This was the biggest game of their lives. A few weeks ago, the game against Texas had held that distinction, but the Texas Tech Red Raiders won that one in the last few seconds. Then it was the Red Raiders' next game, against a tough Oklahoma State team, that trumped the Longhorns game in its significance. Tech smashed Okie State and suddenly the Red Raiders bandwagon started to fill up. And now they came to Oklahoma to play the 5th-ranked Sooners and nothing else can or will compare to this event this season.
Mike Leach, the man Bob Stoops entrusted to run his offense when he took over the OU program in 1999, is just 2-6 against his old boss coming into the game. And Tech's free-wheeling offense has been contained to an average of just 20 points in games against OU since then. But it's possible Stoops doesn't have all the answers for Leach. Or maybe Tech's talent level has finally caught up to the Sooners. After all, Tech had beaten Oklahoma in two of the last three meetings, including last season's upset, when the Red Raiders knocked Sam Bradford out of the game and went on to win, 34-27, sparking a 12-game Tech winning streak. Now, a year later, the Sooners appear to be the last hurdle until the Big 12 championshp and a potential BCS title game berth for Leach's Red Raiders. To add to the drama, both teams had an extra week to prepare for this one.
With so much at stake, ESPN The Magazine scored exclusive access to Texas Tech from the moment they hit Oklahoma City until kickoff, as Mike Leach prepared his Red Raiders for the biggest game of their lives.
Friday, 3:45 P.M. CST The Red Raiders arrive at their hotel, the Oklahoma City Embassy Suites. The team enters through a side door into Ballroom C. Two TV cameras and the ESPN College Gameday Radio crew are waiting for Leach. His media appearances are often different than most head coaches. Leach is the king of the tangent. His conversations at times resemble the free-wheeling nature of his offense. He is happy to launch into dissertations on subjects ranging from the life of Geronimo to his favorite West Coast surf spots to the goofiness of Desperate Housewives ("It's kinda like Pulp Fiction, with women."). Leach loves to take an interview in a completely unexpected direction. Even though today's hot topic is how Tech has to emotionally get up (again) for another hefty Big 12 showdown, Leach has other ideas.
"So do you have asthma?" Leach asks a cameraman who is breathing heavily. The guy seems somewhat incredulous before explaining he'd just circled around the building.
4:45 P.M. The entire Tech offense—starters, reserves and staff—has assembled in a parking lot outside the hotel. On a 10-yard stretch of asphalt that is sloped to a V in the middle, the Red Raiders rapidly run through their blitz pick-up simulations that have been designed to counter Oklahoma's blitzes and defensive fronts.
Unlike most teams, Tech never goes to the stadium the day before an away game. Leach used to do it, but towards the end of his first season he had an epiphany of sorts: that stadium visit was a monumental waste of time. "It was a logistical pain in the ass," he says. "And you're like, 'Hey their field's the same dimension as ours'. Like that's really interesting. So we're done with it." Leach suspects other coaches feel like they still have to make a stadium visit out of paranoia or superstition. Not him.
In the parking lot, the players move through each rep at half speed, but the pacing between each rep is fast. Leach and running backs coach Seth Littrell watch, arms folded, from a few feet behind QB Graham Harrell. Within 11 minutes, the group is called together. Leach is pleased with the tempo his guys maintained. "That's probably the fastest we've ever gone through that," he says.
5:05 P.M. Dinnertime. Tech eats buffet-style with prime rib, two kinds of chicken and a legion of carb-heavy side dishes. The mood is downright festive. Leach doesn't mandate any seating arrangements and says the dinners, these road trips and the camaraderie that they foster will be some of the things the players will remember long after they've left Tech. At a table with six of the assistants, there is no discussion about the game plan or the Sooners. The talk is about recruiting—a sleeper prospect the staff is excited about and the glowing reaction some received last week in their first time out visiting high schools.
"It's amazing how different the reception is," receivers coach Lincoln Riley tells Dennis Simmons about the shift in perception now that Texas Tech is in the top five. "Everybody looks at you differently." How different? Just last week, 60 Minutes came to Lubbock to visit with Leach and observe practice.
6:08 p.m. The team is on the move again, back on the buses headed for downtown Oklahoma City. Every Friday night Leach takes his team to the movies. The players are allowed to pick whatever movie they want to see and go their own way provided it fits in the time window when the team is at the Cineplex. Leach's only stipulations: no horror movies (so no Saw V) or any "cancer-y type" movies that might get them "all wound up."
