says. “We had a parking lot with speed bumps, so I would Rollerblade around it and hop over the speed bumps. Then I would go the other way so I would wear my wheels evenly.”

By 1997 the rest of the college football world was paying close attention to the Mumme-Leach aerial circus. That year Mumme got the job of head coach at Kentucky, and he took his offensive coordinator with him. Over the next two years, Leach ran an offense that set 41 SEC records and acquired a name: the Air Raid. In Leach’s second year there, quarterback Tim Couch threw for 4,275 yards and became the number one pick in the NFL draft.

Then came an even bigger break. In 1999 a new coach named Bob Stoops took over the troubled Oklahoma football program, and he hired Leach away from Kentucky and his beloved mentor to be his offensive coordinator. Leach wasted no time installing—to the dismay of many Oklahoma fans who did not want to become a passing team—the offense that he and Mumme had perfected. He also quickly demonstrated another of his remarkable talents: the ability to spot great players where no one else did.

Unhappy with the quarterbacks he had inherited, Leach traveled to the outer reaches of the college football world, to Snow College, in Ephraim, Utah, to recruit a young quarterback named Josh Heupel, who had been a bust at another Utah school, Weber State, and was playing only half the time at Snow. He had a deeply flawed throwing motion, falling back on his heels while he released the ball. Leach liked him anyway and especially liked his sense of timing and his ability to read defenders. Oklahoma diehards were less enamored. “There was a time when the two most wanted people in the state were me and Josh Heupel,” says Leach. “I was the guy who thought we were going to throw the ball. Heupel was the quarterback who couldn’t run.”

Heupel fit Leach’s system perfectly. Proof came in a scrimmage between the Oklahoma offense and the defense in the spring of 1999. While Oklahoma’s defensive coaches looked on in horrified amazement, Heupel rang up more than 700 yards on them. Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables later described the “deep, deep state of depression in the locker room afterwards.” That season Leach more than doubled the points scored per game, from 16.7, in 1998, to 36.8, in 1999, while the offense went from 101st in the nation to 11th and from last to first in the Big 12. The next year Heupel led an undefeated Oklahoma team—using the Leach offense—to the national championship. He was a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.

But by then Leach had moved on. In 2000 Texas Tech had decided to take a chance on a 38-year-old Rollerblading lawyer-turned-offensive-coordinator who had never been a head coach before.

Lubbock had never seen anything quite like Mike Leach. He was, to begin with, the polar opposite of popular former coach Spike Dykes, an old-school guy from West Texas. He did not schmooze with alumni or play golf with the boosters. He also did things that seemed, in football terms, completely insane. Like going for it on fourth-and-five from Tech’s own 36-yard line in a close game; to Leach punting was simply a missed opportunity. That did not comfort Tech fans when the fourth-and-fives didn’t work out. Nor did people understand his habit of running up the score, which infuriated coaches and led to one tense moment in a blowout against SMU, when the Mustangs coach ran at Leach as though he wanted to decapitate him. Leach didn’t think it was poor sportsmanship for his no-huddle offense to be driving toward the goal line when the Red Raiders were up 14 points in the game’s closing seconds. Scoring is what Leach teams do, and it is a testament to his style of coaching that they don’t really know how to do anything else.

On the other hand, the Red Raiders were phenomenally entertaining, as was he. He went on Lubbock television to give the local weather forecast. After announcing that there were going to be “serious storms,” he observed, “Well, you’re going to be dead in a hundred years anyway, so live dangerously.” His coaches and players loved him. He appeared in a video giving dating advice to Tech students, counseling young men to take a girl out to dinner on the first date. “The girl will be forced to eat in front of you,” he said, “which is something that women hate, but if you can make them do it, the earlier the better, the more they’ll converse and tell of themselves.” Later, when a 60 Minutes reporter cited a story suggesting that Leach was “a football madman directing a sideshow,” he replied, without apparent irony, “I don’t have any disagreement with it, really.”

