PULLMAN – The conference table is covered with lunch fixings – meat, side dishes, dinner rolls. Help yourself, Mike Leach says, sipping his coffee, depth charts and notes and printouts scattered before him.
On this mid-August day, with Washington State’s football team knee-deep in training camp, it’s hard to say how long Leach has been in his office – “a glorified hallway, really,” he calls it – but it’s obvious he’s made this space in the Bohler athletic complex his temporary home.
His son, Cody, is seated at dad’s desk watching television. It’s Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, and Leach stops this mini-tour long enough to comment on the programming.
Of course he does. The show is about hogfish, which, as informed Leach followers already know, are a favorite meal of the WSU coach, a staple of his diet during the two years he spent away from coaching in Key West, Fla.
“Oh, those are awesome,” Leach says with no lack of enthusiasm. “Hogfish are awesome.”
On the wall there is some sort of skull-and-crossbones creation with a crimson “WSU” painted across the forehead, a souvenir sent to Leach by a fan, though you’re going to ask who and he just can’t remember.
The coach has proposed renderings for a new football operations building displayed next to his desk. He gestures to the drawing and proudly rattles off the features from memory.
There’s the weight room, here’s the equipment room, the coaches’ office. Leach’s path to Pullman is marked by innovation and adversity, more of the former than the latter. But after two years spent commentating, analyzing, book-writing and fishing, Leach is back in the game.
This is home now.
“I think it’s a refreshing change for Mike, and he’s going to be in a place that he really likes,” said Leach’s father, Frank. “The people, the ones I’ve met, they’re just great. I think it’s a good fit.”
Why wouldn’t it be? Leach’s personality gets plenty of attention. But his offense, the famed “Air Raid” passing attack, has fit everywhere he’s tried it.
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Brigham Young was completing a historic comeback over Southern Methodist in the 1980 Holiday Bowl, and Hal Mumme watched, intrigued, as the Cougars threw the ball all over the field en route to 446 passing yards and a 46-45 win.
Leach was in his second year as an undergraduate at BYU – WSU’s first opponent in the Leach era, a nationally televised, 7 p.m. game airing on ESPN tonight – six years away from obtaining a law degree from Pepperdine.
“I don’t know what that guy in Provo is doing,” Mumme remembers thinking at the time. “But I’m going to find out.”
The rest is history, of course, as Mumme and Leach, who wound up working together for 10 years at Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State and Kentucky, began making expeditions to Provo to learn how coach LaVell Edwards’ offense worked, making their own tweaks and adjustments as they saw fit.
“There’s no question he had a huge influence on me,” Leach said of Edwards. “More than probably I can articulate, because there’s probably things just through observation I copy or aspire toward that I’m not aware of, I don’t think.”
Mumme was a big influence in his own right. He left Copperas Cove High School in Texas in 1989 to take the head coaching job at tiny NAIA Iowa Wesleyan, because, as he put it, “they were just really bad, and they had offered that job to most high school coaches in Iowa and they’d turned it down.”
Mumme, who had an opening for an offensive line coach, received a note and a resume from a young man with a Pepperdine law degree, an intriguing candidate who didn’t play college football but had been a small-time assistant coach for two years.
But that’s not what caught Mumme’s eye.
“He was from BYU,” Mumme said.
Mumme’s offense at Copperas Cove was based off BYU’s air-it-out style. He turned down coordinator jobs at other small colleges because none were willing to grant him total control of the team’s offense.
At Iowa Wesleyan, that’s exactly what he had, along with a sidekick unconventional enough to go along with it.
“In those days,” Mumme said, “most people would have thought I was crazy.”
Not Leach. Though not a particularly skilled player in high school as a linebacker and receiver, he’d long been fascinated with college football, and especially with teams willing to throw the ball more than they ran it.
Florida State, Leach said, intrigued him as a kid. They were explosive and had a cool mascot.
“And,” Leach said after giving a history lesson about FSU’s famed sod cemetery, “they threw the ball more than anybody else.”
His decision to attend BYU was based mostly on academics, though Leach was and still is a practicing Mormon. He attended some football games – “not every game, but I went to a lot” – and even then watched with a keener eye than most students. Those Cougars used space in a way he’d never seen, and that intrigued him.
Law school at Pepperdine resulted in a Juris Doctorate, but Leach decided before he finished that he wasn’t going to be an attorney.
His wife, Sharon, whom he met at BYU, tells it this way: “He told me, ‘do you want me to be successful, make a lot of money being an attorney and come home and be miserable every night? Or do you want me to go into coaching and maybe not make us much money and be happy when I come home every night?’”
There were plenty of happy times at Texas Tech, where in 10 seasons as head coach Leach led the Red Raiders to 10 bowl games, gaining national fame as a quirky, trail-blazing figure who helped change the way college football is played.
Then he was fired. Texas Tech claims that he commanded a concussed player – Adam James, the son of former ESPN analyst and failed Texas Senate candidate Craig James – to stand in a storage closet. Leach vehemently denies that accusation, and is suing the school, ESPN and a communications firm in an attempt to clear his name.
The move to Key West was good for him, Sharon says, but it took some getting used to. It was hard on their two youngest children. Lubbock was all they knew.
“It was hard not having a team,” Sharon said. “We’ve always had a team. For two years we didn’t have a team, so that was tough.”
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Leach didn’t spend much time dwelling on it, but he swears the 2010 season could have been his best at Texas Tech.
Their 2009 defense was one of his best to begin with, Leach says, and they were young, too.
“It was disappointing, because I knew there was a high potential level to that team,” he said.
Maybe that’s why he’s so confident he can succeed long-term at Washington State. No coach in the modern era has. Not the way Leach did at Tech, anyway.
“I always look at just doing the best I can every day and have your players do that, and just do it consistently, and the results pretty much take care of themselves,” Leach said.
“Tech only got to go to 10 bowls in a row,” Mumme said sarcastically. “Apparently, they just got tired of it. I’m sure Washington State won’t.”
And Leach has something here he didn’t in Lubbock.
“You don’t have much of that bureaucratic turf war stuff,” Leach said. “Everybody pulls the same way. I think a lot of that has to do with the leadership here. That’s where it’s prevented. That’s where the vision’s set.”
It’s his vision now. Leach may have battled TTU administration, but athletic director Bill Moos has given him carte blanche to do with WSU’s program what he pleases.
The changes are not subtle. Four players have been dismissed in nine months for violating team rules. Practices are closed. Players are off-limits to media during the week.
Yes, Leach has made this program his home.
He’s the toast of this college town, perhaps the biggest celebrity the Palouse has ever seen.
“It’s strange to say, but it felt right,” Sharon said. “That’s what I would tell him. It just seemed like this is where we need to be, or where we should be. That’s kind of why we ended up here.”
By doing so, Leach has accomplished the remarkable.
He’s already won Pullman without coaching a game.