Quirky Mike Leach soundbites in … July?
The college football world won’t have to wait until the official start of the 2019 season to hear from the famously eccentric Washington State coach, who’s entering his eighth season in Pullman this fall and 18th as a head coach in the Football Subdivision.
This Sunday at 6 a.m. PT, ESPN will air a highly-anticipated E:60 feature profiling Leach. The network’s 11-time Sports Emmy winning journalist, Jeremy Schaap, visited rural Cody, Wyoming, for a glimpse of Leach in his hometown, traveled to Pullman to see the coach at work, then made the trek to warm Key West, Florida, to spend time with Leach in the midst of the college football offseason.
“When people write the Mike Leach obituary, how do you want to be remembered?” Schaap asks Leach in one portion of the segment.
“Well that’s their problem, they’re the one writing the obituary,” Leach responded. “What do I care, I’m dead.”
Earlier this week, we caught up with Schaap over the phone to talk about a project that’s been two years in the making. The renowned sports journalist shares a few anecdotes about his experience with Leach, provides a rave review of a certain Pullman eatery and shares why his first visit to the WSU campus was so meaningful.
Spokesman-Review: When did you start working on this feature and who forged the concept?
Jeremy Schaap: “I don’t remember whose idea it was. It certainly wasn’t my idea, but I think it was one of those things where I said, ‘Oh, we can get Mike Leach.’ It was probably Frankie Saraceno, who produced the piece. Mike’s one of those guys who’s been on our radar a long time because there’s a lot there. I don’t remember how long it was discussed, before he was approached or any of that. But it was a natural fit and we started working on it – Frank might have done that even before I did. But I went out to Cody to be with Mike in May of 2018, so I did three trips for it. We just got a lot of access with Mike. That was one of the things that really appealed. Not only is he an interesting guy, not only is he obviously a successful coach, not only is he controversial, but he’s also willing to give you access. Or at least, he was willing to give us a ton of access, which is so important when you’re doing these kinds of in-depth profiles. Frankly, there aren’t too many people in the world of sports, whether you’re talking about top athletes or top coaches – anybody these days – who I’ve been around recently who’s as willing to kind of let you in as Mike, who I guess, that’s a deal of courage of his convictions and isn’t afraid to speak his mind. And certainly it’s come back to bite him a few times, but that’s just kind of his MO. And boy when you get the chance to do a story who’s actually unafraid to be different and to be a non-conformist and to say what’s on their mind, those opportunities are few and far between.”
SR: Was this a story you jumped at knowing how polarizing of a figure Mike Leach can be?
JS: “I was thrilled. He’d been part of the picture for a long time and although at this point most sports fans in the U.S. know Mike Leach, I hadn’t really seen kind of an in-depth look at him in a long time. I know “60 Minutes” did a profile when he was still at Texas Tech. Obviously a lot of water under the bridge since then, but I always found it interesting, too, with Hal Mumme going back 20 years ago covering that Kentucky team when Mumme and Leach were together. Leach was the (offensive) coordinator and I didn’t even know him. Tim Couch was the No. 1 overall pick and it’s interesting to me because, there’s a lot of ways that Mike is interesting but as far as I know he’s the only guy with a law degree coaching – well I guess this is what we have to call it now, FBS, although I still call it IA. I think he might be the only guy coaching IA who didn’t play college football. He’s probably the only one I think who has written a biography of Geronimo. There’s just a lot there. You know who I feel bad about, he’s out in Pullman and I didn’t get a chance to call him, but Buddy Levy is an old friend of mine who wrote the Geronimo book with Mike. I’m a history buff, maybe not quite at Mike’s level but I try and so anybody who has kind of that element to their personality also interests me. So when I went out to see him in Cody the first time, first of all I jumped at this opportunity, I got Montana for the first time. I’d never been to Montana before, so I flew into Billings. Checked that off my list. And then I drove over into Wyoming, into Cody, knowing that Mike is especially an aficionado of the Old West, I got a chance to read Evan Connell’s famous biography of George Custer, Son of the Morning Star. I told myself I was going to go to the Little Bighorn site. I was thinking, maybe we should drag Mike there but that might have been too symbolic for our purposes. I was looking forward to just talking to a guy who knows so much about so many different things.”
