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Monday, April 25, 2005
Updated: April 15, 11:30 AM ET
Free Pass

By Bruce Feldman

Mike Leach is taking a leak.

So what if he's already on the phone talking about how, once again, he turned a no-name quarterback into a record-setting Heisman contender. The man's gotta go. "No offense. Hope you're not one of those uptight guys," says the Texas Tech coach in a nasal monotone.

Leach lives to defy convention. And to yammer on. His mind-blowing stream-of-consciousness jaunts can take you from X's and O's to foreign policy to abstract impressionism-all in one sentence. But right now, answering nature's call, he's focused on a single point: balance. See, balance isn't what they say it is, an equal mix of running and passing. No, Leach wants to tell you that balance means getting touches for everyone who isn't a lineman.

Hardened gridiron types who snarl Lombardiisms and worship the Bills (Parcells and Belichick) would cringe to hear that Leach often doesn't stroll into his office until 2 p.m. That's in-season. It's not that he doesn't take his job seriously-he might stare at film until 4 in the morning-it's just that, as Red Raiders receivers coach Sonny Dykes says, "things are different here."

Clearly, Leach is no ordinary whistle-chomping ogre. While players at most programs have to schedule appointments to get the ear of their head coach, every Red Raider has Leach's cell number. More than once, his players have approached Leach with a play they created for the Tech offense on PlayStation, and his reaction is always, "What the hell, let's see if it works." It rarely does, but who cares?

"You can smile around here," says Dykes, the son of Spike Dykes, the man Leach replaced.

"He proves you can win without making everybody miserable."

MIKE LEACH is smiling--heck, these days, all of Lubbock is. The afterglow lingers from a 45-31 Holiday Bowl throttling of No. 4-ranked California. Season ticket sales, which didn't crack 20,000 before Leach's arrival, have nearly doubled to 37,000. The team's graduation rate last year was a school-record 89%. And thanks to Leach, Tech has produced the nation's most prolific passer in each of the past five seasons (former walk-on Sonny Cumbie threw for 520 yards in the Holiday Bowl alone), even though all three QBs during that span were marginal pro prospects. It's a pretty safe bet that next fall's Heisman watch will include Tech's newest slinger-whomever that will be.

Leach isn't exactly obsessed with the choice. He'll wait until August before picking from senior Cody Hodges, sophomore Phillip Daugherty and redshirt freshman Graham Harrell. In fact, just before spring practice began, he spent a week most coaches would pass in the film room skiing with his family at Sundance. If only he'd had time to tack on some surfing and roller-blading in Venice Beach. No golf, though. "I hate golf," he says. "They should put magazine racks in the carts."

Leach grew up in Cody, Wyo., on the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park. But he discovered he was a beach dude in the mid-1980s, when he was a law student at Pepperdine. Back then, he never imagined he'd coach football, in west Texas of all places. Leach didn't even play college football, one of only five Division I-A head coaches who haven't. As an undergraduate at Brigham Young, he played rugby and made a name for himself there in other ways. Leach's unkempt mop regularly violated the school's honor code, which still requires that locks be "trimmed above the collar, leaving the ear uncovered."

"It's just the way my head is formulated," he says, presumably referring to his dome's shape, not its inner workings. "I gotta let it ride."

Leach and his law degree were locked on a career path in product-liability litigation, the little guy taking on corporations, when he realized something wasn't right. He wrote a letter to famed attorney Gerry Spence, another Wyoming native, to solicit his opinion. Spence replied that if Leach's mind wasn't consumed by law, he shouldn't be a lawyer. Deep down, Leach already knew. What appealed to him about the profession, the preparation and mental sparring, soon led him in another direction.

The lawyer whose coaching résumé consisted mostly of Little League assignments talked his way into a grad assistant's gig at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. When Leach told his wife, Sharon, about the salary, she said $3,000 a month sounded like good money. "No," he told her, "it's $3,000, total."

