PULLMAN, Wash. -- As soon as Mike Leach ambles through the doors of a coffee shop called Café Moro, he is greeted by a friendly woman who almost killed him. The woman corners him near the door, and the woman tells him how she was backing her car out of the driveway the other day and there he was, strolling along, phone pressed to his ear, meandering in his own little thought bubble, and that if she hadn't looked twice she might have plowed right through him. I can see the newspaper headline materialize, and given the brief flash of panic in Leach's blue eyes, I wonder if he sees it, too -- RENEGADE FOOTBALL COACH DIES IN FREAK ACCIDENT -- and he informs the woman in the coffee shop that there was a purpose behind his obliviousness: He has started walking to work especially so he can get all of his phone calls out of the way while he's in transit.
It's a Friday morning in Pullman, a sparse little college town clearing the decks for Easter weekend, and the local football coach is wearing a Washington State sweatshirt and cargo shorts and worn-in sneakers. This is his walking uniform, and if you're thinking maybe it makes him look like an adolescent mallrat -- if you're thinking, Mark Richt would never go out in public looking like this -- well, what the hell does he care? The whole legend of Mike Leach was born of a contrarian ethos. He was the football coach who played rugby in college instead of football, the football coach who went to law school, the football coach with quirks up to his ears, the football coach who broke loose from the cautious paradigm that the sport had operated under for decades. If it is the norm for most men in his profession to maintain a wary distance from their public, either emotionally or physically (and often both), then of course Mike Leach is going to wade right in. And so he freely engages with the concerns of this potential grim reaper in the coffee shop, just as I will watch him, later on this same day, draw a construction worker into an extended conversation about the local cheese.
Part of the reason Leach is so open to random interaction is because he fears developing tunnel vision; therefore, if he happens across, say, a custodian who suggests that he enjoys watching Leach's offense run a certain play, Leach will get back to his office and contemplate whether he should be running said play more often, about whether maybe there's "some little nuancey thing" he might be missing. This means that sometimes Leach gets to chatting, and occasionally he chats for so long that he throws off the whole regimented practice and meeting schedule of his own football team. One day during spring drills, quarterback Connor Halliday tells me, Leach -- and Halliday refers to him as "Leach" -- made him an hour late for his weightlifting session because he got a phone call and didn't start the quarterbacks meeting until around the time the quarterbacks meeting was supposed to be ending. He seems almost pathologically determined to glean a new perspective from every conversation, which explains why I am here to speak to a football coach about the life and legacy of an Apache Indian war leader, but also explains how our conversation quickly evolves into a discussion about the hills in my new hometown of San Francisco, and about the steaks at Peter Luger's in my old hometown of Brooklyn.
A moment after we sit down, he's back up again, pointing out the hills that he hikes over to get from his home to his office -- sometimes, he says, he'll be doing a national radio show spot and huffing for breath at the same time -- and he points out the tower on campus that (his own metaphor) looks like something out of the television show Dark Shadows, and then he's procuring a paper cup to catch the residue from the plug of Grizzly chewing tobacco he inserts into his mouth. We talk about D.B. Cooper, and about Edward Snowden ("I haven't figured out if I love the guy or hate the guy"), and about his left-handedness, and about an explorer named Thor Heyerdahl, because Mike Leach has just written this book called Geronimo: Leadership Strategies of An American Warrior, which will be released by Simon & Schuster's Gallery Books on May 6, and the first indication that this book will not be a conventional popular history comes in the opening sentence, which reads as so:
"When I was a kid growing up in Wyoming, there were Cowboys and Indians, and I always wanted to be an Indian."
And the second indication that this book is a Mike Leach production -- that he did not just farm it out and throw his name on the front -- comes on Page 3, when he cites explorers like Heyerdahl in criticizing the very idea that the Indians might have come to America, as many anthropologists believe, over the Bering Strait Land Bridge.
"Why leave a warm climate to freeze your asses off?" Leach writes in the footnotes, and if that seems almost purposefully antagonistic, this is Mike Leach, too: Three years into his second act as a football coach, he'd still rather embrace the controversy than adhere to a doctrine he finds flawed.
