When I did a phone interview with then Washington State University football coach Mike Leach in the fall of 2014 for a profile that ran in our sister magazine, Northwest Sportsman (See the story below), Leach explained to me that was taking a walk around the WSU campus in Pullman, Washington while we spoke (college coaches have sometimes no choice but to multi-task throughout their busy work days during the season).
We talked for almost an hour, but the chat was interrupted several times as the coach greeted several passers-by along the way. They’d exchange a hello and Leach would engage in brief conversations before returning to our call and discussing a variety of topics, from the Geronimo book he just collaborated on with a WSU professor, to sturgeon fishing, to his admiration for Alamo defender and former U.S. Congressman David Crocket. We barely talked football, and despite me being a former sports reporter and massive college football fan, I was fine with that. I’ve been lucky enough to interview plenty of characters – both in my time as an editor here at Media Inc. Publishing and my previous career in sports journalism – but I’m stumped on thinking of a more fascinating talk I’ve had with anyone else besides Mike Leach.
Leach passed away Monday night after suffering an apparent heart-related medical emergency at home in Starkville, Mississippi, where he served as head coach for the Mississippi State Bulldogs since 2020. He was 61.
He has some California ties, having been born in Susanville in Northeast California and – typical of his outside the norm approach to his football career – he earned a law degree from Pepperdine University Law School down in Malibu. He also started his coaching journey as an assistant at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and College of the Desert in the Coachella Valley’s Palm Desert. But he’s as remembered for his eccentric persona as he was for the innovative offenses his teams were known for.
Leach’s successful college career – in 21 seasons as head coach at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State, he had just four losing seasons and his teams appeared in 17 bowl games with Mississippi State said to make it an 18th bowl this season – was not without controversy and he could have some polarizing opinions. But he’s mostly being remembered today for his eclectic personality and – as so many in the media and beyond have shared the last two days – memorable sound bites he produced.
I’m sad that Coach Leach, a breath of fresh air in his profession that’s dominated by cookie-cutter coaches focused solely on football in their public persona, is no longer with us. John Canzano, the longtime columnist and radio host based in Portland, Oregon, said it well about Leach today:
He wasn’t for everyone.
But his impact on football and people who played the sport is impossible to ignore.
Leach challenged conventional thinking. He pushed boundaries. He did things with his offense that almost nobody else would have done. He was outspoken, intelligent, polarizing, had no filter, and made an impact with the players he coached.
RIP, Mike Leach.
Here’s the story I wrote about him, which appeared in the October 2014 issue of Northwest Sportsman:
By Chris Cocoles
PULLMAN—Mike Leach is fascinated by fascinating characters. Maybe it’s because he too is one of those fascinating characters.
If you bumped into him walking through Washington State’s Pullman campus and were unaware he was the university’s third-year football coach, you might think he was a history professor giving an impromptu lecture on anything from Blackbeard to Sitting Bull to Daniel Boone if you asked.
At least such banter might be as plausible a conversation starter with Leach as quizzing him on predicting the defensive schemes of Stanford and Arizona, two of the Cougars’ opponents this month.
You can also get on his good side if you talk about the outdoors. Living in Wyoming and Colorado meant fishing and hunting were just part of Leach’s upbringing.
“I certainly can’t even say that we hunted and fished the most (compared to everyone else). We were probably above average, but the typical folks in Wyoming, there were quite a few who were going,” says the 53-year-old.
If living in the Rockies makes for high probability of becoming a sportsman, his path to college football coach is unorthodox. He didn’t play the game during his own university years at BYU. Other coaches-to-be often serve as graduate assistants, but Leach earned a law degree at Pepperdine University. And while other coaches cowrite autobiographies about their long careers in the game or about devising offensive gameplans, Leach’s offseason plans included collaborating on a nonfiction piece about one of his many heroes, Apache leader Geronimo.
He’s also quite the outdoorsman, having successfully hunted a giant bear in Canada, teamed with his Washington State staff to catch and release a massive sturgeon in Idaho, and chased Himalayan mountain goats in New Zealand.
