Mike Leach is strolling down Duval Street on a recent Sunday night, clad in a gray T-shirt with a mermaid on it, khaki shorts stained with barbecue sauce, and black flip flops. It’s an outfit that — during this island’s annual costumed bacchanalia known as Fantasy Fest — makes him stand out in the crowd.
Behind him, a bare-chested caveman is lifting his loincloth to expose himself for a photo. To his left, a masked woman in a shiny black plastic catsuit is holding a chain attached to the spiked dog collar worn by her topless blonde companion.
A group of “Smurfs” walks by, their bodies painted blue. The men are wearing only white briefs and white hats. They’re accompanied by a topless woman in a white thong with rainbow-colored knee-high socks.
Another man sports fishnet stockings, a feather boa, a miniskirt and high heels. It’s all coordinated in black, except for the turquoise thong that’s peeking out.
Leach, who’s showing a visitor around, appears oblivious to the spectacle. But finally even he has to acknowledge the obvious.
“You know,” he says, looking around, “it is a little odd, isn’t it?”
His first fantasy
Leach has been coming to Key West since 1990, but this is the first time that the eccentric 49-year-old has been here during Fantasy Fest, a weeklong event held every October, which some locals describe as “Mardi Gras gone really bad.”
Until this year, coaching football got in the way.
But these days Leach is free in the fall. Last December, after 10 successful seasons at Texas Tech, he was fired in the wake of allegations he mistreated a player. Now he works Saturdays as a college football analyst for CBS College Sports, co-hosts a national radio show on Sirius XM and lives with his wife, Sharon, and two of their four children in a three-bedroom bungalow they bought in August 2009.
They don’t have a car. To get around this 4-mile-long, 2-mile-wide coral island with a population of 23,262, they mostly walk, ride bicycles or, in Leach’s case, rollerblade.
In college football, Leach stood out because of his offbeat, outgoing personality. But here he’s just another colorful character. He’ll hear an occasional “Hey, Coach,” from those who know who he is, but more often people will simply ask him for directions, to take a photograph or listen to a random story.
“Mike is just one of the comfortable locals who you don’t mind sitting next to and hanging out with,” says friend Theo Alexander. “You get that vibe off him. He’s cool with himself being here.”
Leach says what most attracts him to Key West is “the interesting people and all their different stories from different parts of the world. That’s what’s fascinating to me.”
“He just loves Key West,” says former Oklahoma and Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer, one of Leach’s closest friends. “It’s the perfect place for him.”
Watch out for sharks
Leach first came here in 1990 to recruit a kicker as part of a two-week recruiting trip to the South when he was offensive coordinator at Iowa Wesleyan. Later, when he was offensive coordinator at Valdosta (Ga.) State, Leach applied for the head coaching job at Key West High School.
He didn’t get it, but his passion for paradise wasn’t diminished. He started coming back several times a year, even bringing his staff at Texas Tech with him annually for a summer retreat.
During one of those trips Leach had a harrowing encounter with a shark. It happened about five years ago when Leach and two of his then-assistants, Dennis Simmons and Charlie Sadler, were out on a boat with Leach’s closest Key West friend, Joe “Weed” Clements.
Leach and Clements were in the shallow water, but Simmons stayed in the boat eating fried chicken, having just watched “When Sharks Attack!” on television. As he tossed his chicken bones in the water, Simmons thought he saw something move.
And he did — an 8-foot shark.
Sadler and Simmons warned Clements and Leach, who were still some 40 yards away on a sandbar. As they waded back to the boat, the shark started swimming around them in ever-shrinking circles.
With each circle, they stopped and waited for it to pass before wading closer to the boat.
“At this point, I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to lose my job,’” Simmons says. “I can see the headlines tomorrow: Texas Tech head coach eaten by shark.”
Finally, Clements made it out of the water, but not yet Leach.
“That’s when Mike acts like Jesus and starts walking on water to get to the boat,” Simmons says.
As the group pulled Leach in, they looked down in the water and noticed that the shark’s mouth was right underneath his foot.
“He’s been swimming with sharks all his life anyways,” Clements says.
A guy named Weed
Leach has many friends in Key West, but the closest — and most colorful —- is Clements.
Everybody knows him as Joe Weed. He insists he got the name after he grew like a weed — sprouting 9 inches to 6-foot-2 — following his freshman year of high school.
