Here’s a reach: Mike Leach just so happened to be landing at LAX on Saturday night, conveniently while the college football team from Westwood was out of town, for some stealth negotiations regarding a potential coaching vacancy.
Or, the former Texas Tech coach is just in town for a book signing.
That’s a double-edge sword he’s swinging these days.
“It’s difficult for me to say anything because there is no vacancy, but you know, they have a good staff in place right now, they just need to do the best they can this season,” the 50-year-old said from his home in the Florida Keys, asked hypothetically if UCLA would ever be on his list of destination schools now that he’s in a job hunt.
“Coming to Los Angeles, a major media center, the real reason I’m coming is for the book.”
And that’s the New York Times bestseller produced this last summer with the help of writer Bruce Feldman called “Swing Your Sword: Leading the Charge in Football and Life” (Diversion Books, $25.95, 260 pages), which he’ll sign at a Barnes and Noble in Manhattan Beach on Monday night.
Conveniently, it reads like a home-spun resume, one that any athletic director could use as due diligence to size up the man questionably fired by a school where, almost under the radar, he produced 84 wins in 10 seasons, got the Red Raiders ranked as high as No. 2 in 2008, and orchestrated one of the most entertaining spread offensive schemes to compete with the Big 12 bigwigs.
What Leach calls a “chilling effect” on his ability to move forward comes from two pending lawsuits with his name on them.
A libel and slander suit against ESPN directed at analyst Craig James comes in the aftermath of a controversy surrounding the alleged treatment of James’ son, Adam, an injured tight end. The other dragging on is a wrongful termination suit against Tech for firing him the day before he was to receive a $800,000 bonus — and just months after it gave him a five-year, $12.7 million extension.
Armed with a degree from Pepperdine Law School and a divergent sense of humor, Leach operates more these days out of the option offense as far as his career goals are concerned. He explains:
Q: What was the motivation to wanting to write the book: To pick your own brain about what makes you tick, and in essence, serve as kind of a primer for a job interview as you sit and wait for your next coaching job?
Leach: I don’t know enough about what it takes to get a book on the New York Times best-seller list, but that’s surprising to hear because I didn’t know what to expect. It sold more than 35,000 in the first two months, so they say that’s pretty good. We’ve had tons of people come out to book signings so far. But it’s really the end of a two-year process. We didn’t think about doing it until after Michael Lewis did a piece (on him) in the New York Times magazine (in 2005, linked here). Then with all the things that happened at Tech, we didn’t leave that elephant in the room, so there’s two more chapters added about all that. There are two sides to the story, so we included all their depositions, in their words, and gave my side.
But I’d say it’s 85 percent about my path in coaching. It let me sift through the closet and look at some things I guess I hadn’t thought about for a long time, things that had almost become habit. Now I could analyze it, kind of a self inventory. I think that has what sustained it and broadened the readership. Anyone pursuing a passion has turns in the road, mistakes, huge victories, meets interesting people, overachieves, learns lessons. It’s all been positive.
Q: All the things that happened at Tech are in the end of the book, so you weren’t motivated to put that at the beginning and make it the focus of the book?
Leach: Originally, that wasn’t going to be any part of the book, but that became part of the path. It’s a lingering question that people have – I’m the victim of a national smear campaign orchestrated by Craig James and his PR firm, one that was used by the chancellor at Texas Tech to justify them not fulfilling my contract and then used by ESPN to do more damage. So this gives me the opportunity to set the record straight.
I never wanted it to dominate the book. I’m sure there are some folks who are interested to read it just for that part, but I think why the book continues to do well is that the audience has broadened. There are a surprising number of female and non-football fans in the demographic who are buying it, they tell me. Maybe it’s appealing to anyone who has ever had to move a lot of places and adjust.
They can relate to it in some way. Perhaps that’s why it stays on the best-seller list – it’s the story. Bruce (Feldman, who helped him organize and write it) and I were striving to be forthcoming. The worst thing is to do all this work and not be detailed enough so that the reader doesn’t feel apart of it. You can’t speak in general terms about all these things. We didn’t cover anything up.
