He's thinner now, subsisting these days on a healthy diet of chicken, fish, asparagus, almonds and various rabbit foods. If nothing else, the Pirate has the right look for his next job interview.
As far as getting that job, well ... Truth is, you have to dig down deep to find any trace of bitterness in Mike Leach. It is all but assured in late January that Texas Tech's former coach will sit out the game he altered for a decade, for a second consecutive season. Twenty-one schools changed coaches (Pittsburgh did it twice). Only Maryland came close to hiring the 49-year-old, quirky offensive genius who not only sued his former employer (Texas Tech) but also ESPN.
"I think," Leach said of the legal issues with his typical candor, "it has limited my market."
|As head coach at Texas Tech, Mike Leach led the Red Raiders past Virginia in the 2008 Gator Bowl. (Getty Images)|
No matter what you think of Leach, college football is less without him. This was the coach who took a West Texas tumbleweed of a program within spitting distance of a BCS berth in 2008. He made Texas Tech matter. The stadium was expanded. The program got on national TV. Fame and recruits rolled in. He did it the right way, with an admirable graduation rate that was particularly high among African-Americans.
"The most money the school has ever made," Leach said, "and our kids never got in trouble."
A perfect mix, it would seem, for a program that reveled in its Little Man Syndrome -- tweaking the noses of Big 12 powers Texas and Oklahoma now and then, though armed with a fraction of the budget. Its biggest weapon was Leach and his zone-read spread option offense. College and NFL teams sought his counsel, borrowed from his offense. That would have been enough, but Leach was entertaining too. A persona to be marketed. All of it came from a deadpan delivery that, for example, once suggested a 64-team playoff. Leach would then take the time to discuss the particulars.
He is a historian who admires Geronimo, a scholar with a law degree, an outlander who at one time was one of only six Division I-A coaches who had not played college football. Leach was an unapologetic swashbuckler who figured it was up to outmanned defenses to stop his team, not for his attack force to take a knee. It all came apart 13 months ago when Leach was fired for what university officials called "a defiant act of insubordination," clashing with the Texas Tech administration over his treatment of receiver Adam James, the son of ESPN analyst Craig James.
Red Raider Heaven started becoming a black hole, Leach alleges, in February 2009 when he signed a new contract. Leach says there were those in the administration who were "dissatisfied with the level of compensation." As usual, when you strip away all the layers, it always comes down to money.
And perhaps jealousy, hubris and pride.
"The day after my contract was signed, [they] sent memos around talking about getting me fired by January  so they wouldn't have to pay" an $800,000 bonus, Leach said, "which they ultimately did [not]."
Last week a Texas appeals court threw out Leach's breach of contract claim against Texas Tech. One of his attorneys said he will appeal to the state's Supreme Court. A quandary remains over how the winningest coach in school history had so many turn against him. E-mails obtained by the Dallas Morning News in late 2009 suggest Texas Tech officials were upset Leach was flirting with other schools. In that sense, those officials apparently didn't understand their school wasn't a retirement job. Leach couldn't be blamed for looking. Only two coaches stayed in Lubbock longer. None had shaken it up as much.
Certainly, Craig James and his son emerged from the he said/he said scrum as diminished figures -- Craig as a stage father, Adam as the privileged son of the stage father. But no matter what you think of those two, could Leach have avoided the whole thing by, as school officials suggested, apologizing for his treatment of Adam James?
"The table was kind of set the day I signed the [new] contract," Leach said.
During a sit-down interview earlier this month prior to the BCS title game in Paradise Valley, Ariz., Leach was asked whether he would acknowledge James if they encountered each other in the hall.
"I think his actions speak for themselves," Leach said.
So at this point, it's not so much about "why?" as "how long?" How long will it take one of the country's most successful and innovative coaches to get work again? The fascinating figure who was once profiled on 60 Minutes would love just one minute of some AD's time. On the day of Maryland's Military Bowl, Dec. 29, Leach was reportedly on the College Park campus talking to school officials. Four days later, UConn's Randy Edsall was hired. That was hardly the home-run hire many thought it would take Maryland to get back in the national conversation. Something happened. Citing a source, the Washington Post said the school "got cold feet" about Leach.
"I don't really know [what happened]," the coach said. "I know I had a lot of support there. I don't even know exactly who made the decision."
If this is a glimpse of Leach's future, it hardly seems fair. The only other coach in recent years similarly blackballed is Gary Barnett. The onetime Colorado coach hasn't found suitable head-coaching work since leaving in 2005. Barnett was on board for more than one controversy -- gambling allegations against his Northwestern players in the 1990s preceded a recruiting scandal at CU -- before his ill-advised commentary on the skills of onetime Buffs kicker Katie Hnida, who alleged she had been raped by a teammate, finally helped sink him in Boulder.
Is what Leach has done enough to ruin a man's career? Taken in context, the answer is a resounding no. Rick Neuheisel is back at his alma mater, UCLA, after suing both the NCAA and his former employer, the University of Washington. Mike Price didn't even make it to spring practice with Alabama. But he just completed his seventh season at his rebound job -- at Texas-El Paso.
The Morality Police have drawn an indefinable line, then, at Leach. For now. Meanwhile, the Pirate is content displacing Jimmy Buffett as Key West, Fla.'s patron saint of laidback. Prior to his final season in Lubbock, Leach and his wife Sharon bought a three-bedroom bungalow as a second home in Key West. By the fourth day of an offseason vacation, the Leaches had enrolled their children in school. Now they're permanent residents. Leach doesn't own a car. Transportation means walking or riding his bike.
About midday he rolls out, hooks up a computer and does his satellite radio show on XM Sirius. For those who have never experienced the coach, the show is a slice of his life complete with rambling asides and direct commentary. If it gets too hot, he jumps into a nearby pool. During breaks in the show, Leach does push-ups and sit-ups. When the mood strikes him, he might engage in what he calls "hand-to-hand combat" with lobster out in the ocean. There are less fun ways to round out the dinner menu.
He is in demand, just not on the sidelines. There was a hang with actor friend Matthew McConaughey. Leach spent some time with director Peter Berg -- the man who first put him on the TV series Friday Night Lights -- watching the new film Battleship being made. CBS College Sports hired him as an aptly-named color man on its game telecasts. Other companies pay him to speak.
A French club football team called Flash de La Courneuve had him over for three weeks. It was a replay of Leach's formative years when he coached a year in Finland. If you've read John Grisham's novella Playing for Pizza, you know what Leach was dealing with.
"Their quarterback had been a backup at Georgia," he said. "You figure they're either students or factory workers. They all have jobs. They can't make every practice. There's very little film study."
It was loads of fun and, of course, the Flash ran the zone-read spread.
"I'd be thrilled to get back into coaching," he says now. "This year I've met a wider variety of people, a broader base ... I'm proud of what we did at Texas Tech. We had teamwork with fans, won more bowl games than the rest of the time combined. That was exciting. Recruiting was exciting ... This [life] is exciting too."
When I met Leach for the first time in 1999, he was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. An up-and-comer in the profession back then, Leach was typically locked in -- sitting in his office wearing a windbreaker, watching film and munching out of a bag from Hardee's.
"I hate Hardee's," said the trimmer Leach when reminded of that day. "That would have been a day of desperation. There was a time I lived off coffee, beef jerky and one gigantic meal at night."
There are different days of desperation now. Whether it be a breakthrough job at OU or club ball in France, at least it was coaching, and it was wonderful, and Leach would love to do it again.
If only someone would call.