Leach’s conversational tendency to drift off into digressions about all sorts of unlikely subjects has only affirmed the sense many people have that he is, to some extent, mad. During one of my talks with him, he suddenly began interviewing me, asking me questions about my background, my work, my hometown, the college I went to, the towns I had lived in. When he found out I had once lived in Hollywood, he said enthusiastically, “Oh, that must have been an awesome place to live! I would love to go up there! It’s so full of history.” So we talked Hollywood history. For a long time. Had I ever gone to the Black Dahlia mansion? How close had I lived to the LaBianca house, where some of the Manson murders took place? His questions kept coming. Most big-time football coaches are relentlessly and aggressively on point. Leach is relentlessly off point. This is the essence of his personality, and it explains why people find him both charming and odd. He is so intensely curious about the world around him that he doesn’t think twice about interrupting the topic at hand with something others might consider irrelevant.

But those were just his personal quirks. On the field he was widely feared. No coach wanted to play a team that could spontaneously rain down fifty points. And absolutely no one wanted to play Texas Tech in Lubbock. “When he first came here, you could hear the gasps throughout the stadium,” said talk show host Hyatt. “What the hell is he thinking? After a couple of years people said, ‘All right, if you like beating Nebraska on a fourth-down play or if you like beating Texas on a fourth down, then you’ve got to live with it all the other times.’ ” Under Leach, attendance soared to record levels. Fund-raising rose 180 percent. Money for other sports, which comes mostly from football revenue, increased dramatically. The stadium was massively renovated in 2003, and another major upgrade will be completed next year. All the suites have already been sold. The sports budget, which was $9.4 million just six years before his arrival, now stands at more than $50 million.

As always, Leach had an uncanny ability to produce brilliant quarterbacks. In his first three years, the lightly recruited Kliff Kingsbury became only the fourth player in college history to throw for 3,000 yards three times. He was followed by fifth-year senior B. J. Symons, who set a single-season college record for passing yards (5,833). Next came a fifth-year walk-on named Sonny Cumbie, who also led the nation in passing. He was followed by Cody Hodges, a quarterback with a below-average arm, who led the nation’s number one offense and threw for 643 yards against Kansas State, the fifth-best performance in NCAA history. Leach’s most recent quarterback, Graham Harrell, was the best of all: In three seasons as a starter he passed for 15,738 yards, second all-time in the NCAA, and set the college record for touchdown passes (134). Those quarterbacks became famous for their ability to put up implausibly large numbers of points very quickly. In the 2006 Insight Bowl, against Minnesota, Tech trailed the Golden Gophers 38—7 with 7:47 to go in the third quarter. Harrell and the offense calmly proceeded to rack up 31 unanswered points in less than twenty minutes, then won the game in overtime, 44-41. In 2004, against a ranked and unbeaten TCU team, Tech trailed 21-0 near the end of the first half. Under Cumbie the Red Raiders scored three times before the half and seven more times in the second, winning 70-35. This was football in the Leach era.

Perhaps most impressive of all was that Leach was doing this with players that most of his rivals did not want. Except for Harrell, his quarterbacks were not courted by other major football schools. Most of his recruits could properly be described as rejects. In fact, Texas Tech was typically fourth in line—at best—for players in the phenomenally fertile Texas market. Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas A&M all took precedence, as did other Big 12 universities. According to Rivals.com, the national ranking of Texas Tech’s recruiting classes averaged thirty-seventh over the past five years. By comparison, Oklahoma ranked eighth, Texas eleventh, and Texas A&M twenty-first. Leach worked the margins, finding players like current New England Patriots star Wes Welker, whom nobody else wanted. Or Michael Crabtree, a quarterback from Dallas Carter whom no one could quite figure out what to do with and whom no one except Leach saw as a receiver. Crabtree won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver during his freshman and sophomore years and was this year’s tenth pick in the NFL draft.