* * *
I can't think of an active college football coach who has ever taken the time to write a book that wasn't directly related to football. Neither could Leach's co-author on this project, a Washington State University English professor named Buddy Levy. Woody Hayes used to lecture on history and rant about politics -- he even taught classes that had more to do with the dangers of pot-smoking than they did with football-coaching techniques -- but the idea that he would take time away to write a book about, say, George Patton, would have seemed antithetical to his occupational obsessiveness. And sure, it's not difficult to draw football-related inferences from some of the leadership lessons interspersed throughout Geronimo, but the motivation, for both Leach and his co-author, was to tell an accessible version of the story of an Apache war leader who spent much of his life as an anti-hero.
"We almost never, ever talk about football," Levy says. "He'd call me on the phone, and we'd go over the chapters line by line, word by word. There I was, sitting and talking to him about the book, and I'm thinking, 'Maybe I should tell him we need a new punter.'"
Levy has already written respected books about explorers and conquistadors and a bird called the chukar partridge. This is his first collaboration, and it most likely would not have happened without the aid of cosmic coincidence. Leach was referred to Levy through a New York literary agent named Scott Waxman, who suggested they discuss working on a Geronimo book. Leach had been obsessed with Geronimo since elementary school. The first time his mom took him to a library, he went straight to the section on Indians, pulled out a very dry academic tome on Geronimo and the Apaches, and forced his mother to read it to him, night after night. It was full of violence and disturbing imagery: Geronimo and his allies were captured and continually betrayed by the white man, and Geronimo's body was literally riddled with bullet wounds, and despite his mother's censorship of certain NC-17 aspects of the story, Leach entered into a lifelong fascination with a figure who did not let up fighting until he was a very old man. The Geronimo obsession became one of those Leach Things, a page in the catalogue of the man's peccadillos, in the same way the culture of piracy came to define him after Michael Lewis profiled Leach for The New York Times Magazine back in 2005.
So Waxman set up Levy and Leach after Leach finished his first book, an autobiography called Swing Your Sword, with journalist Bruce Feldman. At the time, the coach was on a forced two-year hiatus in Key West after being fired amid legal disputes and accusations at Texas Tech. Then Leach got the job at Washington State, and the idea might have died right there, except that in one of his first weeks on the job, Levy showed up in Leach's office. Leach had no idea who he was at first; Leach had no idea the same guy he'd talked to about Geronimo -- the same guy whose biography of Davy Crockett he'd read and liked, the same guy who made regular appearances on a History Channel program called Brad Meltzer's Decoded, which explored mysteries and conspiracy theories like whether Harry Houdini was murdered -- actually worked at Washington State. "Let's write this book," Levy said, and so they did: They spent the summer of 2012 meeting at Café Moro, talking for hours, reviewing Levy's research and the first drafts of the chapters. Levy would record their conversations and then he'd go back and transcribe them, rewinding and fast-forwarding through the digressions, like the time when Leach went off on a 90-minute tangent about apartheid. They'd go over the chapters line-by-line, and Leach would add the lessons and the "commentary" at the end of each chapter.
The finished product is, frankly, kind of a strange book. Because so much of Geronimo's life was steeped in violence and betrayal, because he raided and pillaged dozens of villages himself, he is a complex figure to put at the center of a motivational tome. But then, Mike Leach is kind of a strange guy, and the book manages to mirror the psyche of its author: It is an entertaining account of the details of Geronimo's story while also reflecting the digressive nature of Leach's psyche. Interspersed throughout, highlighted in gray, are sidebars that are tangential to Geronimo's story but seemed interesting to Leach: the intimate details of Apache sex life, the notion that Mongol warlords ate steak tartare by riding around with meat under their horses' saddles, the rumor that Geronimo's skull was stolen by the Skull and Bones society at Yale. The whole thing meanders and skips along and throws in asides like a rousing Leach conversation. Even the leadership lessons and commentary do not adhere to Oprah-esque principles: Leach decries the inefficiencies of bureaucracies and extols the virtue of holding grudges. "In many instances," he writes, "getting even is vital in order to protect your people (and your interests) from future damage."
