The conversation with Mike Leach lasted 45 minutes. Even if I typed out every word, you would have more questions. I do and I was there.
This is the genius of the unemployed Texas Tech coach. He is one of the last honest men in college football and he did not save all the good stuff for his refreshingly honest book, Swing Your Sword. He sprayed truth bullets at Craig James, ESPN, the Longhorn Network, the lack of a playoff and all of this recent craziness in college football even though doing so is probably keeping him from landing another job.
So I tried to answer the questions I thought y’all might be thinking while listening along.
Where is there?
This is not one of those columns filled with anecdotes of the interviewer and subject eating dinner or going places. I was pulled off on the side of the road just outside of Mexia, Texas. He was on his cell phone in Birmingham. We had been playing phone tag and there was no one I wanted to talk to more. College football is literally falling apart at the seams and I could not take one more pile of coaching bull snot about how “I don’t really get involved in this stuff." I wanted the truth. So I sat in my Volvo and mostly listened.
Sounds like there is a history?
A few years ago, I flew to Lubbock. The New York Times Magazine had just done a huge story on Leach and we wanted to tell his pirate-y story, too. I was told I would get 10 minutes. Four hours later, I had missed my flight back, had a working knowledge of driving in Finland and the spread offense. So yes, I have known him forever and I like him.
Is he still into pirates?
Yes, although he is way more into sovereign immunity at the moment. If you do not know why, the short and dirty version is his former employer Texas Tech fired him as football coach in 2009 for allegedly locking a player, Adam James, son of ESPN commentator Craig James, in an electrical closet while he had a concussion. This has been proven not to be true. Actually that is not strong enough, this has been proven not only not to be true but the creation of a PR firm in Dallas hired by James to try to get Leach fired. The book has copies of all of those pesky little emails and memos that say as much.
So Leach has been trying to sue Tech for the $800,000 they saved by firing him when they did. Only Texas is one of two states (the other is Kansas) that has sovereign immunity preventing the government from being sued.
“What they are saying is ‘It doesn’t matter what we did wrong. What we owe you doesn’t matter. We are the state and you can’t do anything,” Leach said.
This annoys the part of the coach trying to sue. It even more annoys the lawyer in him. He explained how this makes Texas like Somalia and North Korea. It is hard to understand. Easier to say, it is not fair.
When are you getting to the Craig James stuff?
Right now. Leach dove in almost immediately. This is what people want to know and Leach does not disappoint.
“What I know is an angry parent wanted to attack a sitting coach and he used a world wide network to do so," Leach said. "I don’t know whether they believed him or supported him out of blind faith or just repeated his lies and half truths. What I do know is they didn’t have the integrity to set the record straight once the words had left their mouth.”
He knows what people are saying.
“Keep your mouth shut, let this blow over, get another job. Don’t pick fights you can’t win.”
He cannot stomach that path, because biting his tongue is not his forte, and if he doesn’t say anything then people think he locked a kid in a closet. He can’t live with that and doesn’t know how ESPN can.
“If to be a head coach in this country you have to be at the mercy of ESPN, then they need to hire all the coaches and bypass presidents and ADs,” Leach said. “I don’t think the presidents will like that. Do you?”
So what does he really think of Craig James?
His words: “I would have to say I share the opinion of 90 percent of the country.” This is not favorable. Let’s leave it at that.
So Leach hates all of ESPN?
Not really, not at all actually. He believes a lot of good journalists work at ESPN. He wrote Swing Your Sword with one of them which, come to think of it, is not a good example at all. Leach is still pretty hacked at the way Bruce Feldman was treated when he had to resume his duties after not being suspended. In Leach’s mind, it makes his point about unchecked power.
“What is all that stuff you learn in journalism school? Don’t tell the story, let the facts tell the story,” Leach said. “With two notable exceptions, ESPN reporters I have dealt with have integrity."
The problem, as Leach sees it, is when the facts bump into the agenda of the World Wide Leader. He feels like reporters have facts yet have to ask themselves, “If I write that, will my bosses be mad? Will I get in trouble? What is the agenda? Do I have to move this around so they’ll be pleased?”
And he definitely feels like this happened with ESPN’s reporting on the Adam James deal.
Wait, why the hell is he saying this?
I asked him that very question. He said, “Truth can’t be compromised out of cowardice or convenience, which is why I cannot pretend something is what it is not to help myself.”
I told you. He is one of the last honest men in college football. He does not know how to lie. His good friend in coaching, Hal Mumme, is quoted in Swing Your Sword as saying, “Mike is the most brutally honest person I know.”