Q: Rick Neuheisel may be one of the few college coaches around like you who has a law degree. Have you ever been able to talk to him about how a law background fits into a coach’s mind? You talk about that in the book a bit – how coaching can be like arguing a legal case, making a presentation to persuade a group to be on your side.
Leach: Rick is a good guy, I’ve known him quite awhile. He’s a smart, articulate guy. I’ve always enjoyed his company. Who else are there out there like us? Terry Bowden? There aren’t many out there who can apply law to football, but I guess that’s how conversations start.
Q: Watching UCLA’s season from a distance, what kind of read to you have on Neuheisel’s use of the pistol offensive scheme? Does he have the right pieces to fit into it? Does rotating quarterbacks present a problem?
Leach: UCLA will always get top-ranked recruits, and it’s in a quarterback mecca. The one thing about quarterbacks that can hurt your team is not being able to make a decision. That’s a quick way to make them both mediocre. You want to be fair and carefully evaluate things before you make a decision. But by the same token, there are only so many reps in practice, and you invest them with someone who’s going to develop with the players who are around them. It’s not hard to find good plays to run.
The hardest thing is to make choices about which plays to run, what’s going to be your identity, then you repeat that over and over. See, the one thing you can control on offense is your package, and what you’re going to be good at, then you repeat that every day. Defenses don’t have that luxury. They’ll play against a certain offense one week, then a different one the next, then a different one the next. There’s a wider variety of things for them to look for. If you don’t make a choice at what to be good at, then you relinquish that advantage.
You don’t need 10 days to attack the flat, just two or three ways with a lot of timing and execution. So you have to be careful about making changes.
Q: So what are the advantages of running the pistol?
Leach: There are really two versions of it. It’s a formation, and an offense. There are a series of plays that complement each other. It’s not very hard to install if you focus all your attention on it. As a formation, you align the backs to reap the advantages for all the things that make zone play good. You counterpunch when the defense overcommits. You’ve got blocking on the perimeter. But your success won’t be great if there aren’t the right numbers. Blitzing against it is very tough.
I like it. It’ll be around awhile. But it’s the kind of offense where I’d borrow some concepts without doing it across the board. To me, distribution is important. Put the ball in everyone’s hands. If you focus just on the skill guys, then they become targets.
I wish them the best for their season. It’s a great school, a great place to be and certainly they have great weapons. I hope it comes together for them.
Q: It doesn’t bother you when you hear your name connected to a job or a school even where there isn’t an opening, because maybe people think you’re campaigning for something that isn’t there?
Leach: That’s just part of the business. If you let it bother you, then you’ll just be agitated all the time. You can’t change that, so you just roll with it. You’re either on the list of the total dogs that no one in their right mind will want because you’re no good, or you’re on the list of someone who can turn something around, have the right dynamic, have a lot of energy. I think I’m on that second list.
Q: Dozens of teams have fired and hired coaches in the last two years, but you’ve only seem to be seriously considered for one job, in Maryland. Does it baffle you somewhat that you’re still not employed? Or you think unresolved litigation against Texas Tech somehow puts everything on hold?
Leach: That smear campaign does have a chilling effect. That’s why it becomes important to set the record straight. I’m proven not guilty of anything. You can see my record. I’ve never had a major NCAA violation. You’ve never read anything about that about me in the newspapers.
Q: Then wouldn’t it be smart for you to figure out a way for athletic directors to get a copy of your book so that if they don’t know what you’re about, they’d have a pretty good idea after reading this?
Leach: That might be helpful, but I also think I have a 10-year track record that speaks for itself. You’re always going to deal with chancellors and presidents as a head coach. We had three chancellors and five presidents at Tech in my 10 years. I got along great with five presidents and two chancellors. You can do the math. It only takes a few worms to spoil the basket of apples. What else could it be?
Q: In the book you say that you’d like to get back into coaching but only if it’s for the “right reasons … finding a school that is committed to football, values academic excellence and wants to work as a team so that everyone can win together.” Is that asking for too much?
