3 days with Mike Leach: Inside the wild, wonderful, wandering mind of Mississippi State's new coach
PHOENIX — Halfway through the quarterback meeting 2 days before the Cheez-It Bowl, Mike Leach stopped the clip of Anthony Gordon, the leading passer in the nation, short-arming a throw during practice the night before.
“You have to swing the bat,” the coach said.
Then, as he is known to do, Leach went off on a tangent.
This one involved San Francisco Giants first baseman Will Clark and his competitiveness. During a regular-season game, the guy up to bat checked his swing and fouled the ball off. Clark, always the competitive type, started yelling from his position in the infield.
“Swing the f—— bat!” Yes, Clark was yelling at an opponent to swing the bat. Leach’s point? Don’t go soft. “He was the Bill Laimbeer of baseball; never afraid to fight anyone.”
Leach then explained that Clark played for the legendary Ron Polk at Mississippi State. Of course, at that time, no one knew that the coach would be mentioning Polk’s name at an introductory press conference … in Starkville … ringing a cowbell in front of adoring maroon-clad fan as the new head coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs just a few weeks later.
* * * * * *
That was merely one of many memorable moments in the hour-long meeting.
Due to circumstances that will be explained later, Leach granted me access to himself and his Washington State Cougars leading to their bowl game against Air Force, and that included the famous quarterback meetings that are a part of college football lore.
Some moments are standard, replicated everywhere. With Leach at the back of the conference table and his corps of quarterbacks facing the projector screen, the coach continually plays, rewinds and replays one pass at a time, each at least 4 times, and normal conversation between him and Gordon happens.
“I like this. It is a good read,” Leach says.
“I just missed him,” Gordon responds. Leach agrees.
The lingo — red-seven, scissors, shoot, stick, sluggo — flows much like jargon in a well-oiled kitchen of a restaurant or cockpit of a 747.
Yet it is just when you think that this is going to be shockingly normal, Leach shows Gordon getting intercepted by a scout team player.
“Some guys are just better,” Leach rags his prized quarterback. “You’re luckier, he’s better.”
I don’t know whether to laugh, but it is obvious that Gordon knows that his coach — maybe? — is joking and smirks.
Then the attention turns to, of all people, yours truly as Leach inquires of where I flew in from that morning. I had been in Fort Myers visiting my parents and, since the man has a lot of knowledge about just about everything, he mentions that the first Hooters restaurant was built there.
“Right by the bridge in downtown before you head over,” he says. This conversation somehow lasts 5 minutes.
(A week later, we agree over text he meant Clearwater. “That’s right,” Leach texts. “I thought it was one of the two. Next to the bridge you go over to get to the beach.”)
Back to business he goes. Once the film ends, the quarterbacks leave.
Three of us remain: Leach, me and sports information director Bill Stevens, one of the nicest men you will ever meet and former tennis star at Wazzu.
Our conversation — and who knows how it ended up there — turned to which was better: In-and-Out or Waffle House. Leach’s answer will be popular with his new fans in Starkville. Does he know Oxford is the only town without one?
“It’s open 24 hours! It’s the greatest restaurant. They are even open today (Christmas Day)!”
Hopefully this turns into a feud with Auburn coach Gus Malzahn for the title of Biggest Waffle House Fan.
* * * * * *
In case you haven’t witnessed a Leach-led practice, they’re like every Leach-led practice. The quarterbacks never stop throwing, the receivers never stop running routes and Leach, almost always in cargo shorts and a t-shirt (sweatshirt when chilly) watches with a close eye.
This last practice of the season is at Campo Verde High School, about 30 minutes southeast of Phoenix, and, for a team that spends a week practicing at a middle school in Lewiston, Idaho, these conditions are top notch.
Unlike most SEC coaches, there’s not much secrecy to what is going on. During my time covering Wazzu a year earlier, practices were only closed once the season began. During fall practice? Come one, come all. Yet don’t run afoul and report on secret plays or formations — the “Big Gulp” named after a certain USA Today writer being the most famous one the past 2 years — once the season begins. Some publications have learned that the hard way.
The only real difference? Crowd noise is being piped in over the speakers along with some fight songs, none of which are actually that of Air Force’s.
Leach’s laid-back style is not an act. Hardly does he raise his voice above room volume, leaving that to his assistants to get their players pumped and prepared for the day. Once live scrimmages begin, he stands behind his quarterback, calls the play and then calls another.