This is most certainly true. He will say that is a stupid question, or you do not know what you are talking about, or in the case of Texas Tech that he was not going to take their crap contract after an 11-1 season, including a victory against then No. 1 Texas. It is why Tech chancellor Kent Hance jumped on the chance to use the Adam James stuff to fire him. Again, this is not my opinion or even Leach’s. This is spelled out very clearly in the emails flying back and forth between Hance and boosters back then and all included in Leach’s book.
“I’m not an elephant-in-the-room guy," Leach said. "I don’t have issues I don’t address. What happened was not going to be something I avoided or shoved under the covers,” he said.
“Those two chapters are not controversial, not even both sides of the story. There are not two sides to this story. This is their words, their phones, their memos.”
So are the memos as damning as he says?
Pretty much. Swing Your Sword contains transcripts of depositions, memos and emails sent by the PR firm hired by Craig James. It is not pretty stuff.
What was the most surprising thing Leach said?
“I don’t know.”
This is not usually a Leach-ism. He said it in response to a follow-up to a question about what is the one thing being said about him that makes his skin crawl. He initially said all the lies. It was the most politically correct thing I have ever heard him say. So I asked how could it possibly not be the fact that even one person might believe he would put one of his players in harm’s way. In hindsight, the “I don’t know” was truthful. He does not know how anybody can look at his record and believe that.
Hey, if Mike Leach is such a great coach like you say, why hasn’t he been hired elsewhere?
As Michael Lewis, the original author of the New York Times Magazine piece, noted in the foreward to Swing Your Sword: “It borders on sin that Mike Leach is writing books instead of coaching football.”
I believe this to be unequivocally true. Leach is one of the brightest minds in college football who did a damn good job at Texas Tech, especially considering what had come before him. They had won eight or more games only twice in 23 seasons before Leach arrived. They won at least that many eight times in Leach’s 10 seasons.
What does he think of Tech now?
This really is not an answer, but it is a funny story. His youngest daughter is in law school there. The school he is suing. I don’t know if this means anything but all of his book signings in Lubbock have been packed. The Tech fans still very much miss the pirate, not only the wins but how he gave them a swagger and an identity. They were on the national map when he was there. The only two people who are glad he is gone are the only two people he does not miss in Lubbock.
So why again did Maryland not give him a chance last year?
He blames ESPN.
“I think their actions have had a chilling effect, which is unfortunate,” Leach said. “ESPN, at some point, is either going to do the right thing or (be) sitting across from me in a courtroom in Lubbock County.” The pirate versus Craig James is almost too delicious to contemplate.
What does he think of what is going on in college football — the Miami scandal, the conference realignment craziness, the Big 12 drama?
Let’s start with the Longhorn Network. Will it surprise you that he kind of has Texas’ back?
“Some of the things that evolved there are things I can’t fault Texas with,” Leach said. “They have been conditioned for preferential treatment. They asked for preferential treatment. They got preferential treatment.”
The network is just another in a long line of acquiesces to the ‘Horns by the Big 12, and has been in play since the league was formed.
“If another university had the firepower, they would have done it,” Leach said. “All of these people couldn’t do it so they are ticked Texas can.”
It wasn’t the right thing to do, or even the savvy thing, if creating a strong conference was the goal. But Leach understands. He is not, however, a subscriber.
Big fan of super conferences?
Yes. Kind of. Mostly by default. Leach is like everybody else. He believes these bigger conferences with their bigger piles of money are like the bigger-house, bigger-mortgage, bigger-profits-for-corporations thinking that has infected America. The upside, as he sees it, is it moves college football closer to a playoff. He has been one of the coaches arguing for it all along — he has a plan for a 64-team deal and everything.
So does he think he will coach again?
“Yes,” Leach said, though his faith was a little rattled a year ago when he did not get the Maryland job. “I know a lot of coaches that have been hired, fine coaches but none have the pedigree I have. Nobody has my winning percentage. Nobody turned around a school like I did.”
He is right, of course. But none of them have the baggage and very few of them speak the truth about the problems with the sport.
So why not be a little less honest?
“There ain’t no sense in that. Nobody cares about anybody who is not going to tell the truth and be honest,” Leach said. “I don’t have time to keep track of everybody’s little agenda.”
And what if it keeps him from getting a job?
I am paraphrasing here but you get the idea: Then screw them.
He can’t say that, can he?
Yes, he can. He is Mike Leach. He doesn’t know any other way.