"Some guys will go to those horror movies just to follow their buddies because they don't wanna look scared," Leach says as he thumbs away on his cell phone, trying to spell out text messages on his keypad. In the 20-minute ride to the theatre, the coach texts almost non-stop: friends, former players and people just wishing him luck for tomorrow.
Asked if it'd be easier to have a Blackberry with a full alphabetic key board, Leach scrunches up his face: "Actually I think it'd be easier if no one else had 'em then I wouldn't feel the need to respond."
6:56 p.m. While the rest of his players disperse to their respective theatres to see the new James Bond flick or Role Models, Leach, who has seen both flicks, heads to see Twilight. It's a vampire movie, but it's a vampire movie about nice vampires, he says, adding that he's heard people talking about it. Trouble is, the film started 20 minutes ago and the first theatre showing it is packed, so he heads to the other theatre. This one is just as crowded. The only option is the front row. Leach plunks himself down smack in the middle.
If it seems odd to have a major college football coach sitting in the first row like this, it feels even more surreal whenever the male lead comes on screen to flirt with his love interest, triggering snickers and howls from the dozens of teenage girls seated behind the Tech coach. Leach, with his super-sized soda and popcorn, doesn't seem to mind.
8: 40 p.m. The movie ends, thankfully. As the lights come back on you realize that not only is Leach the oldest person in the room, but he's also one of only two males in the entire theatre. "That was one of the worst movies I've ever seen," Leach says apologetically. It then dawns on him that the reason why he'd heard something about the movie was because it was based on a popular book that many teenage girls loved—girls like his daughter. "The thing that really concerns me is I think we had some guys who signed up to see that movie," he says as he files out.
9:02 p.m. After signing autographs and posing for pictures (three of the teenage girls in the theater recognized him), Leach is the first one back on the bus. He begins to replay the dozen messages he received while suffering through Twilight. Among the well-wishers: Kliff Kingsbury, his former Tech QB and Mike Stoops, brother of OU coach Bob and a former colleague. While he and Mike catch up, Leach begins jotting down some notes on a folded up sheet of white paper. These are the themes he wants his players to focus on. Most of them are not unique to tomorrow's game against Oklahoma, but Leach believes they will reinforce the mindset his team will need to beat the Sooners, a squad that has only lost twice at home since Bob Stoops took over in Norman a decade ago:
• Respect everyone, but fear no one.
• Make the routine plays.
• Play with enthusiasm.
• Make sure we have great body language.
• Play with good pad level.
• Just do your job.
Leach is convinced that so many intangible elements can shape whether a team plays well or not, especially in road games. Some of the elements seem inherent to football, like being tough and aggressive. Others, like maintaining great body language, less so. Of course, execution is the most vital element to success in football and many factors can cloud how well a team executes. The same squad can look flawless one Saturday and like a trainwreck the next. Attributing it all to the emotional swells of 18- and 19-year-old men would be an oversimplification. Leach is of the mind that winning games rarely comes down to which staff can devise more cunning trick plays to fool its opponents, an idea the coach sees as deriving from the media's ill-conceived fascination with a 'Gotcha!' strategy that goes against the virtue of simple execution.
As the bus fills up, Leach settles on the 10 players he wants to tab tonight to address the team. Leach doesn't warn them that they might get picked. His only criteria are that he chooses players who won't be adversely affected by the task and those who might elicit the best response.
Five minutes after the buses return to the hotel and the team has gathered in one of the meeting rooms, Leach's calls the name of a player. It is not a senior or a guy who has ever played at Memorial Stadium. Instead it is a lanky sophomore with long, stringy hair pouring out of a ski hat. His name is Bront Bird. He is a linebacker and coaches rave about his intensity and smarts. Bird played his high school ball at legendary Texas prep program, Permian High in Odessa, the school of Friday Night Lights fame.
Bird stands and lets fly, talking in rather salty terms about taking the fight to the Sooners. His riff sends heads nodding throughout the room with. Bird is followed by The Elf, as Leach calls Eric Morris, who opts for a lighter tone. One by one, Tech players with varying degrees of intensity stress points about doing their job, playing for each other and out-hitting Oklahoma. Brandon Carter, Tech's mammoth offensive guard who's nicknamed Mankind in honor of the former WWE pro wrestler, might even top Bird in his venom. "People have been saying we've shocked the world the last three weeks. F--- that. F--- them. We haven't shocked ourselves. And you guys know that."
By 10:15 p.m., the players head up to their rooms. Wake up is at 9:30.