SR: Was it always the plan to shoot in three locations, or did you finish in Cody and realize you needed to visit the other two?
JS: “Yeah, the plan was always to go to at least those three. Because they’re an important element to this story. There’s Mike at work, which is Pullman obviously. There’s Mike where he’s from, which is Cody more than anyplace else. Then there’s Mike where he’s relaxing. When he’s off the clock. And Key West is that place for him. It’s fun to be in Key West with Mike Leach. If he’s not quite the mayor, he certainly seems like he’s got a key to the city or something. It was actually a year ago this week I was down there and it was hot as hell. I think I melted going from our hotel a couple blocks away to Mike’s place. But it was fun and we went out on the boat and we saw the sun set and he let his hair down a little bit. It went great. It’s also important that there are controversies there. He understands when you do this kind of story, you’re going to address them. So that element gives him some layers, too. It’s not a one-note story.”
SR: Why was now the right time to do this story?
JS: “It seemed like a good time. I’m not sure it would’ve been a good time five years ago, but I think in the last five years he’s been the Coach of the Year twice in the Pac-12. One year I guess tied with David Shaw. He’s the reigning Pac-12 Coach of the Year, they had a great season in ’18, he’s as relevant as ever before. And for a guy who’s done this much at this level for this long – what, 17 seasons now as a head coach in DI. He’s only 59, or 58. He’s not even 60. I wouldn’t hold me on this because I’m not sure, but I think maybe the Tennessee stuff was going on when we started thinking about it at first. Maybe not. I don’t really remember the exact timing, but to me Mike Leach is just – you look out at the landscape, you’re looking for college football stories this time of year with the season coming up and he’s clearly one of the most intriguing if not the most intriguing guys in the game.”
SR: What did you learn about Mike throughout this process? What was your impression of him before the story and what’s your impression now?
JS: “I think I knew the Mike Leach from the quirky press conferences and I guess before I went to meet him, obviously I read his book he wrote with Bruce. I remember the controversies, Craig James and Adam James. I knew him from all those clips that you’d see and it’s different when you spend time with him. My question was, is he really this guy? Is it kind of a show? Is it something we in the media kind of chin up because there aren’t too many people who lend themselves to that kind of story we do where he says this, he says that, you can ask him all these goofy questions and he’ll talk about UFOs and sasquatches. I think the thing I learned spending time with him when the cameras weren’t rolling is that what you see really seems to be what you get and that it’s not some kind of put on and the willingness to go other places other people won’t go is part of his character. I think meeting people who knew him when he was growing up. He’s got this – I think we’re calling him the outsider, but he’s got this different perspective and if there’s one profession I think people kind of assume you’ve got a lot of conformity, we’re doing this because we’ve always done it this way thinking, might be coaching. And certainly football coaching. He’s different. He’s a guy who does step back and look at things differently and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact he’s worked at so many different places that shaped him. That he wasn’t the big man on campus at any point in his life. That he is a trained lawyer. You ask him questions, he’s got a legalistic mind. … And he’s had tremendous success in two places where we say it’s not always easy to win. It’s one thing to win at Alabama or Notre Dame or USC. Not everyone can do it, but a lot fewer have been able to do it at Texas Tech and in Pullman. So there’s something there and when you spend time with him, I guess my point is you get this sense of how he does approach everything with the attitude of, how can I do this differently? How can I look at it differently? And how have people in the past approached it and should I be approaching it the same way or a different way? That’s interesting. I think the other interesting thing is, like a lot of smart people and smart successful people, I think he can sometimes perhaps take his own convictions too far and push the edge of the envelope. Whether it’s the way he designs offenses or what he feels he can do as a coach in terms of expressing himself on things that don’t have to do with football. And he feels comfortable with that because he is smart and he is well-educated and he is eclectic. But it doesn’t mean everyone wants to hear his opinion on everything.”
SR: Did you guys dig into the more controversial subjects, such as his departure at Texas Tech or opinions on Donald Trump?
JS: “Yeah, we certainly covered his departure from Texas Tech and the Adam James situation. And we certainly cover what happened with the tweet last year and that stuff, and his willingness to dive into politics. … Unlike most college football coaches that want to stay in their lane, Mike is always sallying forth. He doesn’t even show a reluctance to thrust himself into the world of politics and for the people at the institutions that employ him, that has proven at times to be problematic.”
