A few years back, I got the opportunity to interview Mike Leach while he was still the coach at Washington State.
This was a bucket list item for me. As a lifelong college football fan, Mike Leach always struck me as one of the reasons why the sport holds such a special place in peoples’ hearts. He was a genius savant of the passing offense who never played a down of college football and had deep, passionate opinions about candy corn.
In a sport where most coaches speak in syllables more often than sentences, Leach was a borderline unicorn who could have and should have become a recurring character on Friday Night Lights. His deadpan delivery and very essence are probably best expressed in this clip from a few years back where a reporter asked him for wedding advice:
When I prepped for our interview, I might have had three pages worth of questions for the guy. I wanted to know about how he essentially pioneered the Air Raid system that altered football as we know it. I wanted to ask him about the myriad of coaches from his orbit who now occupy some of the highest profile jobs in college football and the NFL alike—all because they had a thorough knowledge of a system he invented. And I wanted to ask him how at every school he's been at, he’s managed to consistently beat the hell out of much bigger, wealthier programs with inferior talent and resources.
Of course, we didn’t end up discussing any of that. Not even close, actually.
In my experience, interviewing somebody can often feel like molding clay. Everything you need is there, but it often takes some work and effort to shape a conversation into something interesting. And even then, what you end up with usually sucks.
Interviewing Mike Leach was more like... setting off a bunch of firecrackers inside a crowded TGI Friday’s. There was no way of knowing how it would play out, but the results were sure to be interesting no matter what.
He was set to call me at 2 pm. That didn’t happen. I didn’t hear from him at 3 pm either. So I reached out to my contact at Washington State, who assured me Coach would call me soon, during his walk home. Three hours later, my phone rang and it was Coach Leach.
We spoke for the next two hours and I maybe got to ask him three questions. It was easily one of the best interviews of my career. I still think a lot of about the genuinely touching story he told me, entirely unprompted, about a pet raccoon he had when he was younger named Bilbo Baggins.
And the thing about my experience with Mike Leach is that it doesn’t seem atypical — at all.
All over social media, reporters and college football figures alike have shared their own quirky experiences with Coach Leach:
I was a member of the media, and it seems like Mike Leach, by and large, treated us uniquely well—being overly generous with both his time and certainly his quotes.
Of course, after a person passes, there’s an inclination to sanitize their legacy in the aftermath. This is likely especially true for a person who was close with the very people who pen (and tweet) that legacy. When you’re nice to the media, they’re a little more willing to overlook your warts and often regretful political views.
For all of the positive reflections we’ve heard, Coach Leach’s legacy with some of his former players is a complicated one. The most notable example is his dismissal from Texas Tech — the program that put him on the map — which stemmed from his alleged mistreatment of a concussed player. This incident, and other allegations of mistreatment that have emerged over the years, are just as much a part of his legacy as any win or memorable quote.
What can’t be denied is that the story of college football as it exists today couldn’t be told without Mike Leach. He was an innovator, and philosopher and had very specific, detailed views on mascots. And on the most basic level, he was a person who had every reason to take himself very seriously, yet absolutely refused to.