Batten down the hatches — here comes the Pirate of the Palouse
With Mike Leach coaching the Cougars, things shouldn't be boring at Washington State, on or off the football field.
Seattle Times staff reporter
What's the explanation for Leach's fascination with pirates? Find that out and more in an excerpt from the coach's autobiography, "Swing Your Sword: Leading the Charge in Football and Life."
Cougars coaching historyMike Leach becomes the 32nd coach at Washington State, a school with its share of colorful coaches. Some of the previous notable Cougars coaches:
William "Lone Star" Dietz led Washington State to its only Rose Bowl win, a 14-0 victory over Brown in the 1916 game. He also coached at Purdue, Louisiana Tech, Wyoming and Albright College, and with the Boston Redskins in the NFL.
The winningest coach in school history led the Cougars to the 1931 Rose Bowl, where they lost 24-0 to Alabama. Washington State didn't lose a home game from 1926 to '35 during his watch. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
After five successful seasons at Montana State and before a long run at Fresno State, Sweeney had eight mostly unsuccessful years in Pullman. Current Cougars athletic director Bill Moos was the captain of Sweeney's only winning team at WSU (7-4 in 1972).
After 51 years without a bowl bid, Walden lead the 1981 Cougars to the Holiday Bowl. WSU lost to a Jim McMahon-led BYU team, 38-36. Between 1982 and '85, Walden's team won three of four Apple Cups.
Erickson led the Cougars to their first bowl win since the 1931 Rose Bowl, a 24-22 victory over Houston in the Aloha Bowl. But after just two seasons, he left for Miami.
The Cougars made it to five bowl games in Price's 14 seasons, winning three of them. The two bowl losses were in the Rose Bowl — 21-16 to Michigan in 1998 and 34-14 to Oklahoma in 2003.
Mike Leach had just gotten the Texas Tech coaching job in 1999 when he and an assistant coach flew from Lubbock down to Odessa to recruit a decorated receiver named Roy Williams.
"Amazing looking kid," said Manny Matsakis, the former assistant.
They told him they'd throw the ball all over the place at Texas Tech, and at the end, they told him, "Before we're done, we're going to beat Texas."
Of course, Williams went on to a prolific career at Texas. But on a November night in 2002, Tech beat the Longhorns, 42-38, and afterward, Williams met Matsakis at midfield and shook his hand.
"He goes, 'Coach, nothing against the University of Texas, but if I had it to do over again,' " Matsakis recalls, " 'I'd have come to Texas Tech.' "
But for what? For the 65 passes the Red Raiders sometimes threw at opponents? For the card trick the head coach regularly plays on recruits? For a window into the eclectic soul of Mike Leach, who is as apt to be up late at night discussing 18th-century pirates or the politics of Herman Cain as he is the options on the forward-passing tree?
Here's the advisory from Hal Mumme, Leach's old passing co-conspirator, on what's in store at Washington State, which just hired Leach:
"You're going to have more fun than you ever had."
Apparently, it's not going to be boring, on the field or off, and you suspect that's exactly what athletic director Bill Moos had in mind.
"If you ever want to sit down with him," says Wes Welker, the New England Patriots receiver, "take a seat. You could be there for a while."
To read his 2011 biography, "Swing Your Sword," and then to hook up with some of Leach's old players, coaches and cronies is to realize that a school with a long tradition of characters might have just signed the king of them.
"He's infinitely curious about everything," says actor Matthew McConaughey, a friend, in Leach's book.
Leach, son of a forester, grew up mostly in the mountain West. In Cody, Wyo., he idolized Bart Starr and Billy Martin. Raised Mormon, he went to Brigham Young and was fascinated by the offense there, but didn't play football, one of few such major-college coaches.
He got a law degree from Pepperdine, but mulling a career path, something told him to write to the famed trial lawyer Gerry Spence.
"Was it worth it?" Leach relates in his book. "Do you love law? Do you hate law?"
Spence wrote back: "If you are consumed by law, go be an attorney. If you are not, find something else."
So Leach got an advanced degree at the U.S. Sports Academy in Daphne, Ala., then convinced his wife, Sharon, whom he had met at BYU, to take a flyer on a part-time football assistant's job at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo — at $3,000 a year.
In the late 1980s, he heard Mumme was looking for an offensive coordinator at bare-bones Iowa Wesleyan.
"I only had like two or three people even interested," Mumme says. "I got his résumé and saw it had BYU on it. At least he had some familiarity with the offense.
"We had more fun than anybody deserves. It was a blast."
Mike and Sharon Leach lived in a trailer. "Not a double-wide," Mumme says. "A camp trailer, like you pull behind your car. Some guy donated it to the booster club, and they set it up in a campground. I'm not sure what it was used for before Mike and Sharon had it. It probably wasn't anything good."
They won there, and it all took off. Mumme and Leach were at Valdosta State from 1992 to '96, setting all sorts of passing records. Mumme got hired as Kentucky's coach and Leach went with him, and they had future No. 1 NFL pick Tim Couch at quarterback.
