Eccentric and effective, Mike Leach has Washington State winning and making a playoff push

It’s best just to do away with preliminaries when it comes to Mike Leach. Step aside as we examine The Pirate at the peak of his career. Again.

In the 58th year of his life, in his second head-coaching job, the scruffy native of Susanville, California, the graduate of Pepperdine Law who resides in Key West, Florida, the man whose offense is copied from coast-to-coast, Leach is coming off perhaps his biggest win in a decade.

When Washington State beat Oregon on Saturday, it made the Cougars the Pac-12’s best (and maybe last) hope for the College Football Playoff.

Long-time friend and former coach Dennis Erickson texted Leach on Saturday with, um, congratulations.

“So, you’re safe for one more week,” Erickson typed.

As outlandish as Leach can be, he likes to keep things in perspective — his perspective. This is a guy who calls the former Texas Tech employers who got rid of him, “swamp monsters.” This is a guy who welcomed to his home last weekend a youth football coach from the United Kingdom.

“The British,” Andrew Sweeney said summing up the experience, “are used to being eccentric.”

This is a guy who, according to texts, was more than close to becoming Tennessee’s coach before this magic season.

Now — and maybe for the remainder of his career — Leach continues to remake Washington State from remote national also-ran to remote national contender. This latest run also reminded us that Leach has evolved from a wacky, no-filter master of candor to a wacky, no-filter coaching elder statesman.

“Listening to people does get the wheels churning,” Leach said this week.

The Cougars’ coach was talking about a key play from that 34-20 win. Dubbed “Big Gulp,” it involved tailback James Williams taking a direct snap from a receiver in the swinging gate formation. Williams scored the first touchdown of the game.

The play came at the suggestion of Microsoft engineer Patrick Baumgartner, who accompanied Leach and a group of politicians to Cambodia over the summer.

“While they were going to boring political meetings, we were checking stuff out,” Leach said.

Various reports have defined “checking stuff out” as hanging out at a Cambodian bar. That’s where those wheels got churning again.

“There was a janitor at Valdosta,” Leach said of a job a quarter century ago about a play suggestion he can’t quite remember. “His first name was Jonathan. He wasn’t one of those bossy know-it-alls. He said, ‘It seems to be the offensive line isn’t moving their feet,’ little subtle things. To this guy, it was very obvious our technology had diminished in some area. That probably would move the needle more than some screwy play would.”

Those uninitiated in the Zen of Leach want to make his Air Raid offense complicated.

“It’s a style; it’s not over-complicated,” said Sweeney, who coaches a team of 15-year-olds in Loughborough, England, 2 ½ hours north of London.

Some form of Leach’s Air Raid offense is practiced at the overwhelming majority of FBS programs and has even infiltrated the NFL. His coaching tree includes at least 13 current or former college head coaches. Two of his former Texas Tech quarterbacks — Graham Harrell and Kliff Kingsbury — have Super Bowl rings. Kingsbury is carrying on Leach’s Air Raid tradition as the current Texas Tech coach.

Harrell is offensive coordinator at North Texas for Seth Littrell, who played (at Oklahoma) and coached for Leach (at Tech). Leach’s receivers coach at Texas Tech took Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff in his first season as head coach. You know him as Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley.

What you see occurring at Washington State, Leach has done before. Ten years ago next month, No. 6 Texas Tech beat No. 1 Texas in a game they’re still talking about in Lubbock. A week later, the Red Raiders rose to No. 2. For 13 weeks, that year little ol’ Texas Tech was ranked in the top 10.

In his seventh year at Washington State, Leach has the Cougars nearing their highest point since 2002 when they won the Pac-10 and went to the Rose Bowl. These Cougars have started 6-1 and risen to No. 14 in the AP Top 25 with graduate transfer Gardner Minshew at quarterback.

Minshew was committed to Alabama until …

“We asked him if he wanted to lead the nation in passing,” Leach said. “He said he did.”

Minshew, an East Carolina transfer, continues to do just that averaging 392 passing yards per game.  He was reportedly the safety net for Nick Saban to back up Tua Tagovailoa if Jalen Hurts transferred. It seems that everyone is better off the way things stand. No. 1 Alabama is separating itself from the field.

Meanwhile, Minshew probably never would have been carried off the field by court-storming fans had he gone to T-Town.

“We thought he was better served leading the nation in passing than sitting on the bench at Alabama,” Leach said. 

Minshew this week is the toast of a very small town. Leach seems to specialize in those kinds of places. Lubbock was a sleepy West Texas outpost until he brought it the most fame it had ever experienced.

Taking Texas Tech to 10 bowls in 10 years might never be accomplished again. Talking playoff at Washington State has never happened before. Beating No. 12 Oregon allowed the Cougars to move into contention this week before the first CFP Rankings release next Tuesday.

There are at least two ranked teams in Washington State’s way — No. 24 Stanford on Saturday and No. 15 Washington in the Apple Cup on Nov. 23.

Last season, the Cougars were 6-0, rising to No. 8 in the polls before losing to Washington; otherwise, Wazzu would have played in its first Pac-12 title game. Leach and the Cougs have come a long way from losing to FCS Portland State in 2015.

“Try losing that, you’ll know what a big game is,” Leach said.

Since that day, Washington State is 33-12. In the four years before Leach, the Cougs were 9-40.  

As always, The Pirate is best when he’s veering from the mainstream conversation.

  • On Baumgartner, that Microsoft engineer: “You soon discover the Microsoft guy, they’re not interested in telling you what time it is. They’re interested in telling you how to build a cuckoo clock.”
  • Recently released texts lit up the Pac-12, its commissioner and one of Larry Scott’s top lieutenants. Leach called general counsel Woodie Dixon “a total coward,” for his role in influencing a targeting call in the USC game.
  • Most of the school administrators who ran Leach out of Texas Tech in 2009 after allegations of mistreating players are gone. Doesn’t matter. “Like these little swamp monsters,” he said. “The occasionally donate a little money and act like they should be in charge of it. They’re in a swamp. They need to stay there.”
  • Leach reminisced about his media policy at Texas Tech. It was so restrictive that one major Texas paper stopped covering mid-week media availabilities because of the expense and lack of news value. “You didn’t like that I brought in three [players] shorter than me for media day,” Leach said. No, I didn’t. “They all looked like kickers. Our kickers were bigger than that.”

As for that play-calling wizardry, Leach has thought about that, too. Imagine Big Gulp all day, all the time.

“What if one time I went in there, one game and ran this 100 percent of the time?” Leach asked.

If he stays at Washington State long enough, we may find out what else Leach has learned at Cambodian bars. 

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