Leach: I hope not. I want a place that’s not just trying to sign up football players, but wants to win. We’ve found that when you have the players challenge themselves in the classroom with academics, they also challenge themselves on the field. There’s an ulterior motive to getting them to feel satisfied about competing in the classroom. They develop skills to compete in all areas. They know they’re capable of more than just getting Cs and Bs. They’ll figure out that it’s meaningful to get the As.
The university offers so many different things.The first day I went to college (at BYU), all of the sudden, I was in a big city for the first time. I came from a town of 5,000 people in Wyoming; now there’s 27,000. It was exciting in so many ways. Forget about football, it was about sharing in the school’s success, being a part of something bigger. If your school wins a national softball title, everyone is pulling for you in the same direction. That’s gigantic.
When I was at Tech, I was envious of schools that had administrations that were all about team work, not just in football. That whole environment makes it exciting for the players and thrilling for me to be there, too.
Q: Is that what you’re missing most about coaching right now, the teamwork?
Leach: Yeah, the intensity of everyone pulling together in the same direction. I’ve traded variety and freedom for that right now. I miss the one-for-all and all-for-one. When you win a game during the season, you think about it – it really took you four years to get that win. It starts when you’re recruited, lifting weights, spring football, game plans, developing skills as backups to starters, refining things, finally getting out there and finding a way to prevail.
Q: Does your law background help you at all in getting the work done now in the two pending cases you have filed?
Leach: Not a lot. It helps with some terms and maybe makes me a little more prepared. But I let my attorneys handle all that. One of the first things you learn in school when you’re in a lawsuit is that if you represent yourself then you have a fool as a client.
Q: Good for you. You listened close enough to remember that?
Leach: Absolutely. And if you worry about all that stuff, then you’re not living your life. I’ll just go about my business, at the mad pace I have, and keep my frustration down to all about trying to get through airports.
Q: As soon as you graduated from BYU in the early ’80s – and didn’t even play college football – you ended up in Malibu getting a law degree at Pepperdine. How did that happen?
Leach: Well, that was quite a contrast in my life at the time. I lived in Canoga Park – 21121 Bassett, near DeSoto, the banks of the L.A. River. That concrete ditch. Great for car chases, gang fights, skateboarding. We got bars on the windows. I mean, we’re in the barrio. Helicopters flying over head with spotlights. I don’t regret one bit of it. I lived where I could afford it. I’m there with my wife and daughter. I never minded the heat in the summer. If everyone’s sweating, what do I care if I’m sweating? It used to drive my wife nuts. I rather enjoyed it, watching everyone get bothered by it.
So I’d drive 25 minutes to Pepperdine in Malibu. Only the single students could live there fulltime. Sometimes, it’d be scorching hot in the Valley, but when go to Malibu, you’d want long sleeves and a jacket.
Q: Ever ride out any memorable earthquakes?
Leach: Here (in Florida) it’s all about hurricanes. Here comes one! One’s on the way! Maybe it’s here! An earthquake, you either have one, or you don’t.
I experienced one where I was sleeping on a pull-out coach in Canoga Park, its early in the morning, I heard this ‘wack, wack, wack’ sound. It’s the big plastic thing at the end of the curtain chord slapping against the wall. That was big time. ‘Son of a gun, we’re in the middle of an earthquake.’
But the bigger one, it was a 5.5 somewhere out in the Pacific, and I was working for the Santa Monica public defenders’ office, and we were at the L.A. County Jail downtown. People asked us later, ‘Did you feel that earthquake?’ We didn’t feel a thing. That concrete structure downtown, suffice to say, is very earthquake proof. In fact, if Armageddon ever hits, I think all the people locked up there will all be the safest.
Q: Too bad Pepperdine doesn’t have a football team anymore. How cool would that be coaching there?