The rest of the world, meanwhile, could only guess at what sort of dark magic was abroad on the West Texas plains. Most people assumed that Leach’s offense was demonically intricate, a tangle of x’s and o’s so thick defenders couldn’t parse it. In fact the reverse is true. Leach has stuck steadfastly with his old formula: no playbook, just a simple, straightforward set of fewer than two dozen plays, many of which he and Mumme discovered on their cross-country odysseys. “He is very, very reluctant to change anything,” says Dana Holgorsen, a former Tech assistant coach who played for Leach at Iowa Wesleyan, coached for him at Valdosta State, and is now the offensive coordinator for the wide-open, pass-happy program at the University of Houston. “He always runs the same system, and most of his coaches are system guys like me who know exactly how it works. It was why I got hired at Tech from a Division II school at the age of twenty-eight.” The offensive line also employs the basic techniques Leach and Mumme came up with at Valdosta State, right down to the lingo used to describe them. But there too simplicity rules. “We do the most simple stuff,” said Matt Moore, who played for Leach at Valdosta and used Leach’s offense to win four of five Alabama state high school football titles and now coaches the Tech offensive line. “Most people are way more complicated. I know when [Steve] Spurrier was at Florida, he had eighteen different types of protections. We’ve got two.”

The result is that Leach and his coaches are able to spend most of their time relentlessly drilling. “Everything is about repetition,” said Cody Hodges, Leach’s 2005 starting quarterback, who arrived in 2001, one year after Leach. “Last year I was in Lubbock and went out and watched practice, and it was exactly the same as it was in my first year. That’s why the quarterbacks have so much success. You learn just a few plays and you perfect that.” Leach’s quarterbacks have become so proficient that he allows them to change any play at the line of scrimmage, a freedom almost no other major football program offers. His drills include making receivers run in a 40-yard sandpit he installed to strengthen their ankles. His coaches fire tennis balls at high speed at receivers and defensive backs, fifty at a time. His offensive linemen put on boxing gloves and do battle to learn to protect the quarterback. His players do no sprints after practice: Almost all of their running is done as part of actual plays. Leach’s offense is not about tricks or complexity; it is about minutely coached execution of basic techniques.

Leach’s approach does involve, it must be noted, a bit of fairy dust. Because Tech is forced to hustle to persuade players to come to West Texas, Leach dazzles recruits with jokes and his trademark rambling, not-sure-exactly-what-the-point-is stories. He brings forth and swings his pirate sword, which turns out to be an important coaching technique (“How are you going to swing your sword?” he likes to ask of his players). He also does card tricks. One, witnessed by Chancellor Kent Hance, features a mysterious character known as “the Wizard.” In Hance’s account, Leach was interviewing two recruits. He took out a deck of cards and asked one recruit to turn over a card. He then made a phone call and put the recruit on the line with the Wizard, who correctly guessed the card. “The kid goes, ‘Wow!’ ” said Hance. “And he signed with the team.” Leach used the Wizard trick with Harrell too. He also told the young quarterback and his father stories about pirates, coaching in Finland, and World War II. Somehow it all worked. What Leach was really offering Harrell, though—and Harrell knew it—was the chance to put up numbers that would rewrite the record books.

As the years went by, recruiting above-average players like Harrell, however, was not Leach’s only challenge. His overwhelming focus on offense had an unfortunate result: His teams were becoming famous for their lack of defense. Texas Tech, it was said, was a team that could score 43 points but would give up 44. On one level, Leach was known as a nutty professor who scared the hell out of everyone. But he had a reputation for being inconsistent and vulnerable to a competent offense, of which there was no shortage in the Big 12. Tech was an unbalanced team. Interesting but unbalanced.

The problem came to a head on September 22, 2007, when Tech, whose defense had been allowing more than 400 yards per game—seventy-fourth in the nation—gave up 610 yards of offense to Oklahoma State and lost 49—45. The normally mild-mannered Leach unloaded. “The entire first half,” he told a TV interviewer, “we got hit in the mouth and acted like somebody took our lunch money and all we wanted to do was have pouty expressions on our faces until somebody daubed our little tears off and made us feel better.” The next day he fired his defensive coordinator, Lyle Setencich, the man who had given him his first job at Cal Poly, in 1987. “That was a big growth moment for Coach Leach,” said Hyatt. “A big seismic shift. Setencich was a close, close friend. Mike made the decision and sent the message that ‘I am not just an offensive guy. I can take ownership of this whole program.’ ” He promoted assistant coach Ruffin McNeill to succeed Setencich, and since then the team has gone 17-5, driven largely by improvements on the defense. Those changes were behind the team’s transformation last year. The nutty professor was still there, but now his defense had teeth.

