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Buddy Levy on writing 'Geronimo' with Mike Leach

Last week, I sat down with Buddy Levy to discuss his experiencing coauthoring a book with Mike Leach on the life of Geronimo. He said the experience of working with the quirky coach was a lot like you'd probably expect.

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WSU professor Buddy Levy has done some really cool stuff in his career.
WSU professor Buddy Levy has done some really cool stuff in his career.
Photo courtesy Buddy Levy

Mike Leach and Buddy Levy shared several things in common before they even met. They both have a common love for storytelling. They both had a common interest in the life of Geronimo. And they both had a common literary agent, Scott Waxman, who suggested they collaborate to write a book on that common interest.

Yet despite all of these commonalities and Waxman's suggestion, it wasn't until 2012 -- when the two men came to share a common employer, Washington State University -- that they were able to begin the collaborative effort that produced Geronimo: Leadership Strategies of an American Warrior.

Coauthoring a book with one of the most well known coaches in college football is project that many writers would covet, especially if that head coach happens to to be the coach of your favorite team. In between teaching a class on technical writing and returning to his Moscow home on bike, Levy sat down with me to discuss his interest in WSU sports, the experience of working with Mike Leach on a book, and some of what goes into being a professional writer.

After having earned a master's degree in English with an emphasis creative writing and literature from the University of Idaho, Levy came to WSU in 1988. His timely arrival near the dawn of the Mike Price era has allowed him to enjoy some of the greatest moments of in Cougar football mixed in with several lows. One of his best memories of being a Coug fan was a trip to Seattle in 1997 to watch WSU sew up a Rose Bowl bid against the Washington in the Apple Cup. Levy also fondly remembers watching the success of Cougar Basketball during the Tony Bennett era with his son, who stormed the court following the 2007 victory over Gonzaga.

Longevity at WSU has also meant that a few notable Cougar athletes have been students of Levy. He can boast having Cougar greats such as Drew Bledsoe and Steve Gleason as students in his English classes.

Levy's experience working with Mike Leach on "Geronimo" sounds like it was everything that one would expect it to be. He describes Leach as a constant tactician in his thinking. For example, when discussing Apache raids, Leach would often send Levy back to research aspects of the raid such as the number of warriors they would take with them and who was delegated to what responsibilities. Levy sees Leach's own ability to delegate responsibility as a major contributor to his coaching success.

"He's excellent at delegating to his team leaders in coaching so everybody has a role to play," Levy said.

Despite being an excellent delegator, Levy notes that Leach still oversees every detail of the operation. This preoccupation with detail produced many sidebars in the book that digress into different aspects of minutia in Apache life. The steak tartare the Apache's carried under their saddles, Apache sexual practices and polygamy, and Apache spirituality all piqued Leach's curiosity.

Similar to the way he connects football events to pirate battles and Civil War stories, Levy says Leach has a knack for connecting the main storyline to a variety of related topics.

"Our conversations about Geronimo were really fascinating," Levy said, "because we would be talking about the business at hand of Geronimo's life, but the discussions would be pretty wide ranging, sometimes about all aspects of United States history, manifest destiny, and how we treated the Indians, and colonization. He really just asks good questions."

"Geronimo" covers a plethora of leadership qualities possessed by the Apache chief that are applicable to football coaches and other walks of life. One of these qualities is loyalty, which Levy sees as being one of Leach's strongest. He believes that Leach is at WSU for the long haul since he enjoys the area and the role of underdog.

"I think he likes the challenge of being the little guy that people don't expect to do so well." -Buddy Levy, on his coauthor, Mike Leach

"I think he likes the challenge of being the little guy that people don't expect to do so well," Levy said. This definitely makes sense given Leach's stated interest in the life of Geronimo as an underdog that kept fighting until he was the last Native American to hold out.

Before embarking on the "Geronimo" collaboration with Leach, Levy had compiled an impressive writing resume. His writing career took off when he was able to publish American Legend: The Life Adventures of David Crockett with a large New York publishing house, Berkley Books. The idea for the Crockett book came from Waxman, who enjoyed a book Levy had written for a smaller publishing company on hunting the chukar partridge. Waxman suggested that Levy write a historical book on a famous hunter and after weighing a few figures, he decided on Davy Crockett, who had been widely ignored by authors for several years, with the exception of mini-series produced by Disney in the 1950s.

A fascination with the introduction of the horse to the Americas by the Spanish conquistadors eventually led Levy to write Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs. The book captures the cataclysmic results that occurred when two large empires came in to contact with one another.  After writing on Cortes's conquest, Levy acquired a particular interest in the discovery of the Americas. His next book River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana's Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon tells the story of the first Europeans to travel through the Amazonian region. Levy says that his two books from the Conquistador era are his favorites.

"That whole period is rich and fascinating and important to what ended up happening in global history," says Levy.

When it comes to choosing subjects on which to write, Levy cites one of the leadership lessons in "Geronimo" that "everything you are doing is preparing you for something else."

"It has been a bit random in someways, but also what you come to realize is this thing I was doing, studying on the Spanish horses, led me to Cortes," Levy said.

Looking towards the future, Levy is spending the summer trying to figure out what his next book might be. He has a strong interest in finding a theme related to the American West. There is a possible future collaboration with another sports figure that is currently pending. However, nothing has been signed on the dotted line as of yet, so he asked me to hold off on giving the specifics. The topic sounds really fascinating, so I am hopeful that it comes to fruition.

I can vouch for Levy's ability to write incredibly fascinating books. After finishing the "Geronimo," I immediately purchased a Kindle copy of the Crockett book and read it "cover to cover" in just a few days. Crockett was the book that was given to Mike Leach so he could familiarize himself with Levy's work and I wouldn't be surprised if it was part of the inspiration behind Leach's own bear hunting trip. Since I was on a roll, I also picked up Levy's book on Cortes and the conquest of the Aztecs. Several chapters in, I cannot say that I am disappointed. The book picks up on maybe the most interesting aspects of the Spanish Conquest in that it involved clashes with other empires in the case of the Aztecs (and Incas).

Storytelling is a really unique gift to possess. I really enjoy having a football coach that can go off the beaten path and delve into other aspects of the world in a really interesting way. Yet coaching football isn't exactly a 9 to 5 job that lends itself to being able to tell the full story of a life as dynamic as "Geronimo's." Fortunately, there was already another great storyteller waiting when Mike Leach arrived to Pullman.

Obviously, I enjoyed the "Geronimo" book a lot. Next week I plan on breaking down what made the book so fascinating from a WSU standpoint and offering some more commentary on what I see to be the leadership qualities in Mike Leach.