The 50-year-old is known as “Key West’s oldest teenager” and is the unofficial mayor of Key West. He works as a computer programmer for the local school district and is so close with the Leaches that Sharon Leach listed him as the emergency contact for the couple’s 14-year-old son, Cody, and 12-year-old daughter, Kiersten, when enrolling them for school.
“He’s incredibly fun because he’s got the ability to see the dimension of the human experience at all kinds of levels,” Leach says of Weed.
Leach even had Weed show Florida coach Urban Meyer around here for two days this past summer.
“You’re going to have a good time if you’re hanging out with him first and foremost,” Simmons, now an assistant at East Carolina, says of Weed. “He’s the socialite of Key West for sure.”
Weed is prolific when it comes to the opposite sex. To keep up with the many women in Weed’s life, Leach comes up with nicknames for them. There’s a Russian stripper he calls “The Spy.” There’s “Kitty-Kitty,” because that’s the name of her dog, and there’s “Poly,” who once told Weed she wanted to date several men at once and be in control of all of them.
“Every time I turn around, he’s got a new nickname for whatever girl I see,” Weed says.
Another of Leach’s local friends is Theo Alexander, who stands 4-foot-5 and will quickly point out that the proper term for someone like him is dwarf, not midget.
He’s the “short sales manager” at a local pawn shop. He’s also a part-time blacksmith and participates in historical reenactments at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park that range from the golden age of piracy to the Civil War.
He’s also a ballroom dancer whose parents are former champions in the sport.
When Alexander and Leach first met several months ago, neither knew anything about the other. Alexander, who’s often harassed or made fun of because of his stature, appreciated Leach’s friendship.
“Mike’s always treated me like a normal person,” Alexander says.
But Leach is most impressed by Alexander’s ability to cope with the challenges presented by his size. He notes that Alexander built pedal extenders so he could drive his black 1998 Pontiac Sunfire.
“I’ll be honest, you always wonder how it comes together, how they make it and what limitations there are,” Leach says of dwarfs. “Through his handiness and ingenuity, there’s not very many.”
Alexander says his fondest memories of Leach are simply standing in the back of bars well after midnight, laughing and drinking water with his wife.
“He’s just enjoying where he lives like the rest of us,” Alexander says.
On a recent Monday night, after Leach and his wife have gone home, Alexander is sitting in a tall chair at a bar with a spellbinding topless 20-something tanned brunette wearing red, white and blue body paint on her chest. Before he leaves, Alexander ends up with red paint on his face.
Just enjoying where he lives.
He’ll have the lobster
With his experience and connections, Leach considers himself an expert on this island. He prides himself on giving tours to visitors, as he did on a recent Monday afternoon.
He takes them to Harpoon Harry’s, a restaurant, where the decorations include a painting of the restaurant by local artist Marc Caren, who is known for painting the Key West scene.
Leach wants to buy one of Caren’s paintings. “I’d like to meet him,” Leach says. “I’ve always wanted to meet him.”
“We’ll make sure that that happens,” replies Dave Aaron, who works at the restaurant.
Leach’s tour makes its way to the docks, where he points out several tarpon in the water. He’s never caught one of the silvery, popular gamefish that can top 100 pounds, but he recites a list of fish he has caught, which includes a permit, bonefish, shark, mahi-mahi and snapper.
In August, Leach went lobster diving with Key West High football coach Jerry Hughes. He caught the limit of six, but initially kept fighting the current of the water and struggled remembering that the lobsters move backward, not forward.
He also kept chasing the ones that ran from him instead of those that were easier to catch.
“Let me just say that if I had a camera on while we did it, I could get $10,000 from ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos,’” Hughes says. “That’s how bad he was.”
At Turtle Kraals restaurant, Leach is greeted by two female bartenders. One jokingly asks if he’s going to discuss “how much you drink in Key West.” He laughs, but says he hasn’t had alcohol in 3-1/2 months. He explains that he just wanted to see if he could do it here.
“The hardest place in the entire world to not drink is here,” Leach says. “So I figured, hey, if there’s a mountain, climb it. It wasn’t hard. It’s actually been pretty fun.”
As Leach continues his tour, he pulls a plastic baggie out of his pocket containing a homemade turkey sandwich. He starts to eat the sandwich while walking to Schooner Wharf Bar. There, a group of men recognize him and offer to buy drinks, but he declines.
Another man, who appears to be drunk, walks up and tells him a wandering story about how he sailed in from Mobile, Ala., in six days. He tells Leach how difficult it was to stay on the boat the last night because of rough conditions.