Then Leach split with Mumme and joined Bob Stoops' staff at Oklahoma in 1999. He was there just a year — "I think Bob thought he could keep him a little bit longer than he did," Mumme says — before Texas Tech hired him.
In wind-swept west Texas, Leach went 84-43 and got his teams in 10 straight bowl games. One year, Tech scored 70 on Texas Christian and then did it again three weeks later against Nebraska. The Raiders put up all sorts of astronomical numbers, using what Mumme says is a spread offense heavy on BYU accent but with elements of the Mouse Davis/June Jones run-and-shoot, in which receivers and quarterbacks have options depending on the defense.
Welker clicks off the hot offenses of today — Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Houston, West Virginia — and says, "They're all his scheme."
Several NFL players from Texas Tech contacted by The Times spoke enthusiastically of Leach.
"I don't think you could ask for a better coach," said Manny Ramirez, a guard for the Denver Broncos.
"I don't care if you're an All-American or a walk-on, he'll treat you the same," says Daniel Loper, a Cowboys offensive tackle.
"If you talk to the guy, you'll see he's on another level intellectually," says center Dylan Gandy of the Detroit Lions. "But he's not pretentious or pompous in any way. He's very approachable."
A few years ago, a coach at Fairfax High in Virginia named Larry Basalyga liked what Oklahoma was doing offensively, so he took a trip out to the school's spring coaching clinic and spent time with Josh Heupel, the OU assistant whom Leach had helped coach. He prodded Heupel for more detail, and Heupel finally said, "You need to go to Lubbock."
So Basalyga did, in 2007 and 2008.
"Mike would answer any question you had," Basalyga says. "We sat there all night long. He's just a very genuine person. You can't get any coaching time from any of the coaches here in Virginia. Frank Beamer (Virginia Tech coach) or Al Groh (former Virginia coach), unless they're recruiting one of your players, they don't want to have anything to do with you.
"If I can get the money together, I'll be out there this spring (in Pullman). I've already got about 10 coaches who have contacted me. At first they were joking. Then they said, 'We're on board.' "
As Leach's career flowered at Tech, so did his reputation as somebody not interested only in football. He writes that he has read some 20 books on pirates. A 2005 New York Times Magazine piece on him noted that some offseasons, he'll fixate on one subject — whales, chimpanzees — and flesh it out thoroughly.
It was in a 2003 team meeting — "hilarious," Ramirez recalls — that he exhorted the Red Raiders to "swing your sword." Drawing on a pirate theme, Leach said they viewed swords like football players prize their own bodies, and they needed to use them at their most efficient, ruthless best.
"He got his point across better than anyone I've ever seen," receiver Eric Morris says in Leach's book. "Sometimes in team meetings, we're talking about a football play, then the next thing you know, he's talking about pirates and swords or a dog peeing on his tent when he was a little kid. People would be looking around like, 'Where's he going with this one?' "
Leach became known for gaudy graduation rates after the school endured an ugly academic scandal before his arrival. In 2008, to reinforce his emphasis on studies for one recalcitrant player, he put a desk on the 50-yard line and made him read during practice.
But Mike Leach isn't for everybody. In 2008, he began to have a falling-out with Texas Tech chancellor Kent Hance over a new contract, and it was that season when he was known to be exploring other jobs, including the vacancy when Tyrone Willingham was fired at Washington.
He signed a new contract in February 2009, but it did little to ease tensions there. And Leach maintains that an $800,000 bonus due on the last day of 2009 was the underlying reason for his firing late that year, allegedly for mistreating player Adam James, son of ESPN analyst Craig James, by directing him to an equipment shed to treat a concussion during practice.
Leach sued Texas Tech, ESPN and a PR firm hired by James over the matter, and his book includes emails and deposition testimony backing his case.
One is from former regent Windy Sitton to regents vice chairman Jerry Turner: "How in the world can the regents justify suspending, much less firing Mike Leach, over this issue? Jerry, I know his firing has been in the works since the chancellor and the AD (Gerald Myers) were outmaneuvered by Leach. Everyone sees through this injustice to Mike Leach and Texas Tech."
A Tech spokesman declined The Seattle Times' request for a comment, citing the pending lawsuit.
Mumme, asked about the saga, says, "Craig James is an (expletive), and everybody in Texas knows it. His son's an (expletive), and you can quote me. I was at New Mexico State, and we turned (Adam) down. Nobody would give that guy a scholarship except Mike Leach.
"I promise you, most people in Texas know the true story."
Mumme is asked for an anecdote to describe Leach. He recalls a recruiting trip they took long ago, flying into Orlando and all the way down to Key West and back. On the return trip, Mumme said idly, "You know, there's some jobs coming open; I should try to get a bigger one. I think The Citadel's (the South Carolina military school) open."
Leach looked at Mumme.
"I don't want to play Army," he said whimsically. "I want to play pirate."
Mike Leach — the Pirate of the Palouse? The Bohler Buccaneer? — is coming to Pullman. Batten down the hatches.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org