The Air Raid is not rocket scientist, even though if asked, Leach gladly would provide any insight for free. Repetition, repetition, repetition. When I asked a former wide receiver if he could still run routes from his days playing for Leach, he said, “You run those every day and so much that I can’t forget them, even if I tried.”
The running back coach, Eric Mele, trots over to say hello and gives me a hug.
“It’s your fault he’s here,” Stevens jokes.
After practice, Leach walks over to the media and blurts out, “Any questions?”
This is where he can shine, and often, go viral. But advice for others: Football questions won’t elicit the legendary Leach soliloquy. No, it is anything but the game. Knowing this and aware that the team was heading to Fogo de Chao, a Brazilian steakhouse, that evening, I ask him which player will consume the most?
“Good question,” Leach says before spending the next minute or 2 looking at players still on the field and casually going through the names in his mind.
After some deep pondering, he settles on offensive lineman Liam Ryan but admits that it always seems like one of those skinnier guys can put away the food. No one asks the same question about the coaching staff.
* * * * * *
Media Day starts the same as any interview with Leach. Asked for an opening statement, the coach is short and sweet.
“Well, we are excited to be here at the Cheez-It Bowl and does anyone have any questions?”
He’s asked about Christmas, his views on Donald Trump, playing against Air Force and a roster full of players that will one day go on to defend the country. Someone asks him about how they planned to stop the Falcons’ triple-option, which Leach looked a little tired of answering.
“Execution,” he mutters.
With so much time spent with Leach, I think that his players must have some of the best untold stories about the lawyer/coach/Pirate expert. Of course, it was hard to find tales that were censored enough to be shared at a bowl’s media day.
Brandon Arconado, the Cougars’ leading receiver, thought it over.
“One time we were talking about blocking and football and he was telling me a story about when he was younger, about him on a swing set or something like that,” he said. “I was like wait, what? I’m over here like splitting reps with some guy. The guy’s like come on, come in. I’m talking to Leach. He’s taking all of the reps, dying. It was pretty funny. I was like how did we get to you playing on the playground when you were younger?”
Offensive lineman Josh Watson shared another.
“On my official (visit), he taught me how to do my laundry and we talked about swimming.”
Defensive lineman Karson Block is aware of Leach’s widespread knowledge.
“There’s a lot of Leach stories. I think the fun thing with Leach though is he knows something about everything. There’s never a dull moment with him. Anything you can think of and you will have a nice 30-minute conversation on whatever the topic is. There are too many stories to narrow the funnest ones down.”
While every player had their impression of Leach that came in different forms coughing and saying, “Hurry,” a certain name kept popping up when asked who did the best: Anthony Gordon.
Bingo! A perfect shot for the quarterback to get back at his coach for the shots taken during the quarterback meeting.
He didn’t disappoint.
* * * * * *
The night before the game is Movie Night. It’s a team event and includes the coaches. This is one place I’m not welcome, so I take a seat at the bar at the team hotel. I am surrounded by people who know Leach.
One guy, from Leach’s days at Texas Tech, was invited to Phoenix for the game and is having a grand time, introducing himself, handing out business cards and trading stories about the coach. Without question, Leach attracts a diverse group of personalities.
Maybe that explains my presence. Everyone has their own Leach story.
Mine in a short version: I came out in July 2018 expecting to cover Washington State and especially Leach, except what I was told in the job description didn’t actually meet reality. Not even close.
Still, we kept in touch and everyone — from his staff to many of the players — knew I was in town as his guest. One night last February, I spent more than an hour in the bathroom of my local bar in Manhattan having a conversation with Leach while he walked home from his office.
Much was discussed. The animals he hunted growing up in Wyoming. Politics for a good 20 minutes, which is 18 more than I can intelligently discuss it. Key West, New York City, Petra, Israel. The opioid epidemic in the area of Kentucky where I grew up.
In December, before Mississippi State came calling, we decided to do this feature.
While I sat at the bar, Leach and the team saw the movie Bombshell. Of course, you want to hear his review. It’s short.
“It was pretty good. Almost like a cartoon of FOX News. It helps to know the backstory of the characters. It was entertaining, with some clever character nuances.”
