A week ago, at an otherwise boring press conference, somebody asked Mike Leach for dating advice. And the coach responded to the question with Leachian aplomb, burrowing into a series of increasingly opaque digressions: He suggested taking a girl somewhere casual that doesn't serve salad so that she'll eat "real food" and then she'll relax, and he mentioned that he took his wife on their first date to an A&W after playing a rugby game, and he confessed that he used a two-for-one coupon book, and then he launched into an extended defense of the utilization of coupons on a first date.
"If you're just trying to dress your life up a little and pretend you have a relationship," he said, "then maybe you don't want to use the coupon book if it's some kind of a volume deal. But if you want to zero in on one or two, break out the coupon book, saw off the weak right off the top so you can get down the path to find the right one. It's worked out pretty good, because I've been married ... I can't remember, a long time. Thirty years or something."
This is Mike Leach in 2013. He is still, in certain moments, the oddest and most intriguing personality in college football. But this was also Mike Leach five years ago, when he was asked the same dating-advice question while coaching at Texas Tech. Which means he's been around long enough that even his quirkiest character-driven material is beginning to circle back upon itself.
* * *
On Saturday, Leach's 3-1 Washington State team will face No. 5 Stanford in Seattle. If the Cougars win, it would be the biggest shock of the college football season to date. This is Leach's second season at WSU, following his forced departure from Texas Tech amid a legal dispute over the treatment of the son of unemployed broadcaster Craig James; the Cougars went 3-9 last year, and Leach got into trouble for alluding to his players as "empty corpses" and "zombies," and his star receiver accused him of being abusive and then recanted. It was an ugly and combative season, and it appeared to raise questions, not for the first time, about whether Leach is too inherently strange to handle the political elements of football coaching.
That criticism was probably unfair and certainly premature. Leach was taking over a moribund program with an inglorious history, and it will take time before anyone can judge his tenure at Washington State properly. And it is already clear that, in their second season, the Cougars are improved: They were good enough to beat a reeling USC team in a defensive slog a few weeks ago (though they are probably not good enough to beat a Stanford team that might be better than anyone west of the Mississippi). It seems not entirely impossible that Leach could build the Cougars into a consistent winning program. It's not entirely impossible that Leach will accomplish at Washington State the same thing he did at Texas Tech, and if it happens, this will obviously matter a great deal to people in and around the sleepy town of Pullman, Wash., where real food and football-related fatalism are served in abundance.
But I don't know if Mike Leach's success or failure matters as much to college football at large as it once felt like it did. I don't know if Mike Leach is a Zeitgeist football coach anymore, even if he is the only football coach currently co-authoring a book on Geronimo. And this may, in fact, be the best testament to the impact of Leach's core ideas: That they no longer need Mike Leach to succeed in order for them to matter.
* * *
It's been only five years since Texas Tech's landmark upset of Texas, 39-33, in Lubbock, but it feels like much longer: There are now disciples of Leach, and of Leach's mentor Hal Mumme, and practitioners of offenses that build on Leach and Mumme's ideas, dispersed throughout college football (this includes Mumme himself, who's back at SMU this season as an assistant under June Jones). At Baylor, former Leach assistant Art Briles is running one of the most explosive offenses in modern history; at Texas Tech, former Red Raiders quarterback Kliff Kingsbury is propagating Leach's theories with a more handsome patina.
That college football is more offense-oriented, more pass-oriented, and more driven by offbeat theory than ever before is obviously not just Leach's doing, but it's impossible to deny his role. This 2005 Michael Lewis profile of Leach in The New York Times Magazine legitimized him as a thinker; the win over Texas, which ended with Michael Crabtree tiptoeing along the sideline and into the end zone, legitimized him as a football coach. Everything that's happened since then is almost incidental; everything that's happened since then has built off the notion that the best football coaches may not look or sound like football coaches used to look and sound. They may write books about Indian chiefs, and they may advise the use of coupons at drive-ins, and they may make arbitrary lists of must-see movies on Twitter, and they may occasionally insert their defensive starters in the game in order to complete a shutout of Idaho, inflaming tempers to the point that they wind up shouting an obscenity at the opposing coach following the post-game handshake.
Part of me still hopes, for those reasons alone, that Mike Leach finds a way to make it work at Washington State. Part of me hopes that Leach is lecturing about mixed greens before press-conference audiences a decade from now. But even if he fails, it doesn't really matter. His ideas have already won.