Saturday, August 25, 2012
PULLMAN — The meeting with Mike Leach is supposed to be at 2.p.m., but somehow, it sounds iffy. At 2:50, an aide gets a text message that Leach is finally available.
Washington State’s 32nd football coach is in a backroom of the football offices, sitting alone at the end of a long conference table. Next to him are some papers and a can of smokeless tobacco.
This isn’t a great time, he says. He’s got to get ready to give 110 football players a talk. This one has something to do with Bernard Hopkins, the ageless fighter.
“How ‘bout dinner?” Leach says. “I’ll have all the time you want.”
Most of the time, Leach seems to find time. Time to be on Sirius radio, time to talk about bears or pirates or strong safeties. Time to — you’d swear he does this — make it all up as he goes along.
Media people — people in Nashville or Orlando or Birmingham — have his cellphone number, and when you text him, you’re apt to hear back. Legend has it that during his 10 years at Texas Tech, there was a half-hour radio segment in Dallas called Maybe Mike Leach. The hosts would text him shortly before it, and maybe he’d call in to be on the show.
He seems to have landed in the right spot. Washington State football coaches have usually had big personalities, from Lone Star Dietz, a Carlisle Indian who used to indulge photographers by donning full headdress almost a century ago; to Jim Walden, who lamented after a loss to California that “We got run over by a damn mo-ped;” to Mike Price, who, during a particularly futile season, referred to himself as “The King of Poop Island.”
Now comes Leach, who appears born for the role. In the eight months since his appointment, he has shot a bear and shot the bull. In answer to a question at Pac-12 media day, he named Kyle Whittingham of Utah as his optimal hunting and fishing partner among the league’s coaches (as he formulated his answer, Leach said he was carving out sort of a winner’s bracket in his mind).
He pops up here, there, unexpectedly, in the papers, on the radio, on TV.
He doesn’t talk about injuries. Everything else seems to be fair game.
April 4: Leach is standing on a practice field watching spring drills, and a writer from outside the state is next to him, holding a tape recorder. Leach is talking into it.
A few days earlier, a WSU staffer walked into the football office, saw an unfamiliar figure sitting on a couch and looked at him quizzically.
“I’m with the crew,” the couch-sitter explained, as if that’s all he needed to say.
The crew? What crew? Turned out it was from HBO, exploring the idea of a detailed look at Leach.
They didn’t do this for Paul Wulff.
April 14: Leach is asked at spring practice about Andrei Lintz, a tight end whose receiving capabilities went largely untapped by the previous football staff at WSU.
Leach says he likes his hands but that he needs to use them more in downfield blocking and shedding coverage.
“He needs to be like those Grizzly bears in Yellowstone Park that start tipping over Dumpsters and throwing garbage out of them at the lodges,” Leach says matter-of-factly. “Next practice, we’re going to stick a Dumpster in front of him.”
May 13: Tweet from @Coach — Leach: “Watching the movie Grizzly Man. Going bear hunting in Canada on Tuesday with Mike Pawlawski.”
Leach hooks up in Alberta with Pawlawski, the former California quarterback, as part of a series on the Outdoor Channel. Indeed, he bags a 7-foot grizzly, and not long after, talks about the experience on 710 ESPN radio in Seattle, including the propriety of an expedition to take down a wild animal.
Leach offers a defensible position on bear ecology, deer herds and the like, and says, “I’ll say this; it’s a massive oversimplification to reduce it to cute and cuddly and that’s the end of it.”
And this: “If people didn’t have different points of view, it’d all be pretty boring in the end, wouldn’t it?”
May 25: I’m in the home dugout at Safeco Field, killing time before a game. The guy I’m talking with says, “Hey, it’s Mike Leach.”
He’s everywhere, and now he’s in Seattle for the weekend with his 15-year-old son Cody. I decide to chat him up, partly because it’s a lot more interesting than watching Justin Smoak take batting practice.
I ask him about his bear hunt, and Leach provides more details. The moment he knew this was serious, he says, is when they were in trees on the hunt monitoring the beasts, and somebody told him to look above him, and he could see claw marks on the bark.
He also was startled by the size of the bear poop, he says.
June 14: He’s back in Texas, taking in a Cowboys offseason workout in Arlington, where he’s not that far from the place that Craig James, the former ESPN analyst, helped run him out of a job with the allegation that Leach mistreated James’ concussed son at Texas Tech.
Leach is only too happy to poke fun at James’ failed Senate candidacy, pointing out the results of a Dallas Morning News poll that asked readers who would get their vote in a race for Senate, James or Leach.
The football coach got 96 percent, the analyst four.
June 19: Actor Matthew McConaughey, whom Leach has hung out with, is on “The Tonight Show” discussing his wedding, and Jay Leno asks him if he received any memorable gifts.
“Some people brought gifts,” McConaughey says. “I’m not sure what all of them mean. A friend of mine, Mike Leach, head football coach at Washington State — he used to be at Texas Tech — gave us a sword with a big card that says, ‘For the couple that has everything Swing Your Sword.’.”
Oh, the dinner. At a Pullman restaurant, Leach ordered a cup of lentil soup and fish tacos, prompting him to weigh in on lentils.
“I don’t know what a lentil is,” he confessed. “Actually, despite not having a great deal of expertise on lentils, I did know there was a lentil festival here. I’ll have to get to the bottom of this lentil stuff.”
I asked him if he was bored when he got back into coaching.
“Far from it,” he said. He was doing a book tour, and three Sirius radio shows a week, and speaking engagements, and the first year, analyzing live games. His plate was too full, so he offed the game analysis.
Craig James still chaps him, as does the concept of sovereign immunity in Texas, which keeps the state immune from being sued for breach of contract.
“Which means virtually every coach at a (Texas) state institution is on a day-to-day contract,” Leach says. “Kind of begs the question why we fought England, really.”
I asked if Washington State could be a bowl team this year.
“I always think we’re gonna win, you know,” he says. “During the season, typically on Sunday, I’m not sure we can beat Pullman High. But on Friday, I’m pretty convinced we’ll beat the New York Giants. In between, you just do your best and work and keep improving.”
June 25: A letter is circulated to WSU fans with Leach’s signature, urging them to buy tickets to the Sept. 29 game against Oregon at CenturyLink Field.
In part, he writes, “Since the Ducks are so close to Seattle, I have heard on numerous occasions that there will be just as many Oregon fans at the game as Cougar fans. I refuse to even fathom that notion “
June 26: A long AP story details a final agreement by the Bowl Championship Series commissioners for a four-team playoff to start in 2014. The story quotes one coach — not Nick Saban, not Urban Meyer, not Bob Stoops. It’s Leach.
July 24: Leach is on stage at Pac-12 media day. Occasionally, he even talks about his football team. Via social media, a fan asks him to compare Jeff Tuel and Travis Long, the players who accompanied him, to military leaders.
Leach actually gives the question some thought.
“I’d have to say Jeff would be a little more like Stonewall Jackson,” Leach says. “Gets hold of the play, attacks from different angles. The cavalry is over here, no, we’re here. He’s not afraid to split the force. Travis is more of a Ulysses S. Grant guy. He’s in the trenches and if it requires bombarding for a month, he’s fully prepared to do it. He’s going to bombard them till they bust, provided he keeps his pads low.”
Leach seems to feed on the attention. So he responds in kind, and it’s a self-sustaining phenomenon. On the radio one day, they asked him about his thirst for things outside football.
“Stay curious,” he advised. Only days before the Mike Leach era begins, he has a whole fan base doing just that.