Eleven years ago Mike Leach took a chance on Washington State, and Washington State took a chance on Mike Leach.
The long tenured Texas Tech Red Raiders coach wasn’t far removed from his controversial firing in Lubbock, no matter how suspect those accusations later turned out to be. Washington State had never committed financially in the way they did to Leach; his annual salary of more than $2 million couldn’t actually be processed at first by WSU’s payroll system because it wasn’t able to make a six-digit deposit every other week.
On paper, it was a perfect relationship. Mike Leach needed someone to usher him back into the college football ranks, and WSU needed someone to place their hands firmly on the steering wheel of their football program, yank the e-brake and turn the sumbitch 180 degrees the other direction.
It took some time. More time, frankly, than fans and Leach alike would’ve wanted. Along the way, there were a few wild wins sprinkled in amongst more than a few mind-numbing losses. But things finally started to click in Year 4, when Leach did something truly special:
He made this program relevant again.
Surely, it had a lot to do with Leach the person. Media members covering opposing teams aren’t usually chomping at the bit to ask questions of every coach they interview, but they did with Leach.
Thing is though, WSU doesn’t rise to the prominence it did under him without the football being good, too. And boy, was it ever good.
Prolific quarterbacks. Receivers carving up secondaries succumbing to whiplash trying to cover them. Duos of running backs who were in that gap one moment and gone the next. Defenses that played with a nastiness we hadn’t seen in years.
When you thought of Washington State, you thought of Mike Leach. And when you thought of Mike Leach, you thought of Washington State. The chance both had taken on one another so many years ago had paid off, and in spades.
The football, though, wasn’t the first thing I thought about when he passed away suddenly from a heart attack at the age of just 61. Tragically, sometimes it takes a person’s passing to reveal to us why they were so important.
Plenty will be written, and it should, about Leach’s influence on not just college football, but the sport as a whole. It’s impossible to watch it without seeing him somewhere. You’ll see an unending parade of press conference clips, stories and reflections on personal interactions with a man who was, truly, one of a kind.
But when he died, I could only think of one thing: Mike Leach reminded me it’s okay to be flawed. It’s okay to not be perfect.
It’s okay to just be human.
Mike Leach could be unendingly curious, he could be friendly, he could be warm. He could also be annoyed, he could be gruff and a remarkable pain in the ass to deal with.
But then again ... that describes all of us.
We’re all a little rough around the edges. We’re all quite a bit less than perfect. We’re all just human. The difference between Mike Leach and every other football coach out there is that he was never afraid to be authentically himself. What you saw with Mike Leach is what you got; you never had to wonder who he actually was because, well, this is who he actually was.
Gardner Minshew finished fifth in the Heisman voting in 2018, the highest finish for a Washington State Cougars player since 1997 when Ryan Leaf took third. He finished the year with an absurd 4,779 yards passing, 38 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. He led a team he’d only transferred to less than half a year before to their winningest season in program history at a time when they needed it more than ever.
But before their Alamo Bowl victory over the Iowa State Cyclones, if you took a peak at the Washington State depth chart, you’d still see something a little odd. Well, massively odd.
An “OR” next to Minshew’s name. The same “OR” that was there before a week one win over the Wyoming Cowboys.
It was still there, not because there was some question as to whether Minshew would start, but because Mike Leach could not be bothered to touch the depth chart after opening week. A Heisman Trophy candidate with an “OR”. Mike Leach wasn’t ever worried about being someone he wasn’t.
He was just worried about being human.
I’ve long been a believer that there will always come a time in professional relationships when it’s just better for everyone to move one. When Leach left to coach the Mississippi State Bulldogs, I remember that feeling coming to me instantly. Leach had gotten what he needed from Washington State and Washington State had gotten what it needed from him. Sometimes, the best thing you can really do is shake hands, move on, and promise to keep in touch.
This isn’t so simple though. Everyone got what they desired out of this relationship: Leach got his career back, and Washington State had its football program pulled from the abyss.
But maybe what made this relationship so special was that we saw ourselves in each other. A little rough around the edges, a little anxious to prove we belonged, always warm with our friends and cold to our enemies.
We were ourselves. We weren’t perfect. We were human.
And we didn’t apologize for it.
All our thoughts are with Mike’s wife Sharon, their four children, and three grandchildren.