Mike Leach's Celebrity Status, And A Coaching Tree Full Of Adventure

They're not quite mainstream and certainly not underground anymore. They are the blog heroes of college football: a little bit different, but relevant nonetheless. They do things different, or used to at least, and in the process became fodder for those who love college football with a twist.

These minor-turned-major college football celebrities include the head coach at Washington State, Mike Leach. In fact, Leach is part of a growing tree of coaches, spawned from the college football loins of Hal Mumme. The group turned aside the conventional football wisdom and, in some ways, blazed their own path -- outsiders to begin, but nudging their way into the mainstream as the years pass.

Mumme was the godfather, and his disciples are seeing significant success on the field and off. His own tree has taken root, branching off in all sorts of different directions. Much of the success can be traced back to Leach, but it was the tag-team of he and Mumme that started this all.

The high-powered, "throw it around" offense Leach and Mumme installed way back when was different and a little bit crazy. Sprinkled in was their own personalities, with a heavy dose of off-field interests. Looking up and down Mumme's coaching tree, a common theme emerges. Each coach is a little bit different, a little bit off the beaten path.

There's Dana Holgorsen, beloved by many for his tendency to put points up in a hurry, as well as his fondness for Red Bull.* And Kliff Kingsbury, a former Leach quarterback who might just show up on the sidelines in shorts, sandals and a lei -- no short necessary. Or Mumme himself, exiled from mainstream college football but still making noise off in the distance (Read this. It's an excellent interview Spencer Hall did with Mumme).

If you haven't yet, go read Bruce Feldman's terrific profiles of Holgorsen and his staff here and here, as well.

In each case, the coaches running the show have become celebrities in their own right. It comes with the territory when you do things differently and promote an exciting style of football. They're all just a little bit different.

When Washington State hired Leach, it was hiring an incredibly smart football coach from an eccentric tree of men, and a brand. Not the Washington State brand, mind you, but Leach's own brand. His success on the field is part of the equation, sure, but it's so much more than that.

Leach is part football coach and part celebrity, something that's taking a bit of getting used to in Pullman. Accustomed to relatively low-profile coaches -- certainly none in the stratosphere of Leach's celebrity -- it's different to see the new head man all over the airwaves and Internet.

But at the core of it all, Leach remains a celebrity because he's different. In a world where conservative interviews and coach-speak rule, Leach wanders off into his own little world, telling tales of weddings and anniversaries, swords and skeletons, instead of sticking to the script. You'll rarely find him talking strictly football, and even when he does the anecdotes of unrelated events are sprinkled in.

Leach has always been this way, though his status really took hold following Michael Lewis' profile in the New York Times. He became somewhat of a folk hero, his celebrity growing alongside his successes on the football field. Being fired by Texas Tech only served as another boost as the "us vs. them" battle reached a boiling point.

The two years off from football allowed Leach to stretch out. He spent time around the game, but also satisfied his own curiosity. He wrote a book, a must-read tale of his childhood, coaching philosophy and, yes, the story surrounding his dismissal at Texas Tech. All the while he spent his days in Key West, far enough away from the spotlight, but close enough to keep his star burning brightly.

By the time he was ready to get back into the game -- or, more accurately, the game was ready for him to come back -- Leach was more than just an interesting football coach. The Leach brand was stronger than ever, in large part because of the way he was treated as he was unceremoniously knocked from his head coaching perch. Craig James and ESPN were the villains, while Mike Leach was the rebel many could identify with.

Now, he's back in the spotlight, though he never quite faded away. The adjustment for both Leach and fans of Washington State is the shift from promoting Mike Leach to promoting the Washington State. For two years, he didn't have to worry about a football program, and instead could do things on his own terms. Now ... not so much.

I was struck by this passage in Chris Brown's book, The Essential Smart Football.* It's from Brown's review of Swing Your Sword, but still holds up today.

Of course, there are some downsides to Leach's personality which the book doesn't really hide but also doesn't play up. It's clear -- more clear to me than before I'd read the book -- that Leach really enjoys the limelight, despite his claims to the contrary. During law school, he was a wannabe actor (including getting a nonspeaking role as an FBI agent in a J. Edgar Hoover movie), fought with the media departments at Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta because he wanted to run PR from his office (though he very likely had a point), and clearly relished media attention from noted author Michael Lewis and 60 Minutes. Now, there's nothing wrong with a little vanity and wanting to be recognized, but when you're Mike Leach you always have to worry about whether or not you've stopped being Mike Leach and started to become the character of Mike Leach.

Leach is, in many ways, about his own celebrity. And that's fine, to be quite honest. But it's different from the norm at Washington State. Shifting from Paul Wulff, who was all about WSU and rarely strayed from football, to Leach, who loves the limelight as much as anyone, is quite the change.

There's negatives and positives, of course. Washington State is in the news now more than ever, thanks to the quotable Mike Leach. But the news almost always has to do with Leach, whether it's tales of his exploits or funny anecdotes told by himself or others. It simply takes some getting used to for all of us.

Will Leach's celebrity outshine the program? I couldn't tell you. But he was hired, in part, due to his own stardom, as well as the style of football he installs. Bill Moos' goal was to generate excitement in the fanbase by leaning on the buzz Leach generates, as well as win some football games. The former is already taken care of, as evidenced by the team's upcoming national TV appearances and Leach's whirlwind media tour that is still going fairly strong. The latter is a great mystery, though hopes remain high.

And to me, any potential pitfalls or conflicts that may arise due to Leach's own celebrity are worth it. There's an excitement surrounding the Cougars' football program, a buzz I haven't seen in quite some time. Every day is an adventure with Leach at the helm, and it's a welcome shift from the past.

Buy the book. It's a superb read and you'll come away from it smarter.

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