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.
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

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