“Well, you’re here now,” Leach says. “Great to see you.”
The James case
The only crack in Leach’s easygoing demeanor appears when the conversation turns to his wrongful-termination and breach of contract lawsuit against Texas Tech. It’s currently being handled by Texas’ 7th Court of Appeals, which will decide whether Leach’s lawsuit will go to trial.
In June, a lower court judge ruled that Texas Tech’s conduct in firing Leach meant his lawsuit could proceed.
In December 2009, it was alleged that Leach ordered wide receiver Adam James, who had sustained a concussion, to stand in a dark garage during practice.
School officials ordered Leach to issue a written apology to James, whose father is Craig James, a former Southern Methodist and New England Patriots running back, who is a college football analyst for ESPN. Leach refused, and was fired on Dec. 30.
Leach says allegations about his treatment of Adam James have been “shot full of holes.”
“If I was going to abuse players, why would I select a guy who plays five plays a game and who’s got a rich daddy with a big microphone?” Leach says. “None of that makes any sense.”
As Leach talks about his lawsuit, a man walks up and asks him, “Where do you go to get on the Key Way Express?” That’s the high-speed passenger ferry in the area.
Leach doesn’t know, but recommends stopping at a nearby booth.
“Thanks,” the man replies.
With that, Leach resumes talking about his lawsuit. He believes Texas Tech Chancellor Kent Hance was embarrassed in negotiations that led to Leach’s 5-year, $12.7 million contract in February 2009 and wanted him gone because of it.
“I’ve never abused a student-athlete,” says Leach, who had an 84-43 record at Texas Tech, led the Red Raiders to bowls in each of his 10 seasons and whose teams were known for having high graduation rates. “We obviously wouldn’t have had the success that we did if I had.”
Return to football?
Leach would love to get another college head-coaching job, but he says he hasn’t been contacted by anyone yet, despite some speculation that he’s a candidate for Minnesota’s opening.
“I think it’s better to wait and see what comes my way,” Leach says. “You want a place that’s not just signed up, but wants to win. Academics are important. I want one boss that’s in charge and a place that values teamwork.”
Before Leach started his radio and television gigs, he made summer visits to the coaching staffs at Florida, Utah, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State as well as those of the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Jets. He also went to France this past spring for two weeks and was a consultant for a football team there called Le Flash.
Leach says he hasn’t watched much football this season beyond the broadcasts that he’s worked. He’s more likely to be reading chapters of his forthcoming autobiography with author Bruce Feldman and talking on the phone, while his wife watches football in another room.
But Leach still has plenty of opinions on the game. He believes the innovativeness of the wildcat offense is overhyped, but he’s intrigued by the pistol offense.
“It changes the angles of the things,” Leach says of the pistol, a variation of the shotgun. “The swing route off of it is good and you can protect either side, but you’ve got to be careful of inside blitzes.”
Leach has also kept up with Texas Tech some and is befuddled by the Red Raiders’ disappointing 4-4 record under his replacement, Tommy Tuberville. He notes the team returned 16 starters and that he had said publicly that it would be the best squad of his tenure, one that he expected to compete for a Big 12 championship.
He occasionally hears from Texas Tech players, but says “they don’t really want to talk football.”
“It surprises me,” Leach says of Texas Tech’s struggles. “It’s a good group that’s certainly capable of a lot more.”
Leach has helped coach at Key West High. He tutored the team’s quarterbacks on a few occasions during spring practice.
When Key West High played Miami powerhouse Booker T. Washington High School last month, he helped Hughes come up with a game plan.
Because Washington played man-to-man pass defense with a strong rush, Leach recommended that Hughes have his wide receivers run pick routes, put his best wide receiver in motion to cause confusion, and have his quarterback take three-step drops to be able to throw quickly. Yet despite Leach’s expertise, Washington routed Key West 42-13.
“It goes to show that no matter what you draw on the board, you’ve got to have the studs to beat them and we just don’t,” Hughes says.
Hughes recalls a conversation he had with Leach back before Leach stopped drinking alcohol. Hughes told him, “Listen, to have put up with 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds, administrators and assistant coaches, man, you ain’t doing none of that (expletive) right now. You’re enjoying life.”
Leach just laughed and took another sip of beer, Hughes said.