Running into co-defensive coordinator Roc Bellantoni, who joined the Wazzu staff before this season, I asked him what it is like being around Leach every day.
“It’s never boring,” he says with a smile.
I feel like there is much more he could share if we went off the record.
Bedtime. Ready for the game tomorrow.
* * * * * *
Here’s something else SEC fans will have to get used to (or maybe love): Leach doesn’t do things for appearance. Most coaches will show up in a tailor-made suit; that’s not his style. At Chase Field, the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Leach shows up in jeans with a white Washington State pullover on with sneakers. A cup of Starbucks coffee is nestled in his hand.
Shadowing him while not interfering during pregame, the attention comes directly his way. Radio and television reporters want interviews. Former NFL punter Pat McAfee, a spokesman for the bowl game, stops and asks for some time.
I’m not certain if Leach even noticed his team — most of them shirtless and taking advantage of the indoor conditions — warming up.
Frankly, it’s hard to keep up with him. If your mind or eyes wander for one second, you lose him and only searching for another sports information director, Bobby Alworth, can give you a location.
There are no pep talks on the field leading up to kickoff. This team — his 8th and final at Washington State — knows what is expected of them. That happens when the same drum is pounded into your ear for an entire season.
The roof of Chase Field is opened just before kickoff, allowing several parachuters to land on the field with various flags. I make a note to ask Leach about that, and had he ever jumped out of a plane, if the Cougars pull out the win.
* * * * * *
I don’t get the chance. The game doesn’t turn out like Leach and the Cougars expected. Air Force controls the ball, makes some key plays and wins 31-21 to end the season 11-2. Washington State, once ranked in the top 20, struggles to the finish line with a 6-7 record.
Yet for a program like Washington State, coming to a 5th consecutive bowl means a lot, and Leach, always a historian of the game, brings up a former SEC coach (another bit of foreshadowing?) when talking about getting the Falcons off the field.
“It’s like, to me, (former Georgia DC) Erk Russell was one of the greatest defensive coordinators on Earth. He was the guy that coached the Junkyard Dogs. And Erk Russell says defense wants to get off the field, you control that. Get off the field. Well, we didn’t do a good job controlling getting off the field, and we didn’t do a good job controlling scoring when we had opportunities. That’s where we fell short.”
I feel like Leach is staring at me, waiting for me to ask a question. Maybe he was. Maybe I was imagining things. So I ask about his quarterback, Gordon.
“I think Anthony did an outstanding job as far as sparking our team, sparking our offense, and was extremely explosive,” he said. “And, also, I think that he sets a great example on how working through the back row and finding your way to the front. How, if you get opportunity, you can really take advantage of it. I don’t think Anthony is done playing yet.
“So I think we’ll get to enjoy watching him play in the future as well. He’s a great guy to coach, fun to have around every day, just really explosive with his arm. I think, over time, he’s getting to where he sees the field extremely well and puts the ball on people very quickly.”
He quickly wraps up the press conference by acknowledging the hosts.
“We want to thank the Cheez-It Bowl for putting on an outstanding event. The hospitality that they provided to us was great. And this is a great bowl for anybody that’s got a chance to be a part of it. Thanks a lot.”
With that, he is off to the locker room. Unbeknownst to everyone, he had coached his last game for the Washington State Cougars.
In a text the next day, he says, “It was GREAT to finally be able to answer your questions.”
Long time coming.
* * * * * *
So what did I learn after spending 3 days with Mike Leach?
Nothing will change him. He’s going to win his way — and his way only — and if people aren’t happy with that, so be it. The results speak for themselves. He has taken 2 fringe programs in Washington State and Texas Tech, both among the most difficult places to recruit in the Power 5, and turned them into winners. His team will be exciting, no matter the win-loss record.
That certainly bodes well for Mississippi State.
He will always be good for a soundbite or two, whether it is lashing at someone or trying to tell me, as he did one time, how and where to get my hair cut in the city of Pullman. He doesn’t hold back. Calling a reporter a sanctimonious troll? Absolutely. There is no filter.
For that, he’s one of a kind. He will tell you his opinion on everything and have advice for anything. He can seem gruff at times, but he certainly cares about his players, coaches and staff. He’s loyal.
It might take some time for Leach to make an impact in what is a tough SEC West, but know this: When the Pirate swings his sword, he hardly misses. Mississippi State is going to be fun to watch.