There is, of course, an undercurrent of revenge present throughout the book. How could there not be, when Geronimo's mother, wife and children were killed by Mexican raiders when he was 22? And even if Leach's obsession with Geronimo dates back long before his dismissal at Texas Tech, it's hard not to think about Texas Tech when you read the book. It's hard not to wonder if Leach still feels burned by what happened there, when a player, Adam James, the son of then-broadcaster Craig James, accused him of mistreatment, and when the administration at Texas Tech refused to back him up after Leach declined to apologize. Even now, nearly five years later, he is still being condemned by his ex-employers for his handling of the situation. It's hard not to wonder if, even though Leach won the public-relations battle against the James family (if not any of his lawsuits against various entities), the perceived betrayal still flummoxes him. Leaders expose themselves to massive criticism, especially from the media, Leach writes, in a chapter that describes exaggerated newspaper reports of Geronimo's mayhem. Remain true to your vision and judgment.
"We had a heck of a time at Tech," says Leach, who admits he's still fighting to get paid for the 2009 season. "We had 10 huge years. There's a point where we all need to applaud one another and support one another. You just keep on rolling."
* * *
And so Mike Leach finds himself here, in Pullman, in one of the most isolated settings in the Pac-12, a town with a tiny airport located right at the edge of the Idaho border. It feels like the perfect setting for him, because there is no template for success, because while Washington State has a history of producing great quarterbacks, it has never really produced a consistently great football team. At a job like this, just as he did at Texas Tech, Leach can essentially lay down his own foundation, can put his mark on a program that doesn't have a distinct national impression. His first year was a struggle (a 3-9 record, a contentious relationship with some of the players associated with the previous coaching regime), but last year, the Cougars won six games and played in the New Mexico Bowl, and in a few weeks they'll open an opulent football facility that will allow them a chance to better compete for recruits. Last week, Leach got a verbal commitment from Rivals.com's 14th-rated quarterback in the country.
Leach still operates on the same principles that he did at Texas Tech. He still coaches the quarterbacks and calls the plays, speeding up and slowing down the tempo as he sees fit. ("It's kind of like Geronimo," he says, and he's joking, but also not joking: "I get a vision. It's like an impulse.") He still believes in the passing game as the driver of the offense, and he still thinks that people -- including his own players -- tend to overanalyze things, which is why sometimes he'll speed up his tempo just to get them to stop thinking so damned much. He still believes that anyone can draw up a good play ("I could go to any junior high school in the country and find good plays"), but that the way one packages those plays -- the way a coach picks and chooses from among them -- is what sets a great offense apart. He still believes his offensive linemen should be enormous and split wide across the field ("They have football so big people can slam into big people, and if they do it well they get to run over little people"), and he still believes that football should be as violent and unregulated as it can be without causing permanent harm to its participants -- he hates the new rule that outlaws hitting a quarterback below the knees, even though "you'd be hard-pressed to find a team that rule benefits more than us." He still believes that the rulebook should be shrunken to the size of a pamphlet, which is why this whole debate over the hurry-up offense feels to him like an excuse to tamp down the creative renaissance for which Leach served as a central provocateur. His direct disciples include out-of-the-box coaches like Art Briles, Kliff Kingsbury and Dana Holgorsen; to say that the modern game would look completely different without Leach's influence is no longer an overstatement. And those changes are the reason why an attempt to tamp down up-tempo offenses this offseason failed as miserably as it did.
"Football's always been a game where there's a lot of creativity," Leach says. "Stuff gets dusted off the shelf, and broken down again. I don't like to see any of this changing of the game. If you sit and pluck away at the integrity of the sport, the whole thing gets bent out of shape and you're gonna regret it."
There is, of course, an implied "enemy" in this argument, a natural adversary, and having just read 250 pages of Leach's explications on Geronimo's varied adversaries and the way Geronimo both respected them and outthought them, I felt like I had to ask him about Nick Saban, a primary advocate in the battle against the up-tempo offense. And, as is often the case, Mike Leach does not deliver the answer you might expect.
