In one day in the cold, dreary dead of winter, Mike Leach made Pullman, Wash., hot.
It was the day back in November when the former Texas Tech coach — after a two-year exile following his ugly (and still-unresolved) exit from Lubbock — moved back onto the sidelines, this time to deploy his “Air Raid’’ offense for Washington State, at soon-to-be overwhelmed defensive backs.
His reception by Cougars fans was phenomenal, and continues even now.
Within minutes after his hiring was announced, Washington State fans took to Twitter with new avatars sporting pirate-themed school logos. The 51-year-old Leach describes the fans’ reactions as "off the charts."
"We’ve had four booster rallies, all of them sold out well ahead of time," he said.
What’s more, the Cougar Athletic Fund has seen an increase of 1,144 donors since Leach was hired — Washington State’s number of total donors now is ahead of Arizona State’s and UCLA’s. For a football program that has been almost dormant for the past four years — and the butt of Pac-12 jokes — this hiring should immediately ease the pain of embarrassed Cougars fans.
But it’s not just Mike Leach the coach who has the Wazzu fans all excited — it’s that whole Mike Leach thing.
The Buc stops here
Leach is somewhat quirky and has been known to make off-the-wall observations during television broadcasts. He’s smart — how many coaches have a J.D. and a Master’s? He’s never played college football, yet is an offensive genius. Ask him a question about scuba diving — one of his favorite hobbies — and you’ll get a dissertation on local sea life in the Pacific Northwest. He’s, well… colorful.
So the SEC has Steve Spurrier, the ACC has Dabo Swinney, the Big 12 has Mike Gundy and now the Pac-12 has … the Pirate?
"As far as the pirate thing … it’s funny, you don’t get to pick your nicknames and tags and all that," Leach said.
"Michael Lewis wrote that article in The New York Times Magazine. And when he interviewed some of my players, they talked about [pirates], and within days of that article coming out — which of course went world-wide — the pirate flags popped up, eye patches popped up, hats, guns, skulls, all kinds of stuff."
Of course, Leach’s passion for pirate history — particularly 18th-century buccaneers like Blackbeard and Calico Jack … and his predilection for pirate proverbs like “swing your sword!’’ … and the fact his Tech office was a veritable museum of pirate paraphernalia — has something to do with his nickname.
Still, that whole pirate thing amuses him.
"It was something the fans shared in," he said. "Anything that brings fans, players and teams together, I think is a positive thing."
What will really bring the fans together is a winning season, and Leach already is hitting the pedal.
He says he’ll "be doing the same [offensive] stuff" — and why shouldn’t he?
Not a lot of Big 12 teams could stop the Air Raid when he was in Lubbock. But now he’s in Pullman, an hour and half from Spokane’s airport.
With its snow-covered wheat fields, remote location and oft-described Mars-like landscape, Pullman is a shock to the senses for most first-time visitors. Leach’s reaction?
It’s his kind of town.
"I grew up in a little town — I grew up in a town of about 7,000 people," said Leach, a native of Susanville, Calif., and now a resident of Cody, Wyo.
"[Pullman is] really a pretty town,’’ he said. “The best thing is that it’s a college town. The college students are all on College Hill. They live right by the university. All the little joints they go to and stuff like that are all right there, near the campus. It’s like an anthill of students."
Already, that anthill is busy.
"They’re going to build a 77,000-square foot football training complex, which is going to be a state-of-the-art one," Leach said excitedly.
"[It’s] certainly one of the best in the conference, if not the best."
Attention Cal, USC and Oregon — the unintentional smack has been laid down.
Because that complex will start building within a year, Leach hasn’t added any pirate gear to his office, but he’s already left his touch in Pullman. He’s installed a large sand pit that has been nicknamed "Leach Beach."
"It’s just for conditioning," he explained.
"A lot of people have trained in sand — Walter Payton used to run in a river beds. We had trouble with ankle injuries at Tech, so about once a week, in the offseason, you’ll do agilities in it, and change-of-direction drills in it."
So far, Leach likes what he’s seeing. Quarterback is one of the positions up for grabs, and both Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday will be competing for the starting spot.
"We’ll just line them up and see how they do," he said.
Leach’s biggest concern is developing depth, and, he noted, "Defensive line, linebackers and offensive line are probably the biggest areas of emphasis."
One thing that will change is the passing game — but it’s not what you think. Last year the Cougars had the ninth-most prolific passing offense in Division I, which isn’t very Leach-like. No. 1 or bust, baby.
"We’ll throw it a little more, and throw it a little more downfield," he said. "We’ll learn a lot and get really good in the spring. I’m optimistic."
Two years ago, Leach wasn’t nearly as optimistic.
Baggage on board
He had just been dismissed from Tech — where he compiled an 84-43 record — and he was the plaintiff in two ugly lawsuits, one against the school claiming breach of contract, wrongful termination and defamation, the other against ESPN, ESPN broadcaster Craig James and Spaeth Communications, claiming libel and slander.
Briefly, Leach was accused of mistreating one of his players, Adam James, son of Craig, by forcing the younger James to stand in an equipment room during practice a day after James suffered a concussion. The school ordered Leach to apologize or face suspension. Leach refused, saying he was only trying to keep James out of the sun.
Then Leach was in fact suspended, leading to his ultimate dismissal — one day before he was due an $800,000 tenure bonus and some $1.7 million in other contract guarantees.
While the Tech lawsuit still has legs, if the court rules in favor of Leach’s claim that he was denied due process in his dismissal, Leach cannot collect any monetary damages. The ESPN lawsuit is "alive and well," Leach said — and between that and the whole Tech debacle, collateral damage ensued.
He was out of a job — and nobody would touch him.
"I’m sure it had a chilling effect, no question," Leach said of his two-year jobless exile.
Finally, Washington State Athletic Director Bill Moos, who until 2010 had been Oregon’s AD, liked what he saw in Leach — who never posted a losing season at Texas Tech.
“When I named Mike Leach head coach in late November, I was hiring one of the top coaching minds in the country and a coach that could re-energize our fan base,’’ Moos said.
“In a little more than three months since the hire, we have seen an increase of 2,000 new football season tickets and nearly $1.8 million in new donations and pledges.”
For a once-esteemed football program — hard to believe, but the Cougars have played in a BCS bow l— to post a 9-40 record after four years of rebuilding under then-head coach Paul Wulff was too hard to excuse. Wulff was let go.
Enter Mike Leach. The Savior. The Genius. The Pirate.
And yeah, the saber-rattler. (“Swing your sword!”)
Speaking his mind
Leach wants an extended playoff system. Reeeal extended.
"The minimum should be 16 teams,’’ he said. “I think 32 is better than 16, but I think 64 would be ideal," he started to explain to me, without taking a breath.
"You could cut the regular season down to 10 games, but guarantee everybody 12 games. In the end, the champion would play 16 games."
Don’t bring up school workload to him as an argument. "That’s a bunch of foolishness," he chided, in a nice, polite tone.
"Basketball players go to school, volleyball players go to school, baseball players go to school and they play a lot more games than football [players do]."
Don’t ever argue with a winner. A man with a law degree. A man with a delicious sense of humor.
Fasten your seat belts, Pullman. Mike Leach is waiting to see you channel you inner pirate.
"I don’t know what exactly is in store around here," he said nonchalantly.