Is Leach unorthodox? Yep. Eclectic? Check. Diverse? Absolutely. But, with apologies to the beer guy of those commercials, Leach is the most interesting man in football.
“I get curious, sure. I’d like to get to know a little about this or that,” he says. “Look around and find out more about it.”
It makes you want to get to know a little more about Leach, as well.
PERHAPS THE MOST nonstereotyped football coach in the college game today was once mesmerized by a local he met in Wyoming, where he spent a lot of time as a youngster, the son of a forester who took his son hunting and fishing.
“We went out with a government trapper, and he was going to trap bobcats,”
Leach says. “He needed to bait the trap so he needed a rabbit for that. Just talking to him he told us all the fascinating things he’d seen and the habits on literally every animal that existed in that part of the country.
“We were in a place called McCullough Peaks, and they’re these dirt-covered peaks that kind of look like the moon with a little more geography to them. There are all kinds of rocks, and so these rabbits are all jumping and bouncing and ricocheting between the rocks. He finally sees one, and that rabbit was probably 50 to 70 yards away. And he’s not sitting there. There was herky-jerky motion. He picks his gun up, and with one motion, shoots the rabbit kind of late. Let’s get something here.’ So breakfast would become a Coke and a Snickers bar.”
Nowadays, hunting and fishing are less a chore and more a stress relief for Leach. Being in Pullman provides easy access to some of the Northwest’s premier spots to hunt and fish. Even amid a busy schedule outside football season he loves to find opportunities to indulge in his other sports near he and wife Sharon’s home.
This past summer, Leach took his Washington State staff to Idaho for a retreat, and they managed to hook (and quickly release) a 9½-foot-long Snake River sturgeon that weighed approximately 350 pounds.
“The wildest thing about a sturgeon is that fish was probably 95 years old,” says Leach, always the history buff. “They’re kind of a cross between a shark and catfish. It was the most solid, dense fish or object that I’ve ever touched. The head on this thing was bigger than the midsections on any of us.”
LET’S GET ONE thing straight: As a college football coach, Washington State’s Mike Leach knows he has to eat, drink and sleep the game to stay ahead of other coaches who eat, drink and sleep the game.
It’s just part of a job that earns the game’s best seven-figure salaries while spending hours upon hours of daylight and late evenings recruiting, gameplanning, film watching, babysitting (their players, as well as their own children – Mike and Sharon have four), schmoozing and any other activity that sets the stage for the three hours or so of Saturday gameday that the Mike Leaches of the world are ultimately judged upon.
But while you get the feeling that notoriously “focused” – i.e. gruff – coaches like Nick Saban of Alabama, Bob Stoops of Oklahoma, Gary Pinkel of Missouri, Bo Pelini of Nebraska and probably dozens more would just as soon sit in a dentist’s chair for an hour rather than speak for that long to a reporter about hunting and fishing, Mike Leach – and pardon the football pun here – runs against the grain.
“It is very easy to get into conversations
with Coach and then get off on many tangents,” says Bill Stevens, Washington State’s associate director of athletics and head media relations contact.
Be comforted, frustrated Cougar fans from Aberdeen to Spokane, Leach wants to win as much as the rest of his colleagues. The 0-2 start Wazzu got off to this fall was unacceptable for a coach who made wins (84) and bowl appearances (10) a habit during a decade-long stint as head coach at Texas Tech, a long-term relationship that had a messy breakup (Leach was fired amid allegations he used inappropriate treatment when a player had suffered an injury).
Success-starved Washington State fans would surely welcome the level of consistency Leach’s Red Raiders teams achieved. While the Cougars played in two Rose Bowls under former coach Mike Price (both of which were attended by this magazine’s editor), they haven’t finished with a winning season since 2003. Leach’s history suggests he’ll turn things around, especially considering he inherited such a dormant program that went just 9-40 in the four seasons prior to his arrival.
“For too long around this university expectations have been too low,” Leach told ESPN.com after the season-opening Rutgers defeat, “and I think we as coaches and we as players have to change that.”
Don’t bet against him, Coug fans.
