December 30, 2009
In an overwhelmingly conformist sport, Mike Leach has stood so far apart from anyone else in terms of color, personality and practiced unorthodoxy over the last decade that his sudden fall from grace as Texas Tech's coach in a span of less than 72 hours has come with an appropriately ramshackle feel: How else would college football's reigning oddball go out except amidst allegations of isolating the concussed son of a high profile media personality in a shed, a flurry of media speculation and a legal fight against the university that's only beginning to ramp up? The simple justice of Leach's ouster in the Adam James Affair has already passed into the realm of the eye of the beholder -- certainly Red Raider fans seem to be sharpening the pitchforks -- but from a purely narrative point of view, it would have been almost a shame if the swashbuckling, straight-talking Pirate Coach had just, you know, retired or something.
On the other hand, Leach has emerged from his mostly buttoned-down, politician-like peers as such a singularly fascinating, complex figure in terms of his public persona -- and a successful one, professionally -- that distilling his impact and legacy at Texas Tech into one, single idea doesn't seem possible. (Or, if it is possible, it doesn't seem right.) At minimum, he's weaved three distinct threads:
Leach as architect. The most obvious and conventional virtue of Leach's tenure was his reign over the most successful decade in Texas Tech history, by far. His Raiders put together eight straight seasons with at least eight wins, smashing the previous school record of two; they beat Texas twice and knocked off Oklahoma on three OU straight trips into Lubbock; they played in back-to-back January bowl games for the first time in 70 years; and in 2008 alone they tied a school record for wins, knocked off a No. 1-ranked opponent for the first time ever and matched the highest final poll finish in Tech history. This year was the first in Leach's tenure that the Raiders obviously regressed from the previous season, from 11-2 in '08 to 8-4 in '09, largely because there wasn't anywhere else to go.
Texas Tech was a winning program when Leach took over -- predecessor Spike Dykes had delivered five straight winning records and 11 in 15 years since taking over in 1986 -- but Leach is the first Raider coach to win big enough for long enough for anyone outside of Texas to pay much attention.
Leach as savant. It's impossible to put Leach's persona into perspective without resorting to Michael Lewis' seminal profile in December 2005, the best bit of college football writing this decade, which introduced all the themes -- most notably Leach's fascination with pirates, a persona the Cap'n himself assumed with relish -- that would become so familiar as the Raiders' success thrust their coach increasingly into the national spotlight. As the wins mounted in 2008, ESPN's expanding content machine and even "60 Minutes" flocked to college football's most isolated outpost to gawk at the astonishing success of a mumbling, unpolished cultivator of pirate swords, magic tricks, Geronimo memorabilia, wildly tattooed linemen, placekickers pulled from the stands, a play sheet the size of a cocktail napkin and unlikely friendships with the likes of Donald Trump. The role of "quirky interloper" held up so well that I sometimes wondered whether Leach had begun striving to capture that persona, rather the other way around.
The enduring trick of Lewis' insight in that piece, though, was his casting of Leach as a curious outsider who came to the game by his own devices, free of the orthodoxy that he'd eventually assault head-on by spreading his receivers -- even his linemen -- as far as they could possibly be stretched across the field. Tales chronicling the "Rise of the Spread" over the last decade have made insights into the innovations and evolution of the multi-receiver passing game well-worn territory, but the reality is that Leach helped introduce the spread to the SEC as part of Hal Mumme's staff at Kentucky, helped introduce the spread to the Big 12 as part of Bob Stoops' staff at Oklahoma and began dismantling the assumption that a successful offense had to be able to run at least somewhat effectively by largely ignoring the concept of the handoff after his arrival at Texas Tech. No one would ever dare to throw all the time, no matter what. In one season (2003), Leach's quarterback, B.J. Symons, passed over 700 times -- 55 times per game -- for more than 5,800 yards and 52 touchdowns; over three seasons, Graham Harrell threatened, broke or obliterated every record on the books. To other programs (and especially to the NFL), these guys were nothing.
Some day, when a major team does go an entire game without handing the ball off, there's a good chance it will come from the Big 12, which endured two or three rounds from Leach's attack and began converting Option Central into the most pass-happy conference in the nation as quickly as it could.
Leach as Vaudeville. Every so often at my old digs, I tried to parody Leach's disregard for anything that didn't catch his fleeting interest, including rules and conventions, which turns out to be a rather fruitless mission for a guy who operated so far outside any known box for a football coach that any words anyone else attempts to put in his mouth are destined to be humbled by the genuine article:
Frankly, bloggers loved him in large part because the man was money: He gave us cheapo dating advice, ridiculous catch phrases, impressive horror stories from his adopted hometown, insane playoff plans, endlessly entertaining pokes at NFL coaches, off-the-wall study sessions and occasionally a story -- I'm thinking specifically of the tale of Leach nonchalantly giving an interview to a local radio station while simultaneously ordering food from a drive-through lane -- almost too perfect in its oddity to believe. I stress almost.
It's not that difficult to resign the image of the absentminded, socially awkward genius with the cantankerous, stubborn, occasionally angry side of Leach that ultimately did him in at Tech if you combine it all under one, all-encompassing theme: Mike Leach is going to do what he wants to do, how he thinks he should do it, regardless of what anyone else thinks. As an offensive mastermind, special guest star and YouTube quipper, that instinct served him well. As a contract negotiator, candidate for more prestigious jobs and (allegedly) disciplinarian, it finally spelled his demise. There may be some boxes out there that can withstand Leach's expansive individualism and ego for more than a decade; Texas Tech, it turns out, is not one of them.
So: As college football's most incorrigible presence lived at Texas Tech, so he goes out, always swinging his sword to his own peculiar beat -- and, perhaps, at great peril to members of the crew who rubbed him the wrong way. With any luck, it's not the last we've seen of the good Cap'n, though whether he swings back into the national picture as coach, TV talking head or rollerblading ambassador of the game to Costa Rica, there's no way to predict.