Iowa Wesleyan must of had a heck of a recruiting budget. Either that or bad oversight.
Head coach Hal Mumme and his offensive coordinator, Mike Leach, were having the time of their lives back in tiny Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Leach's wife, Sharon, was Mumme's secretary. She would bring newborn Kim to the office because the Leaches couldn't afford day care.
"Mike made $12,000 to be the offensive coordinator, the offensive line coach, the SID," Mumme recalled. "Since he didn't have a lot to do, he taught business law twice a week."
That was 20 years ago before each coach became big-time offensive masterminds. Mumme, most well known at Kentucky. Leach, at Texas Tech. Back then, though, Mumme had hired Leach pretty much sight unseen. The unknown kid in his 20s had written Mumme for a job because he admired his offense.
Anyway, back to the recruiting. Mike and Hal became buds in their three years at Iowa Wesleyan. Not only did their offensive philosophies mesh, their personalities clicked.
"We always found an excuse to go recruit in Florida so we could go down to Key West," Mumme said. "The whole pirate thing."
The coaches were ostensibly in South Florida to recruit, but Mumme knew exactly what was going on. Key West is near the Caribbean, which holds a bunch of shipwrecks, which gets Leach's juices flowing.
Twenty years later Leach has moved up in the world but still loves his pirate history, along with football and "throwing stuff." It says so right there on his MySpace page.
It fits with the Red Raiders nickname, a fact that was trotted out on national television two years ago when Leach was interviewed after a victory over Texas A&M.
"Once in a while," he said famously, "a pirate can beat a soldier, you know?"
It says a lot of stuff on the MySpace page -- weird stuff, funny stuff. Leach is a Pisces, makes north of $250,000 a year (way north, actually). There's a picture of him with Donald Trump.
|No matter how much Mike Leach does at Texas Tech, he hardly gets noticed. (US Presswire)|
"When we were at Valdosta State, assistants would walk in Mike's office and want to talk about the draw trap," Mumme said. "Mike would end up talking about Geronimo. Two hours later they still hadn't talked about the draw trap."
You start to get an idea of who the guy is and where his career is headed. Since joining Mumme at Iowa Wesleyan 20 years ago, Leach's career moved quickly up the ladder to Valdosta State, Kentucky, Oklahoma and, for the last nine years, the head coach at Texas Tech.
His habit of developing ultra-accurate quarterbacks to run his killer offense has brought him to this moment, a shot at No. 1 Texas on Saturday in the biggest game in school history. The program is a contender, not quite a powerhouse having never finished first in the Big 12 South. But Leach already has accomplished more than the school's other celebrated coach this decade.
Unlike Bob Knight, Leach has both won and gotten the Red Raiders to the postseason consistently. Unlike Knight, it's been a hoot every step of the way. The first time I met Leach a few years ago, he was wearing a windbreaker and noshing on some Arby's, clicker in hand, watching film. I had this strange feeling that he had been there all night.
"Smart people can do more than one thing at a time," Mumme said. "He can watch film and talk to you about something going on in the Middle East."
Smart doesn't begin to describe Leach as he heads into the biggest game of his career. He is an enigma wrapped in a riddle. A brilliant tactician with a down-home personality. A historian with at least one degree from three institutions. One of four men in Division I-A who never played the game.
A coach at the top of his game who might be trapped in his own job.
"He's kind of made it clear he wants to go someplace in the long run," one former I-A coach said.
Yes, but where? Couldn't be Pepperdine. The place where Leach earned his law degree doesn't field a football team. BYU? The alma mater from which he took a large part of his quick-strike offense has had three coaches since Leach was at Texas Tech.
Clemson? Washington? His name has come up at both places -- as it has at several schools over the years -- but the result is almost predictable. Not to say Leach won't get one of those jobs, but it's surprising that a coach with his experience and winning percentage (.664) is still in West Texas.
"(His personality) is not bad, it's just different," the same coach said. "I don't think it sells well in an interview. I've always said I'd love to see him in Oklahoma with that talent. Mike Leach, I don't know where you can say he's a perfect fit for because he's an unusual character, but he's a brilliant, unusual character."
That seems to be the summation everywhere you ask. Not a bad guy, just different.
