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Pirate act heads to Pullman

FootballTexas Tech Red RaidersTexas LonghornsESPNMike LeachBrigham Young

SEATTLE — Mike Leach had just gotten the Texas Tech coaching job in 1999 when he and an assistant coach flew from Lubbock down to Odessa to recruit a decorated receiver named Roy Williams.

"Amazing-looking kid," said Manny Matsakis, the former assistant.

They told him they'd throw the ball all over the place at Texas Tech, and at the end, they told him, "Before we're done, we're going to beat Texas."

Of course, Williams went on to a prolific career at Texas. But on a November night in 2002, Tech beat the Longhorns 42-38, and afterward, Williams met Matsakis at midfield and shook his hand.

"He goes, 'Coach, nothing against the University of Texas, but if I had it to do over again,'" Matsakis recalled, "'I'd have come to Texas Tech.'"

But for what? For the 65 passes the Red Raiders sometimes threw at opponents? For the card trick the head coach regularly played on recruits? For a window into the eclectic soul of Leach, who is as apt to be up late at night discussing 18th Century pirates or the politics of Herman Cain as he is the options on the forward-passing tree?

Here's the advisory from Hal Mumme, Leach's former passing co-conspirator, on what's in store at Washington State, which just hired Leach:

"You're going to have more fun than you ever had."

Apparently, it's not going to be boring, on the field or off, and you suspect that's exactly what athletic director Bill Moos had in mind.

"If you ever want to sit down with him," said Wes Welker, the Patriots receiver, "take a seat. You could be there for a while."

To read his 2011 biography, "Swing Your Sword," and then to hook up with some of Leach's old players, coaches and cronies is to realize a school with a long tradition of characters might have just signed the king of them.

Leach, son of a forester, grew up mostly in the mountain West. In Cody, Wyo., he idolized Bart Starr and Billy Martin. Raised Mormon, he went to Brigham Young and was fascinated by the offense there but didn't play football.

He earned a law degree from Pepperdine, but mulling a career path, something told him to write to the famed trial lawyer Gerry Spence.

"Was it worth it?" Leach relates in his book. "Do you love law? Do you hate law?"

Spence wrote back: "If you are consumed by law, go be an attorney. If you are not, find something else."

So Leach earned an advanced degree at the U.S. Sports Academy in Daphne, Ala., then convinced his wife, Sharon, whom he had met at BYU, to take a flyer on a part-time football assistant's job at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo — at $3,000 per year.

In the late 1980s, he heard Mumme was looking for an offensive coordinator at bare-bones Iowa Wesleyan.

"I only had like two or three people even interested," Mumme said. "I got his resume and saw it had BYU on it. At least he had some familiarity with the offense. We had more fun than anybody deserves. It was a blast."

Mike and Sharon Leach lived in a trailer. "Not a double-wide," Mumme said. "A camp trailer, like you pull behind your car."

They won there, and it all took off. Mumme and Leach were at Valdosta State from 1992-96, setting all sorts of passing records. Mumme was hired as Kentucky's coach and Leach went with him, and they had future No. 1 NFL pick Tim Couch at quarterback.

Then Leach split from Mumme and joined Bob Stoops' staff at Oklahoma in 1999. He was there just a year before Texas Tech hired him.

In wind-swept west Texas, Leach went 84-43 and his teams went to 10 straight bowl games. One year, Tech scored 70 on Texas Christian and did it again three weeks later against Nebraska. The Raiders put up astronomical numbers, using what Mumme said is a spread offense heavy on BYU accent but with elements of the run-and-shoot, in which receivers and quarterbacks have options depending on the defense.

A few years ago, a coach at Fairfax High in Virginia named Larry Basalyga liked what Oklahoma was doing offensively, so he took a trip to the school's spring coaching clinic and spent time with Josh Heupel, the OU assistant whom Leach had helped coach. He prodded Heupel for more detail, and Heupel finally said, "You need to go to Lubbock."

So Basalyga did, in 2007 and 2008.

"Mike would answer any question you had," Basalyga said. "We sat there all night. He's just a very genuine person."

As Leach's career flowered at Tech, so did his reputation as somebody not interested only in football. He writes that he has read some 20 books on pirates. A 2005 New York Times Magazine piece on him noted that some offseasons, he'll fixate on one subject — whales, chimpanzees — and flesh it out thoroughly.

It was in a 2003 team meeting that he exhorted the Red Raiders to "swing your sword." Drawing on a pirate theme, Leach said they viewed swords like football players prize their bodies, and they needed to use them to their most efficient, ruthless best.

But Leach isn't for everybody. In 2008, he began to have a falling-out with Texas Tech Chancellor Kent Hance over a new contract, and it was that season when he was known to be exploring other jobs, including the vacancy when Tyrone Willingham was fired at Washington.

He signed a new contract in February 2009, but it did little to ease tensions. And Leach maintains that an $800,000 bonus due on the last day of 2009 was the underlying reason for his firing late that year, allegedly for mistreating player Adam James, son of ESPN analyst Craig James, by directing him to an equipment shed to treat a concussion during practice.

Leach sued Texas Tech, ESPN and a PR firm hired by James over the matter, and his book includes emails and deposition testimony backing his case.

Mumme recalled a recruiting trip he and Leach took long ago. Mumme said idly, "You know, there's some jobs coming open; I should try to get a bigger one. I think The Citadel's open."

Leach looked at Mumme.

"I don't want to play Army," he said whimsically. "I want to play pirate."

Mike Leach — the Pirate of the Palouse? The Bohler Buccaneer? — is coming to Pullman. Batten down the hatches.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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