Game day - 10:23 a.m. The first surprise of the day. Usually when Tech is on the road, they have an omelet station in their makeshift dining hall. Not today. Director of Football Operations Tommy McVeigh, who handles Tech's travel plans, is informed by the hotel staff that no one requested it. Player after player enters the room and is dejected to find out there is no omelet station. Rylan Reed, the Red Raiders' starting left tackle and arguably the strongest man in college football, walks in and winces when one of the assistants breaks the bad news.
"He's shook now," says Matt Moore, Texas Tech O-line coach. "He's the most superstitious guy I know." But all is not lost for Tech. There is an omelet station in the atrium area of the hotel, where the rest of the guests are eating. Soon, half the team is heading that way. Moore has to hope all of his problems this Saturday can be solved so easily.
11:01 a.m. Special Teams meeting. As Leach sits in the back of the room with his legs crossed wearing a tan baseball cap and peeling an orange, each of his assistant coaches walks up to the front of the room to give their own pep talk. After 15 minutes of comments that echo the players' riffs last night, rap music cranks up as the lights go out. A series of Tech's best special teams highlights rolls on the projection screen in the front of the room. When the music ends, the highlights are followed by a final message:
Do Your Job.
11:19 a.m. The defensive players file out of Ballroom A and head off to their own meeting. Moore, the line coach, runs "the blitz meeting." He narrates a series of plays by the Sooner defense, pointing out tendencies whenever possible. "They're not a huge blitz team," he says. Moore shows what he believes are OU's main blitzes out of third-and-long and other situations as well as what certain individual Tech linemen need to do to counter.
This meeting is short and to the point before the players are allowed to go back to their rooms to watch other games or listen to music. Anything to get their minds right.
3:30 p.m.: There is tension in Ballroom C. The Red Raiders are having their pre-game team meal. The vibe is noticeably different than at any other time in the past 24 hours. There is no laughter or joking and barely any talking. Eyes dart around as some staffers and players appear to be trying to get a read on the team. Leach still seems, well, fairly Leach-like, although a bit subdued. He knows his team has had a great week of practice. He thinks they are ready. He concedes it's never easy to get a read on a team's mindset. Are they really focused or really tight? He'll find out for certain in about three and a half hours.
3:48 p.m.: After a quick walk-through outside, this is the last team meeting before leaving the hotel. "Alright, here we go," Leach begins. His pep talk touches on many of the same points he stressed Friday night. "Respect everyone, but fear no one. Do NOT talk to them. Make sure we're great on the sideline. Make sure we have great body language. Make the routine plays. Expect good things to happen. Be the most excited to play. Just do your job." And with that the lights go off and a bass sound booms. A series of highlights from Tech's last game, against Oklahoma State (a 56-20 thrashing), is set to the adult version of Ludacris' "Wish You Would." A wave of energy rips through the room. Players' heads bobs and sway. The clip ends with a few plays from last year's Red Raider win against OU and then the words:
Be most excited to play.
4:24 p.m. Four buses packed with players, staff, a few boosters and Red Raider cheerleaders depart from the Embassy Suites, escorted by two Oklahoma State Trooper cars. Leach sits in the first seat on the offensive bus next to McVeigh. Nearly everyone on board is silent, listening to music through headphones. The drive takes 44 minutes and about the only sounds comes after witnessing a near accident as a car almost broadsides one of the patrol cars a few minutes from the stadium. Preparation is over. It's time to play.
Turns out, the real disaster for the Red Raiders happens at Memorial Stadium as the Sooners jump all over Tech. The Red Raiders defense surrenders huge chunks of yardage. Graham Harrell is pressing. So is everyone else for Tech. Oklahoma ties a school record with 35 second-quarter points and pounds Leach's team, rolling up 625 yards while holding the vaunted Tech offense to 1-for-13 on third downs. The final: 65-21, marking the worst defeat for Texas Tech since the Sooners thumped the Red Raiders 60-15 in 2002. Tech's 21 points is its lowest scoring output in 16 games.
11:10 p.m. With two dozen reporters packed into a makeshift conference room in the bowels of Memorial Stadium, Leach sits down behind a couple of microphones to do his post-mortem with the media. After being asked for his opinion on who he would rank higher, Texas or Oklahoma (he says OU), Leach is asked what went wrong Saturday night. He takes a deep breath. "I think we went out and over-tried, and rather than do the routine things, we tried to make a super play," he said. "Perhaps we have to prepare better."
If it were only that simple.