MIKE LEACH is doing the tourist thing in New York City a couple months before last season, with his two oldest daughters, Janeen, who is 19, and Kim, who is 14. Walking past the Trump World Tower, he thinks, Cool building. Nice lines. What the heck, let's dial up The Donald. I'll tell him I liked his book. Leach had bought How to Get Rich at the airport and finished it before landing. Right there, on First Avenue, he dials information and gets the number for the Trump Organization. After being transferred three or four times, he winds up on the voice mail of Trump's co-author, Meredith McIver. "Yeah, uh, this is Mike Leach," he says. "I coach football at Texas Tech and, uh, I just read his book and found some good ideas in there, and I want to talk to him." Trump is out of town, but McIver calls back. Leach gets some restaurant tips in the exchange, but, truth be told, he just wanted to see how far he could penetrate Trump's inner sanctum.

A few weeks later, Leach's secretary fields a call from The Donald--and takes a message. (If she actually had believed it was him, she probably would've gotten Leach out of that quarterbacks meeting.) Leach eventually gets Trump on the horn. "Next time you come to Manhattan," the magnate tells him, "give me a call."

"Will do," says the coach. "And you do the same if you come to Lubbock."

MIKE LEACH is chuckling. He's not a belly laugh guy. In fact, his default expression lies somewhere between indifference and bemusement. Usually he just tips his chin to you, to acknowledge the humor. But apparently, talking about what defines sportsmanship is a hoot, especially all the criticism about Leach running up the score to tick off other coaches. "Look, I'm pissed if third-teamers go in and don't score," he says. He knows that at any time, third-teamers may have to become first-teamers.

Shoot, if it were up to Leach, there'd be no postgame handshake between coaches. "It's uncomfortable," he says. "If I've lost, I don't feel like shaking your hand, and if I've won, you're probably not feeling like shaking mine." The man has low tolerance for BS of any kind. To his mind, the votes of coaches in the polls should be public. "If you don't have some agenda, why wouldn't you stand behind it?" he asks. And don't get him started on the whole Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim business. "Is that not the dumbest idea you've ever heard?"

His goals are really quite simple. Leach wants all four of his receivers to have 1,000-yard seasons and his running back to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving. Sound outrageous? Maybe, but the Red Raiders have already scraped that Arena Football stratosphere. Last season, two receivers eclipsed 1,000 yards and a third would have been close had an injury not cost him three games. Running back Taurean Henderson was 160 rushing yards short of a grand and added another 286 yards on 60 receptions.

Balance is the guiding principle of what Leach calls The System, a go-for-broke fireworks display he and buddy Hal Mumme cooked up to revitalize offenses at Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta (Ga.) State and Kentucky. Leach hooked up with Mumme after bouncing south from Cal Poly to the College of the Desert, where he coached the linebackers, to Finland, where he was head coach of a semipro team, most of whose players puffed cigarettes on the sideline. The Mumme-Leach scheme is an offshoot of LaVell Edwards' offense at BYU, with a much more liberal dose of the no-huddle and shotgun. "I guess not everybody tries it, because they think it's a little too radical," says Mumme, now the head coach at New Mexico State.

It didn't scare off Bob Stoops. When he took over a downtrodden Oklahoma team in 1999, he hired Leach to run the offense. That fall, unheralded former juco passer Josh Heupel set a school record with 3,850 yards through the air. The next season, Oklahoma won the national title.

But Leach had already packed his bags by then, heading to Lubbock after just one season with the Sooners. At first, the folks in west Texas didn't know what to make of Leach and his funky offense. What they knew was they loved Spike Dykes like a son, which is essentially what he was, having grown up a pooch punt from Tech's Jones Stadium. Ol' Spike was as down-home as chickenfried steak. The new guy? Lord. He didn't talk like Spike. Didn't stir the gravy like him either.