On the night of November 1, 2008, Leach fielded an offense that was nearly identical to the one he and Mumme had cobbled together at Iowa Wesleyan College nearly twenty years earlier. The difference was that instead of playing Olivet Nazarene University, Leach was playing the University of Texas, the number one team in the nation, a dazzling array of all the talent he had no access to. Tech was 8-0, ranked sixth, and coming off a 63-21 dismantling of nineteenth-ranked Kansas. UT had just beaten, consecutively, the first-, eleventh-, and seventh-ranked teams in the country. The game, which pitted the Mad Pirate against the CEO-like Mack Brown, had quickly spooled up into a national-media event. ESPN’s Game Day carnival had moved in (with 15,000 fans in tow), as had ABC’s game-of-the-week crew. An enormous tent city known as Raiderville had materialized, with a population of 1,700. The place was so pumped up with digital technology and generator-powered electricity that it glowed at night. Pirate flags—a symbol that Leach had introduced and that Raider fans had embraced—were everywhere. Leach sent a truckload of barbecue to Raiderville as a gesture of appreciation. By the time the Masked Rider—a Tech student on a black stallion wearing a black costume and a red cape and making the famous “guns up” sign with his hand—thundered through the goalposts at Jones AT&T Stadium, a record 56,333 fans were screaming their lungs out. It was the biggest game in Texas Tech history.

Leach’s cohort came out firing. In the first half, Tech was so dominant that the game began to look like a replay of what the Red Raiders had done to Kansas. They scored 22 points to Texas’s 6, made 17 first downs to Texas’s 5, and put up 326 yards against Texas’s 108. Tech’s kicker alone outscored UT. That might not seem so bad except that the kicker, Matt Williams, had been playing college football for only a few weeks. He had won a contest during a home game against Massachusetts by booting a 30-yard field goal during a halftime promotion in which the winner would receive a month’s free rent. Leach, who was unhappy with the team’s kickers, liked the quickness of Williams’s approach and offered him the position. First-half score: Matt Williams 8, Texas 6.

The second half was more in line with expectations. Texas, under its brilliant quarterback, Colt McCoy, clawed its way back. The two heavyweights traded punches. With 1:29 left, the Longhorns took their first lead of the game, 33-32. Leach was unperturbed, as he often is in times of great crisis. “That’s just his mentality,” said Holgorsen. “He’s never too high, never too low. He has the same facial expression regardless of what is happening, and he preaches to the kids every single day to be like that. The message is ‘I don’t care if you are winning by a hundred or losing by a hundred, you are going to keep playing, keep playing.’ ” They did.

As the clock wound down, Harrell coolly drove the team downfield. With eight seconds to go on the Texas 28-yard line and 56,000 fans shrieking bloody murder, he launched a sideline pass to Crabtree, who beat two defenders and caught the ball at the 6, twisted away, and scored with one second left on the clock, while McCoy and Mack Brown looked on in flabbergasted disbelief. It is impossible to fully express the depth of the happiness of Texas Tech fans at that moment. Years of perceived disrespect by UT and everybody else had been instantly obliterated. They went crazy.

The victory lifted Texas Tech to number two in the BCS standings. A week later, with Raiderville in full flower and the same national broadcast teams back in Lubbock, Tech dismantled Oklahoma State. For the first time in its history, the team now had a clear shot—with only Oklahoma and the subsequent Big 12 title game standing in the way—at a national championship. How did Leach feel? “It will probably be more fun to remember it,” he says now, “more enjoyment to think back on it because at the time there is no wistful ‘Look, oh gee, these are the times of our lives’ or any of that bullshit, and the reason is because next week you are playing Oklahoma or Oklahoma State. The win at Kansas was huge, but guess what? It’s Sunday and we’re playing Texas in six days . . .”