LEACH’S OBSESSION WITH pirates has been well-chronicled. But growing up in some of the former outposts of the Wild West – Saratoga, Cody, and Sheridan, Wyo., then Golden, and Fort Collins, Colo. – playing Cowboys and Indians was a favorite pastime for him and his friends. Naturally, only Leach wanted to be on the Indians’ side of the virtual battlefield.
Years later, with a Washington State English professor, Buddy Levy, Leach has penned a Simon and Schuster-published nonfiction book that came out in the spring, Geronimo: Leadership Strategies of an American Warrior.
Geronimo led his Apache people into survival mode when Native Americans waged war with both Mexico and the
United States in the Southwest through most of his rather violence-filled adult life. It was the Americans who eventually captured and imprisoned Geronimo in 1884, and he spent the last years of his life (1829-1909) as both a prisoner of war and something of a living tourist attraction for his former enemies.
“As I’ve gotten older and involved in this project here, I was fascinated by some of the things the Apaches did, how resourceful to the extent that they were, and how they could survive in such a (volatile) environment, even in a state of war,” he says.
Leach was moved by Geronimo’s resilience: he and his Apaches were the last major Native American tribe to surrender during the post-Civil War conflicts with the United States Military. He admired the way they trained themselves at early ages.
“Being a warrior started when you were a child, how they went about it and what they were taught. And they routinely achieved things that others won’t even attempt,” he says. “It’s an incredible story, like anybody who’s taken a journey or path. There’s something for everybody to learn from it.”
As you can imagine, Leach found intriguing nuggets about the Apache during research for the book.
“One of the more interesting things that we stumbled across was the way they used to hunt ducks. There would be a pond or something the ducks would be inclined to land on. And so they’d get these dried gourds and throw them out on the ponds and let them float out there. Initially, it would kind of spook the ducks because these things were floating around. But the ducks would get used to them after a while.
“So then after the ducks got conditioned to the gourds, the Apaches would cut some holes in the gourds for their eyes and stick it over their heads, like a helmet,” adds Leach with a not-so- subtle football metaphor. “The ducks were saying, ‘Well, this is a gourd I’ve been swimming next to’ (and it’s safe). But (the Apaches) would reach under those ducks, grab their legs, pull them under and ring their necks. I never really thought of them as duck hunters. I don’t know if it’s legal (today), but it would actually be pretty
fun to check out.”
LEACH AND MIKE Pawlawski, the former Cal Bears quarterback who came the closest to wrecking the vaunted 1991 Washington Huskies perfect season and who now fishes and hunts with football personalities on his Outdoor Channel TV show, Gridiron Outdoors, have become buddies.
During that tahr hunt in New Zealand, they had plenty of down time to chat. You can guess Leach wasn’t going to get too deep into the X’s and O’s of coaching.
“In the whole nine days we spent on the road in New Zealand, I think Leacher and I talked football for an hour total,” says Pawlawski, who exchanges three or four texts a week with Leach.
“Mike Leach can remove himself from that. He was truly interested in the stories he was hearing, from the guides to the chef to whomever. He’s curious. He’s funny, smart as a whip. He has the ability to become one of the guys.”
He’s the guy who has shown he can win plenty of football games, but also be interested enough in a near-mythical, tortured and tragic-filled character like Geronimo to invest the time it takes to co- author a book on the man.
Leach was asked what historical figure he wishes he’d be able to hunt or fish with. Of course, his kindred spirit, Geronimo, got a vote, as did Daniel Boone.
“Davy Crockett would be awfully fascinating to meet. He had a wide variety of experience, everything from (serving) in Congress to working his way up into the Alamo,” Leach says of Crockett’s ultimate demise in the siege of the San Antonio mission. “All the different time frames they represented would be interesting to experience.”
You hang up the phone with Mike Leach and realize he’d be pretty cool to invite out on the river or up to deer camp – not that he’s got a lot of time for that, what with those Bear, Cardinal and Wildcat hunts coming up this month. NS
Editor’s note: The author covered college football as a daily reporter at newspapers in Arkansas and California.