Senior College Football Columnist

2012 College Football Preview: Like Leach's career, season's rebirths and reboots

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KEY WEST, Fla. -- You can see the end of the world from here. At least the known world, the one we normals live in. From here, Communist Cuba is 90 miles away. To the north is civilization -- Miami and the actual United States.

This place? A world apart with its own celestial zip code. It is a republic, the Conch Republic. As the cheesy souvenirs blurt out -- Key West is a state of mind. That is immediately evident from third-floor watering hole known as Garden of Eden on Duval Street.

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By entering the premises you agree to abide by one particular rule: No sex. That would be because clothing is optional.

Hemingway saw the end of the world from here. Pirates saw it. The Pirate sees a new beginning from here, a rebirth, a reboot to a career interrupted. Mike Leach has been coming here for 20 years. For the past 31 months, he and his family have made their home here. Not in exile, but in love with the surroundings.

"You're sitting on my stool," Washington State's new coach tells a woman at Captain Tony's Saloon.

The woman, a tourist, seems surprised. Leach isn't bullying or boasting, he is merely stating fact. It really is his stool. His name is on it. The bar is surrounded by personalized stools reserved for only the most loyal [and famous] customers. Urban Meyer is the only other coach to share the distinction.

"We used to see each other down here," Leach said. "I texted him, saying, 'Sitting on your stool so I don't scratch my own.' He said, 'Sit on your own stool.' ... I know he's wound really tight but he's a great guy."

And with that Leach is off into the early evening, a 51-year old metaphor for the new season that is defined by rebirth and reboots. Charlie Weis, incredibly, is at bottom-feeding Kansas. Meyer found a quaint little place near the Olengtangy River. Penn State is staring into an abyss. Conference realignment continues to slaughter tradition and the SEC rules.

CBSSports.com
Preseason Top 25
1. LSU
2. USC
3. Alabama
4. Oklahoma
5. Oregon
6. Georgia
7. Florida State
8. South Carolina
9. Michigan
10. West Virginia
11. Arkansas
12. Wisconsin
13. Clemson
14. Michigan State
15. Ohio State
16. TCU
17. Texas
18. Virginia Tech
19. Oklahoma State
20. Nebraska
21. Stanford
22. Kansas State
23. Florida
24. Utah
25. Boise State
Others receiving votes: Auburn, Notre Dame, Baylor, Louisville, North Carolina

"It's a region that is truly committed to football," Leach said of the Strength Everywhere Conference. "People tend to get rewarded for commitment."

That wasn't the case at Texas Tech. The man who revolutionized offense with the Red Raiders more than a decade ago, left us a hanging in December 2009 with an ugly plot twist to his wonderfully crafted career. After Tech fired him, he fired back with lawsuits against the school and ESPN. Ugly divorces everywhere blushed. It was that bad.

"I'll do my part to see justice done," Leach vowed. "One way or another I have to live as productive a life as I can, which went into the decision of coming down here. I definitely wanted to be productive with my life." Time stands still here, if it ever gets out of bed at all. A recent walking tour of Key West with Leach began at 4 p.m. and ended at midnight. The Pirate knew everyone and everything, ducking down back alleys, chatting up strangers, posing for photos with tourists.

Don't they know that Leach was leaving soon, that his comeback could be the greatest since Sinatra's? In a decade at Tech, he averaged 8½ wins and went to a bowl every season. He beat Texas and Oklahoma, producing quarterback after quarterback.

He's back, this product of Wyoming whose spirit fits best in this laidback outpost, but whose heart yearns to be calling plays. He'll get his wish this fall in Pullman.

What's old is new in College Football 2012. What's newest is the coach who never went away. If Leach wasn't in France consulting with a club team, he was on CBS Sports Network as an analyst. Or visiting director Peter Berg on the set of his movie Battleship. Or finding a wedding gift for good friend Matthew McConaughey.

It was a sword, of course, which seems to be a best-selling theme with Leach.

"In some form or fashion I was contacted by everyone I can think of except North Carolina," Leach said of job openings, every one of which seemed to have his name attached to it. "Depending on how who you're contacted by, how serious is it? Are you for real? A lot of them just want to have a parade."

Leach as show pony, a circus act. Coming to the end of this freaky world, then, is a good place to start the season. We've missed him enough.

Change, if not always good, is inevitable in the sport. Twenty-eight programs are starting over with new coaches. Ohio State and Arkansas sent coaches packing with a combined nine BCS bowls on their resumes. Not that they had much choice, mind you.

The Great Reboot has also descended into the absurd. Try to name a school that hasn't attempted a big splash -- successful or not -- by debuting new uniforms. Someone has to tell these people to back off the Highlighter Yellow jerseys.

You want to talk new? Conference realignment has shaken and stirred the game. The Big East is trying its best from becoming Conference USA. The SEC has added Texas A&M and Missouri. The Big 12 -- which is down to 10 -- has lost four teams in the past two years. It added West Virginia and TCU beginning this season to get back up to 10. Never mind that the Mountaineers closest Big 12 foe is in Ames, Iowa.

Speaking of realignment, for 83 years, Cal's Memorial Stadium has rested on the Hayward Fault, one of the most active earthquake zones in the world. Beginning this year it rests more comfortably. The historic stadium has been retro-fitted to be quake-proof.