“If he doesn’t get in something soon, then I think he will be lost,” Hughes says. “For now, I just think that he’s really enjoying Key West. But all coaches, I don’t care who you are, and mostly head coaches, have egos. I think he does have a big ego in the fact that he wants to prove the people of Texas Tech that they made a mistake.”
A landmark … and lingerie
The next stop on Leach’s tour is Captain Tony’s Saloon, a Key West landmark whose clientele has included Conch legends from Ernest Hemingway to Jimmy Buffett (whose song “Last Mango in Paris” is about Captain Tony Tarracino). It’s where an impressive collection of bras hangs from the rafters.
“They’ve kind of revived that tradition I guess recently,” Leach says of the bras, without offering further explanation. “It hadn’t been like that.”
On the way out, Leach points to a sign featuring the image of Tarracino, who died in 2008 at age 92. On it is Tarracino’s motto:
“All you need in this life is tremendous sex drive and a great ego — brains don’t mean (expletive).”
Leach also stops to try his hand at a local custom. The Captain Tony’s sign has a large fish with an open mouth. Leach says it’s good luck if you can stand with your back to the sign and flip a quarter into its mouth.
Leach makes several unsuccessful attempts before giving up.
“You get dizzy once you pull your head back,” he says.
Can’t shake the booty
Another Key West lure for Leach is pirates. Leach is famous for his love of all things swashbuckling. There used to be pirate museum here where Leach would eagerly take visitors, but it recently moved up the Florida coast to St. Augustine.
But there’s still the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum. Fisher, a former chicken farmer who turned to treasure hunting, in 1985 discovered the wrecks of a Spanish ship, the Atocha, that sank during a hurricane near Key West in 1622. The estimated haul in treasure was $450 million.
Leach says he knows one of Fisher’s sons and has received a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum.
“He was one of the great adventurers of all time,” Leach says of Fisher, who died in 1998 at age 76. “It’s fascinating at every level.”
Leach has considered buying a coin from the Atocha, which he estimates would cost as much as $5,000, to have to play with while he does his work.
“That’d be pretty cool,” Leach says.
After stopping for a Cuban coffee, Leach heads to the top of the seven-story La Concha Hotel, the tallest building in Key West. There, he is recognized by a couple visiting from Owenton, Ky.
“We miss you at Kentucky,” Mark McChesney says.
Leach was Kentucky’s offensive coordinator from 1997-98, when the Wildcats had record-setting quarterback Tim Couch.
“I heard you were down here, but never thought we’d run across you,” McChesney says.
McChesney tells Leach that he and his wife are looking to buy a house in Key West. Leach sounds like a real estate agent as he describes it as “a really good place” with “that whole small-town thing with lots of water.”
“There’s quite a bit of houses on sale,” Leach says. “It’s a good time to buy, too.”
A surprised McChesney thanks Leach and tells him he doesn’t want to take up any more of his time.
“I hope you move,” Leach says.
The next person to approach Leach, a buxom blonde in a short dress, has no idea who he is, but just wants him to take her picture. She jokingly asks him to take a photo of her left toe as she shows off her leg before posing.
Leach fumbles with the cell-phone camera before saying, “Ready?”
“Always,” the woman replies.
Leach takes the photo and then shows it to her, explaining that it’s dark because of the shadows.
“You’ll have to lighten it up,” Leach says.
After the woman walks away, Leach is asked if he thinks she really was a woman or, given that this is Fantasy Fest, after all, a cross-dresser.
“That’s a great question,” he says. “I was thinking the exact same thing.”
It’s not always like this
Beyond football, Leach’s interests remain as varied as his personality. In February, he went to Malibu, Calif., where he spent time with his friend, actor Matthew McConaughey. The two read scripts and barbecued together.
While in the Los Angeles area, Leach also visited his friend, director Peter Berg, who was doing pre-production for the movie, “Battleship.” He’s visiting him again this week in Baton Rouge, La. for the filming of the movie.
“It’s a lot like football,” Leach says of making movies. “You take a lot of input from the people who are involved in the different positions.”
Over breakfast at Harpoon Harry’s, Leach apologizes for the freakiness of Fantasy Fest. He reminds a visitor that Key West is otherwise “a pretty quiet place.”
“It’s usually not like this,” Leach says.
Asked what he’d like to tell those who think he’s faded into obscurity after his firing at Texas Tech, Leach has a simple message.
“I’m still here,” he says. “I’m still here.”
And for right now, Leach wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s at least until college football comes calling again.