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Sports >  WSU football

Commentary: Mike Leach was as complicated as all of us

Dec. 13, 2022 Updated Tue., Dec. 13, 2022 at 9:51 p.m.

By Jacob Thorpe For The Spokesman-Review

People are many things. Mike Leach certainly was.

I am not going to pretend to have some superior insight into the depth of character of Mike Leach, who died on Monday following a heart attack. This column is not a verdict on Leach. I don’t think I could do that for anyone – certainly not in a column the length of a sixth-grader’s essay. Definitely not someone who can no longer defend himself.

But here are some reflections from a former beat reporter who spent a lot of time around Leach when he was the Washington State football coach. Like all of us, Leach was many things. Not all of them good.

To reflect on Leach’s life, and the many lives he strove to live (author, lawyer, football coach, philosopher) is to hold up a mirror. To the media, he could be incredibly dismissive, showing up 45 minutes late to interviews and trivializing livelihoods. Other times, he gave unparalleled access to himself and uncommon depth in his answers. We all do stuff like that. His best and worst impulses were just so public.

As a reporter, I admired and envied his genuine curiosity about everything. That was real. He liked to know things and show what he knew.

He once spent 40 minutes during a quarterback film session telling me, an observer, what my then-girlfriend could expect at law school. The quarterbacks hated that.

Leach was an intellect who remains celebrated by his peers not just for his innovations in the use of space and the Air Raid offense. He broke established dogma among football coaches with a tiny playbook and practices based on technique and repetition rather than physical exertion.

He also could be cruel to those with less power , and punched down often. It bothered a lot of people when he didn’t seem to know the names of his own players.

Just last week, a Mississippi State player conspicuously called out Leach specifically when announcing his decision to transfer saying, “I am not very tough, and Leach is glad I’m leaving.” There were similar departures from WSU. Many of the players who stayed loved him dearly.

And one of his most-underrated gifts was his ability to see something in people and bring out the best in them. The list of assistant coaches he hired first who went on to great success is incredible. Really incredible. He had the same effect on quarterbacks, creating record-setting careers for players who had not caught the notice of many other recruiters.

He was undoubtedly a courageous person. There are not many of us who would go to law school, get the degree, and promptly switch gears to the bottom of the coaching profession in a sport we did not play. Nor would many of us leave millions of dollars on the table by refusing to apologize on principle, when we believed we had been wronged as Leach did during the Texas Tech saga. He was stubborn. He backed it up.

The worst version of Leach I saw was at the final news conference of a forgettable season, when he mocked a reporter in front of his peers for his lack of career advancement. It was personal, mean and unprovoked.

That reporter later told me that during one of the worst days of his life, sometime after that news conference, Leach walked him home and spent hours processing this reporter’s sadness, giving him words of encouragement and recommended readings that had helped Leach through similar low moments. The reporter considered Leach a friend, and someone who had helped him immensely.

What a contradiction.

He was full of inconsistencies. He, like all coaches, wanted his players to have an insular focus on the success of the team and to block external distractions. Early in his time at WSU, he instituted a teamwide ban on Twitter.

A few years later, he gave a keynote speech at a Donald Trump rally. It created distractions.

The biggest mystery of Leach was his incredible success. He took three resource-burdened schools, from three Power Five conferences, to significantly more success than they had achieved before he got there.

It was one thing to do it at Texas Tech with a brand-new style of offense. By the time he got to WSU, the Air Raid offense he and Hal Mumme invented was stale. He kept running the unevolved version anyway, and set records doing so. There are hundreds of football coaches that try an equal number of ways to lead their programs.

Somehow, his combination of gruff demeanor, simple playbook, humor and detachment just kept winning games. You could spend a lifetime wondering why.

At Mississippi State, he proved he could win in the SEC. After a decade of failures in rivalry games, I’m glad he beat the University of Mississippi in his final outing.

In a profession full of clones and caricatures, Leach was an individual.

I still don’t know if I liked the man. But I sure will miss him. May his memory be a blessing.

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