How many coaches would take a chance on a failed former minor league pitcher who had beaten cancer? Leach welcomed Rylan Reed into his offense a few years ago and showed him a card trick.
"That was his big thing," said Reed, now having an All-American season at left tackle.
"He's a little different. You'll be blown away the first time you talk to him."
Don't ask Leach about the BCS. It's a distraction that he turns into a movie review.
"There was a movie with Paul Newman called The Verdict," Leach said. "They ask him about the justice system and he says, 'The justice system doesn't give you justice, it gives you a shot at justice.'
"A shot at it is better than nothing."
Leach's high school coach remembers Leach as being deliciously quirky. Back when Leach was 19 or 20 he was coaching a local high school baseball team in a regional tournament in his native Cody, Wyo. For grins he decided that infield would be taken without a ball.
"It was shadow infield or ghost infield," said John McDougall. "He'd 'hit' the baseball and they'd turn a double play. Everybody thought he was nuts. His mind was always ahead of it."
Leach also might be the most famous alum of the United States Sports Academy. The little-known, non-profit sports university in Daphne, Ala., specializes in, as the school website says, "prepar(ing) men and women for careers in the profession of sports."
Sounds a little DeVry Institutish. There's an Oakland A's bullpen catcher who completed his degree program on his computer during road trips. But Leach, already armed with his Pepperdine and BYU degrees, liked the hands-on mentorship program. That was 20 years ago, right before he went to Iowa Wesleyan.
"As I got towards the end of law school I didn't want to grow up and practice law and put on a suit," Leach said. "I didn't want to grow old and wish I tried coaching. I went and got a master's at the United States Sports Academy."
"He was something we could mold," said Kelly Flanagan, USSA chair of sports studies.
Mold and sell. Leach is the school's alumni director. Why not? His competition for most famous alum is Iowa State basketball coach Greg McDermott, a San Antonio Spurs vice president, the woman who helped create the X Games and an associate AD at Texas.
There were well-chronicled stops for Leach in Europe (Pori, Finland), the College of the Desert and Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo, making next to nothing. Along with Mumme, he helped bring Kentucky out of the doldrums.
"I bet there's not a guy in the world that's done what he has," McDougall said. "I don't think many guys have chased the dream like he did."
Texas Tech was a place where Leach could spread his high-flying offense's wings. But playing in the Big 12 South means hitting your head on a glass ceiling. Tech has finished higher than third only once in Leach's previous seasons. But now he's at the point where his offense has changed not only the league, but the country. The gimmick offense that he refined is now the base offense for a large portion of I-A.
The difference in getting to this point is a defense that is at least serviceable. When an SEC school fires an assistant coach, it's national news. When Leach did it last season, it barely caused a ripple. New coordinator Ruffin McNeill has cobbled together a defense that leads the Big 12 in interceptions and has contributed to a team that is tied for first in turnover margin.
"I think we've seen Tech grow because they've got better players on defense," Brown said.
Just better players, period. This season has helped remove the dreaded word "system" from Leach's offense. The gimmick is gone. The offensive line has allowed three sacks all season.
Guard Brandon Carter should be on the schedule poster. Sporting face paint and a two-tone Mohawk on game days, Carter is known as "Mankind." He almost looks like a pirate.
Now at New Mexico State, Mumme misses Leach as the biggest game of his friend's life approaches. The letter and résumé arrived two decades ago in Mount Pleasant. It was Leach looking for a job.
"The BYU part caught my eye," Mumme said, "because most of our offense came from LaVell Edwards' program."
Leach's offense broke 26 NAIA records in three seasons. Twenty years later, Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock has been expanded because of Leach's success. Every seat is sold.
"What he has done at Tech has been nothing short of amazing," Mumme said. "They built that stadium and (he) expanded it. For a place where the wind blows all the time, people thought you couldn't throw the ball much. He blew that theory away."
After New Mexico State beat Texas-El Paso on Sept. 20, Leach called to congratulate his mentor. Predictably, when Mumme hung up he realized the last two hours had been spent talking mostly about politics.
"The thing I really missed about Mike was every single football game he would constantly come up to me and remind me to keep attacking," Mumme said. "After he left for Oklahoma (in 1999), I kind of looked around on the sidelines early in that year. I remember thinking, 'I miss Mike telling me to attack.'"
The pirate never rests.