"Oh, I like him," Leach says. "I think he's a great recruiter, and he's a very fundamental guy, just as we are here, too. He holds his players accountable. These being the most important things, we agree 100 percent."
* * *
A partial list of topics that Mike Leach broaches during one afternoon of film study with his quarterbacks:
1. The most accurate gauge of a quarterback's success. ("Do you march down the field and score?")
2. The psyche of running backs. ("They need to feel like they're superhuman, because running backs should be superhuman. That's why they play running back. When we were picking sides as kids, no one ever said, 'Hey Mike, why don't you play running back?'")
3. That time when George Costanza fled a children's birthday party by plowing over every kid and senior citizen in his way.
4. That time he went to a Jerry Seinfeld performance at Texas Tech.
5. An offensive lineman nicknamed "The Continent."
6. The original version of The Longest Yard.
7. Zen and the art of play-calling. ("You've got plays that are your identity, that are what you do.")
8. That time Wes Welker, who played for Leach at Texas Tech, kicked a field goal for the Miami Dolphins. (Leach really seems to love talking about Welker, who appears to have altered the passing-game paradigm in the NFL the same way Leach did at the college level.)
9. Speedy receivers. ("You've got to keep fast guys going fast, so they keep going fast.")
10. Offensive line play. (When an offensive lineman doubles up on a lineman rather than blocking an onrushing linebacker, Leach says, "He needs to put meat on his own table.")
11. Mistakes. ("Some quarterbacks have the Midas touch of s---, you know.")
* * *
It is insane, the scale on which college football operates these days, and that insanity renders itself in Technicolor when it is explored by a man who carries himself as unpretentiously as Mike Leach does. We're touring Washington State's new $61 million football operations center, the kind of building that just seems to go on and on, as Leach examines the ceiling and consumes apple slices from a Ziploc bag. The construction is due to be completed in May, and Leach walks past the sliding equipment lockers, a yellow hard hat on his head, a pair of blue booties pulled over his sneakers. "Somebody's gonna lose a child in there," he mutters, and then we move on, to the expansive locker rooms, to the weight room, to the Hall of Fame and the offices and tutoring rooms and more offices and even more offices. There is a station for a nutritionist; there is a treadmill set inside a small pool for rehabilitation purposes. Leach still isn't entirely sure which office is supposed to be his. He seems legitimately fascinated by the process of welding a metal bannister. He talks to the construction workers, offers restaurant suggestions, and by the time we get back to his current office the day is nearly over.
Leach walks me back to my car. He tells me about how when he worked his first job, at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, they used to put down an orange cone to save their parking space when they went to lunch, and how most of the time the cone would still be there when you got back, but every so often, the cone would be flattened under the tires of someone's Impala and they'd have to slip under the chassis and retrieve it. He talks to me about the process of writing, and the meticulous process of editing, and the idea that once a book is out of your hands, its out there, in the world, forever. He waves at some people he knows, people who recognize him; he seems aware of his own place in this little community.
The thing about Geronimo was that he ended his life as a celebrity. All those years in hiding, all those years in the wilderness, all those years being portrayed as a demon, and in his final days Geronimo made promotional appearances at Wild West shows and World's Fairs and statewide parades, basking in the admiration of the white man and the knowledge that his battles had been proven just. And the analogy is not perfect -- the analogy is never perfect, as I assume Mike Leach, now the most accomplished author/college football coach of his age, understands at this point -- but you can see the way Leach, at 53 years old, is easing into his own legacy, both the revolution he created and the ugliness it unearthed at his previous job. What were once radical ideas don't seem as radical as they once did. In a weird way, Leach was so successful in altering the most conservative of American sports that his own ideas have now filtered into the mainstream. The most iconoclastic coach of his generation will soon find himself in an office with more square footage than he could ever need.
"I know vaguely what iconoclast means," he says. "The status quo, I'm already pretty familiar with the status quo."