SR: Do you have good behind-the-scenes stories you can share from the time you spent with Mike?
JS: “I’m trying to remember. I really thought it was a lot of fun in Cody. I’d say maybe the thing I’ll remember best was, I love the fact that when we got to Cody, Mike was insisting that we interview Alan Simpson. And it’s a small town that has produced a lot of famous, important people and none more so than Alan Simpson, the iconic senator from Cody. The political family in Cody. His father was I think the governor as well, might have also served in congress. So we went over to Alan Simpson’s house and it was fun spending time. I think Mike came over, too, and Mike played high school football with Alan’s son, who I think was the speaker of the Wyoming house at one point. There’s the state championship team pictures up at Alan Simpson’s house, so just getting some time to hang out with a Wyoming legend like Alan Simpson and Mike Leach at the same time was really, really cool. There’s a bite in the piece and I think at one point we were going to take it out. But I also went to interview Mike’s high school coach. Great guy. I think it’s in the piece. I say to him at one point, ‘What was Mike like? What kind of contributions did he make?’ And he said, ‘Well, he was mostly a bench player for us, but we always knew he wanted to be a coach, always had a coach’s mind.’ He was coaching little league baseball at the time when he was 15. I said, ‘Well, is there a play or anything he did on the field that really stands out for you?’ He says, ‘No.’ That’s where it comes from, it’s that Old West mentality. It’s kind of no bullshit.”
SR: Mike is known to ride his bike all over Key West. Did you go on a ride with him while you were there?
JS: “We didn’t ride around on the bikes, but we went on a boat for an afternoon. He’s got a friend who’s got a boat who seems to know the Keys like the back of his hand. We got to hang out and have a few beers and just kind of talk about the history of Key West, obviously the history of piracy there. Which everyone knows Mike is well-versed on. I had to give him credit, though, he sent me to a steakhouse, he sent me to a restaurant in Pullman. … I had maybe the best meal in had in 2018 at Black Cypress by myself one night. It was just outstanding. So I’ve got to give him credit for that. Oh my god, it was awesome. Better than any restaurant I ate at in 2018, that’s for sure. All of his restaurant picks – to me, this is really the ultimate way to judge someone’s character. All the restaurant picks were good. He sent me to some pizza place in Key West that was really good one night. It was fun. We got to see a lot of the history in Cody. They had this museum there, where it’s just old structures from the Old West that had been moved there brick by brick or plank by plank. We walked through one of the clubhouses for the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang. It was kind of nice just having a guided tour of the Old West from Mike.”
SR: Was that your first time in Pullman?
JS: “I had never been to Pullman before or Spokane. I’m also doing a Drew Bledsoe story, so all the sudden I was in Eastern Washington, I was in Walla Walla for a few days. I think it was right after I saw Leach, I was in Walla Walla a few weeks later.”
SR: What was your lasting impression of Pullman?
JS: “So the Black Cypress was good. Really good. Then the other thing about Mike, as you know he drinks a lot of coffee. And we did the walk one day, from his home, downtown and went to a good coffee spot right there on the corner of the main drag. We did that, that was good. I didn’t get to see too much of the school, but as somebody who’s a fan of broadcasting history as well, the Edward R. Murrow/Keith Jackson alma mater, that was an important place to visit. Arguably the two greatest ever at what they did. What was it called back in the 20’s and early 30’s? Teacher’s College? Was it Washington Teacher’s College or something? It wasn’t Washington State back then.”
SR: Well, it was Washington State College for some time. I don’t remember what it was before then.
JS: “I think when Murrow went there it was something different. So you kind of have to pay your respects. It was good, we had a good time.”
SR: Anything else we’d want to know about your visits with Mike?
JS: “I’m trying to think. He has a chair named after him at Captain Tony’s down there in Key West, which is nice. I was impressed with his ability to stay cool. It is interesting, right, you’re a college football coach and you’ve only got a little bit of time off when you’re not scouting and you’re not coaching and all of that, and his place to go is Key West. He’s essentially I guess a reverse snowbird. You’ve got to be tough if you’re going to hang out in Key West in June and July. It is … hot. It is really hot, but he’s rugged and he knows a lot about a lot of different things and he is willing to be questioned about that, which I think is an impressive quality.”