Leach: Now that would be fun. I heard they had a great team when the campus was in L.A. I wonder if I still know people there. They’ve got a great field sitting there. It would make a great place to put a stadium. I remember when they used to film that “Battle of the Network Stars” (TV series) there. They’d always try to recruit us students to come over there and watch, to cheer for them. The first time, sure. The second time, OK. The third time, not so much. They’d be pleading with us, but we’d finally make something up. ‘Yeah, we have a bar-be-que with some friends, sorry.’
Q: You also write about how you’ve become friends with Peter Berg, who brought you in on “Friday Night Lights.” You’ve watched him work on his new movie, “Battleship” and saw how there’s so many similarities between film making and coaching – scripting, meetings, film room, all the detail work. You also mentioned that at one point in your life you considered acting. What’s preventing you from diving into the movie industry now?
Leach: You know, well, that’s really a whole other profession you have to commit to. I’m happy to do partial things, get excited, check it out, talk to those people. Curiosity is part of it. I did get to play myself in “Friday Night Lights.” They didn’t trust me to play anyone else. But the short answer is I want to get back into coaching. But if something popped up …
Q: When did it dawn on you that being on a movie set was a lot like being in a coaches’ meeting room?
Leach: Movies are so complicated, there’s not just one person who can do it all. It’s a total team effort. Everyone has their area of expertise. I have a receivers coach, a secretary in charge of recruiting, a strength coach, a water boy. They have someone who does animation, script changes, cameras, stunts, budgets. The challenge is pulling it all together. Peter goes around to all the different stops and creates his gameplan – they meet for two hours each afternoon in order to get two minutes of film.
Then they meet to talk about things like, ‘Do we want the actor looking there or here? What do the aliens look like? Do they have personalities? What kind of uniforms to they have? Do they have three fingers or six? If they’re too strong, then we can’t defeat them. If they’re too vulnerable, then they aren’t threatening. Does this explosion work better here? How much does it cost? If it’s cheaper, do we use the other one. It’s like football, going back and forth. Then you go out and shoot it, try to execute it as smooth and precise as you planned it.
Peter is a brilliant, fascinating guy. Prior to that, I’ve also got to hang out with Matthew McConaughey. And he has a whole different approach. They’re both so down to earth, sharing their thoughts and ideas, giving them in ways I can understand it. It’s really a lot of common-sense approach, like you’d have in any business. You discover things, you do them again and again, you get better at it.
Q: On the subject of changing careers, you write in the chapter “Why Not Me?” about how some people today are afraid to change careers and experience a different journey because of a fear of how they’ll be perceived. As a football coach, do you have to worry about how people perceive you? Or does it matter as long as you’re winning?
Leach: I think you do to a point, but don’t confuse reputation with character. Character is far more important. If you stick with that, ultimately everyone will see you in a far more positive fashion. You can’t compromise your values for your reputation. You do the right thing by people, understand people, have the right view you and yourself, that’s part of leadership. You want your players to follow you in the right way. Reputation may be a part of it, but it never replaces character.
Q: The book does pretty much layout what you’re character is all about, despite what some may think of your reputation.
Leach: I hope so. I was just caught in a bizarre set of circumstances. I think I replaced Tiger Woods as the lead story there (in December, 2008) for doing nothing wrong. Now they’re using things like “sovereign immunity” as a way to defraud me and try to get out of this. You can’t sue us. That’s all they can muster for not paying me for 2009. So I’m guilty for cleaning up my reputation and trying to get my salary for the last year I worked there. The irony thickens. None of this has even gone to trial yet. This would have never happened in a state like California. The appellate court is trying to split the baby in half now, by saying I can’t get damages from Tech, but I could go to court to clear my name.
Q: Does all this affect what people think of you as a coach?
Leach: I don’t know. How can any of it affect my ability to coach? The practical matter is, it doesn’t. Does it change my ability to coach? No. Does it change my innocence? No. Does it change my right to collect a salary? No. Does it affect the kids’ graduation rates, or how seats are filled at the games, or games that are on TV? No, it doesn’t affect anything. The only thing is the perception of the decision makers. But when you consider reputation or impressions, a vast majority seem to see things my way and have a clear picture of how I got screwed, no matter how you present it.