Leach wasn't a square peg in a round hole; he was an octagon. Even after Tech passed for more than 3,000 yards for the first time in school history while leading the nation with three shutouts, some boosters complained the new coach was too gimmicky. Two falls later, after Tech got squashed in its season opener by eventual national champ Ohio State, the editor emeritus of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal wrote a column that derided Leach for everything from his offense to his reclusive behavior to his hesitance in reaching out to the community. "Tech did wind up with a jerk among its head coaches," the local wag wrote. "And to the delightful surprise of many, it ain't Bobby Knight."

Rumors had Leach brooding because he felt Tech football was the poor stepchild on campus now that Knight had taken over the basketball program, and Knight's pal, the former Red Raiders hoops coach Gerald Myers, was calling the shots as AD. The swirl of controversy intensified when Leach returned from a summer vacation to find his program $400,000 over budget and his expenditures frozen. He couldn't even send letters to recruits. And just when Tech lifted the "Stampgate" embargo, word leaked that officials had investigated whispers about Leach's off-hours behavior, namely an alleged penchant for late-night boozing. Then-school president David Schmidly told reporters he "checked them out for Mike's own good," and nothing came of it. Still, whenever Leach went out around town, he was accompanied by his lawyer.

Leach shrugs off both instances. "I don't care about any of that," he says. "The facts in every situation bore out on my side of things."

Of course, winning hasn't hurt his cause.

MIKE LEACH is marking his territory. He's 10 and teaching a lesson to Pepe, a golden Lab from the neighborhood. The dog makes sport of running away with Leach's baseball glove, taunting him with a look that says, "What are you gonna do? You can't catch me." Leach always gives useless chase before finding the glove on his lawn much later, gnawed and drooly.

On this day, Leach and a buddy have decided to play Daniel Boone. They set up a tent in the backyard and head inside to get their sleeping bags. As soon as they're gone, Pepe relieves himself all over the tent. A furious Leach spends an hour cleaning up before laying out his sleeping bag and heading back to the house. He isn't inside for 10 minutes when he glances out the window. His sleeping bag is on the lawn. Oh no, he didn't, Leach thinks as he races outside. Oh yes, he did. Pepe peed on his sleeping bag, too.

Leach's mom tries to explain that the dog is just marking his territory, but the kid fumes. He puts a bowl of leftovers near the tent and then hides behind it. When Pepe returns to nose around the scraps, Leach grabs the dog's collar and then unzips his pants. "Let's see how you like it," the kid says. "Take this, Pepe!" Oh yes, he does.

"I just fired away," Leach remembers. "Pepe didn't touch my glove or my tent again. Although I'm not sure what that says about animal behavior. Or mine."

MIKE LEACH is bowling. And he hates bowling, maybe even more than he hates golf. But the girlfriends of some of his coaches wanted to go, so Leach throws on his trusty Angels cap and a Billabong T-shirt and heads out to the local lanes on a rainy Friday night in March.

Earlier in the evening, Leach had dropped the ceremonial opening puck at a Lubbock Cotton Kings hockey game. Tomorrow, Texas governor Rick Perry will give him honorary black cowboy boots at a Tech hoops game. (He's still trying to figure out how to attach them to his flip-flops.)

The 5'5", 22-year-old buzz cut in the next lane tells Leach he's going to play quarterback for Tech and help him win the Big 12. Leach engages, says he's counting the days. When two bowlers at the bar catch sight of the coach as he feebly tries to pick up a 7-10 split, they act as if they've spotted Elvis on Lane 9.

The crackpot outsider has become a local treasure. Once one of the conference's lowest-paid coaches, he is about to tack two more seasons onto a deal that will pay him $1.275 million a year through 2009. Not that Leach is going to go all pitchman like a certain other Red Raiders coach.

"Look, I'm just trying to win games," he says matter-of-factly. "People ask me who we're playing next year, and I honestly can't remember. I'm just thinking about making the most of each day."

And each day is a whole other story.