But shaky continues to be the operative word in Berkley. Now if Jeff Tedford can only find a quarterback.

Alabama and LSU figure to both start 2012 where they finished in 2011, somewhere in the top five. Last season ended with the nation largely tuning out Alabama-LSU and the lowest-rated bowl season in years. The commissioners have heard you. A new season begins with a two-year tease before a playoff in 2014.

Alabama's Nick Saban is trying to win a third crystal football in four years. (US Presswire)  
Alabama's Nick Saban is trying to win a third crystal football in four years. (US Presswire)  
In Tuscaloosa, the more things change, the more they stay Saban. That crystal football has ended up at Alabama two of the past three years and already they need a new one. The father of a player knocked over the trophy and broke it, causing one of the biggest stirs of the spring.

That's motivation enough for Nick Saban to go out and win a third crystal football in four years (fourth overall). He loses a Heisman finalist (Trent Richardson), an offensive coordinator (Jim McElwain left for Colorado State) and the usual raft of NFL draftees. The directive hasn't changed. Not one minute of rest.

"I understand that it's only human nature to be satisfied with success," Saban said. "The good news is that this team doesn't seem to have as much of a hangover [as the 2010 team]. But I know this is something we're going to have to hammer home into their heads every day."

It's hard to remember LSU won 13 games and was No. 1 for most of 2011. What sticks in the discriminating college football mind, is quarterback problems and a 21-0 skunking by 'Bama in New Orleans.

"You still hear it now. Our kids still hear it now about the game," LSU offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa said. "Because everybody was so fired up after a wonderful season, that when it ends like that, that's what they focus on. Not the 13 wins, not how great it was up to that point.

"Now you get a chance for redemption."

Leach is among the redeemed but what will we get in return? A bit of Lubbock North in Pullman, Wash., the same old quirkiness and a brilliant play-calling? It won't be a dead-end job. The Cougars were in the Rose Bowl a decade ago. AD Bill Moos is nationally respected and seemingly has the sense to leave his highest-profile coach alone. Leach has his quarterback in senior Jeff Tuel. And if he has his quarterback, then everything else seems to fall into place.

"Your resources are space and personnel," Leach says, beginning another esoteric dissertation that hardly involves just football. The question is whether an offense that revolutionized the game a decade ago can still be fresh.

"Every skill position should touch the ball and attack a piece of that space. If that's not happening, what's he doing and what are they doing? Why doesn't your philosophy allow for that to happen?"

That's why Leach loved the wishbone, still does. In the offense that revolutionized the 60s, the ball was distributed to the playmakers. The entire field was used. It fits into Leach's concept of team, which is how the how dispute bubbled up at Tech in the first place. Let the lawyers figure out if Adam James was put into a storage closet. The coach is always going to make sure everyone pulls in the same direction.

Charlie Weis is now at Kansas following college stops at Notre Dame and Florida. (US Presswire)  
Charlie Weis is now at Kansas following college stops at Notre Dame and Florida. (US Presswire)  
"You'll see sidelines that have bad body language, bad atmosphere," Leach said. "If you're on the sideline and you're not playing, your job is to keep the atmosphere right. You're on the sideline and you create energy."

So the Cougars will be enthusiastic, if not right-away winners. They also won't have playbooks. Leach doesn't believe in them.

"Our playbook is on video," he said. That makes things quicker, more efficient. Why carry around a three-ring binder when the game plan can be taken home on a DVD? For that matter, why worry -- ever? Paradise awaits in the offseason and whenever Leach can make it down here.

On a recent Friday, it rained four inches in three hours and it seemed like no one blinked. Drinkers drank. Bikers biked. Boaters boated. Mike and Sharon Leach showed up at Pepe's, one of their favorite restaurants as the rain came down.

They walked to a local coffee house. The story was told of a squatter who resided under the building so long that he eventually felt comfortable enough to bring in an air conditioner -- and a girlfriend. While the story progressed, one scruffy-looking dude interrupted to asked Leach if he could borrow his phone. Even the coach who will talk to anyone about anything had his reservations about loaning a stranger an iPhone.

"The thing is" Leach said. "I don't want to have to chase him down. I'm probably faster than him but I don't know."

They are a fine pair -- the quirky coach and the perfect coach's wife. And they are like you and me. They care for their children, gab about their community and can't wait for the next job.

For 10 years of their marriage, Sharon made more money than her husband. When Mike was in law school at Pepperdine, they lived modestly 20 minutes away from swanky Malibu. Creditors hounded Leach about his student loans.

We'll destroy your credit rating, they said.

"That might be," Leach shot back. "But if you do you'll never hear from me and you'll never get a dime. However, when I do get money I will pay you."

It wasn't until his first couple of years at Texas Tech that those loans were paid off. That's how new financial security is to these guys. If there is a coach this year who appreciates a rebirth, it's this one who spent eight hours showing the sights to a visitor.

A couple of local joints already display Washington State helmets. They appreciate a Pirate in the famed Green Parrot.

"If you haven’t been through here, it's worth going,” Leach told a couple loitering outside the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum on Whitehead Street. "Tell them you're local, they'll let you in for free."

It's clear Mike Leach could run for mayor at the end of the world and win.

But he'll settle for being reborn in this season of rebirth, rebooted as a coach. We've missed him enough.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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