If you didn’t know who he was, your first guess wouldn’t be one of the most high-profile and highly quotable coaches in all of big-time college football.
That’s what a first impression of Washington State football coach Mike Leach is more like.
You know, the 1970s TV detective. The unusual syncopation, even hesitation, in his words. The oddly asked questions. The hands in the pockets. The scuffling of feet as he glances around at his settings, looking like he might be, well … lost. Or at least some place he shouldn’t probably be.
Even the way he dresses. Except that Columbo – with the disheveled rain coat and the suit that never quite fit right – was probably a better dresser than Leach.
Yet by the end of each episode, you realize the guy you almost certainly underestimated at the beginning of the show was also probably the smartest guy in the room.
Just like Leach.
Serious football fans know he is an offensive genius. There aren’t many college passing records that Leach’s “Air Raid” offense hasn’t completely destroyed. Other college coaches explain how “in awe” they are of his ability to read a passing game.
But Leach isn’t just X’s and O’s smart. He’s book smart. At the age of 25, he graduated near the top of his Pepperdine law class. He’s a voracious reader. Including the Bible – 10 pages of the King James version before most games.
He loves to travel and is a real history buff. Always wants to learn new things.
In fact, right now, he’s learning Spanish. On his iPhone.
Don’t laugh. He’s getting pretty good.
All of this explains why in the middle of preparing for probably one of the most-anticipated seasons in Cougar football history, Leach jumped at the chance to tour Fairchild Air Force Base.
How often does a guy fascinated with the military and with battle strategies get a chance for a private mission briefing with a base commander? Not to mention a tour of not just the base, but of its larger-than-life aircraft?
This is exactly the sort of stuff that excites Leach. Because he knows he’s going to learn something. And that’s how you get this guy’s attention.
Walking into a large briefing room filled with screens and lined with Airmen in fatigues at Fairchild is exactly the way a diehard Coug fan feels walking into Martin Stadium on a crisp Saturday fall afternoon.
Excitement. Maybe a bit of anxiousness. Definitely a bit of wonderment.
When Col. Ryan Samuelson begins to explain the base’s mission and its role not just within the Air Force, but as a “global power projection platform,” you immediately sense the mixture of calm confidence and deep knowledge that makes you want to ask the base commander questions … because you just know he has the answers.
And Leach asks questions. Not in the way a “know-it-all” might sound. Just the opposite. Like someone who really wants to understand something.
At that moment, everyone in the room looks around kinda like you do when you’re not sure if you’re at some place for a lecture or a discussion. A little like at church on Sunday when someone starts singing a little too loud.
Samuelson not only answers Leach’s questions but side conversations break out between the two throughout the rest of the briefing.
Once the tour moves to the base’s massive hangars, it’s clear to everyone that Leach can’t wait to talk with the Airmen who work on the huge refueling tankers. What makes it all even better is that many of them grew up loving Washington State football, and hanging out with Leach is, well, it’s pretty dang cool.
It’s not just Airmen who love talking with Leach.
Other coaches do, as well.
Mark Mangino knows a thing or two about Leach. The two coached together as assistants at Oklahoma. The Sooners won a national championship running Leach’s high-flying offense.
Then the two coached against each other in the Big 12 as both turned traditional weaklings at Kansas and Texas Tech into highly respected Top 10 programs.
The first thing Mangino says is that the media and public rarely see the Leach that others see.
“When you talk with Mike, he’s the one who asks the questions,” Mangino said with a laugh. “He loves to learn new things, and if he figures out that you know something that he’d like to know more about, then he’s going to start asking.
“But if you’re lucky enough to get him to tell you a story, you’re going to be on the floor laughing. He knows how to tell a story.”
Mangino said it’s not Leach’s story-telling skills or his ability to ask a smart question that makes him such a great coach. There are some things that can’t be taught.
The 2007 national coach of the year while leading the Jayhawks said Leach has made a major impact on football at all levels.
“The way Mike approached the game in the beginning was so cutting edge that it’s still absolutely relevant now,” Mangino said. “He has this core group of plays that you know he’s going to run. He has stayed with a handful of plays that he believes in and he believes excellence comes with repetition.
“That’s what he does. His players know those plays inside and out and they know exactly how to execute them. That’s how he wins games, even when you know what he’s going to do.”
Washington State athletic director Bill Moos couldn’t agree more with Mangino.
“I swear Mike only has 20 football plays,” Moos said, followed by one of his characteristic big laughs. “It’s simple. It’s all about focus. Do your job. Win your battle. Execute properly. Be in good condition. Discipline is important. And it works.”
Moos likes to talk about how Leach is joined at the hip with his quarterback. And when your quarterback also is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, that doesn’t seem like a bad strategy.
Once the play is called from Leach – who also is basically the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach for the Cougars – his quarterback can change the play if he sees a better opportunity. Which leads to one of Moos’ favorite observations about WSU’s surprising running game last season.
“I would venture to say that a running play in the Cougar offense has never been called from the sideline. That happens at the line of scrimmage when the quarterback sees what they are giving you and then attacks it. And it just drives people nuts.”
“But if we run, my bet is Mike didn’t call it.”
That idea makes Moos laugh out loud again.
When Moos first met Leach after the Cougars’ disappointing 2011 season, he flew to Key West to meet the eccentric coach. It was supposed to be an informal meeting.
Leach took the “informal” part seriously. Which is why he showed up in cargo shorts, an old T-shirt and flip flops.
Even Columbo knew to wear a suit.
Flashback to that day a few weeks ago at Fairchild.
It was a day filled with a tight schedule. Leach was pressed for time. He had a team to prepare back in Pullman. His handlers were told he absolutely had to be back on campus by a very specific time.
The problem was Leach didn’t care. He was learning and he loved it.
But everyone knew he needed to leave. Then he said it.
“Just one more question.”
In that moment, you couldn’t help but do a double take.
The new-millennium Columbo is now coaching football on the Palouse. And “there’s just one more thing” he’d like to know.