Tech’s win over Oklahoma State was the season’s high point, the moment when it seemed that anything was possible, when Raiders fans everywhere finally believed that Leach could really pull it off. A week later all those dreams were mere wreckage on the ground. The team, which had sustained an unimaginably high level of football for three weeks against ranked teams and in the national spotlight, fell apart against Oklahoma in an ugly, humiliating rout. Almost everything went wrong. Tech, whose magnificent offensive line had allowed a total of five sacks the entire season, gave up four, including back-to-back sacks of Harrell in the first quarter. Crabtree, the nation’s touchdown leader, had a poor game and no touchdowns. Leach’s famous idiosyncrasies were partly to blame. In the second quarter, on fourth-and-three from the Oklahoma 15, Leach decided to go for it instead of kicking a field goal and didn’t make it. Five plays later OU scored. In the second quarter he gambled again on fourth-and-four from the Sooners 45 and failed there too. Down 35-7 with less than a minute remaining in the second quarter, Leach, who is never content to run out the clock, had Harrell launch a deep pass down the middle of the field. OU intercepted, returned the ball to the 1-yard line, and scored on the next play. The score at halftime was 42-7.

In the locker room Leach tried to calm his team down. Since there was no mechanical explanation for what was going on, he believed that his players were too keyed-up. “I think we wanted to do well and overtried,” he said after the game. “Rather than just trying to make little routine plays, we tried to make super plays. I felt that we squandered the first half trying to make too much happen and trying to be too good.” He told them as much and managed to settle them. They played a respectable, if somewhat flat, second half. But the game was already over. When asked about it today, Leach just shrugs. He obviously does not torture himself with the memory. “To my knowledge no team in the history of college football has beaten four top-twenty-five teams in succession,” says Leach. “We wanted to be the first. I think we were suffering from a kind of mental, emotional fatigue.”

The next week Tech barely beat a weak Baylor team, and only by coming from behind and scoring three touchdowns in the second half. On January 2 the lingering shock of the Oklahoma loss gave way to the dull pain of an uninspired 47—34 loss to Mississippi in the Cotton Bowl. There was really no explaining this one either. Leach took it with equanimity, said he was proud of his 11-2 record and the shared championship of the Big 12 South. The loss to a 9-4 team was reminiscent of all those years when Tech lost to teams it should have beaten and suggested perhaps that there are limits to what even superb coaching can do with thirty-seventh-ranked recruits. Tech ended its season ranked twelfth, which in most years would be cause for celebration but now seemed like a crushing defeat.

A few weeks later, Leach’s surprisingly nasty contract dispute with his employer spilled into the national press. The fight ended when Leach and Chancellor Hance sat down and personally negotiated a five-year contract that will pay Leach $2.5 million a year and make him the third-highest-paid coach in the Big 12. Leach seemed unperturbed by this controversy too. “I expected everything to work out,” he says, “but it took a little more circuitous route than I expected. I have been thrilled to be here from the beginning, and there has never been a point where I wasn’t thrilled to be here.”

Though the team is losing Harrell, Crabtree, and several outstanding offensive linemen, Leach says that this spring he had his best recruiting class ever, one that included two of the most highly rated defensive tackles in the country. “I am very excited about this fall,” he says. “I think we’ll be as good as we were last year. We don’t have a single receiver who is as good as Crabtree, but as a whole they are better.” There is no reason why his quarterback du jour—Taylor Potts—should not, like his predecessors, put up phenomenal passing yardage. Perhaps most interesting of all, three of Leach’s recruits this year chose Tech over scholarship offers at Oklahoma, which presents a dazzling prospect for most Red Raiders fans. They are all captivated, as anyone even remotely interested in football should be, by the idea of what might happen if the pirate-in-chief ever gets hold of an entire team of top-tier recruits.

Related Content