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Remembering Mike Leach

Can you know someone, without having known them?

Washington State v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

What do you say about a man you’ve never met?

Nothing, is the sensible answer. But I’ve seen enough about Coach Leach to think that saying nothing was a choice he made rarely, so it feels wrong to make such a choice in the wake of his death.

The more Leach-like thing to do, would be to say that I did meet him.

Which I technically did I suppose, at a clinic back in 2012. Being former Coug offensive lineman, my buddy and I felt compelled to shake the man’s hand. He flattered us by saying he could use a couple fine young lineman like ourselves, shook our hand, and we all went on our way.

That was it. I didn’t know him.

But I do know his plays, a bit. Y-cross, 4 Verts, Tunnel screen, Mesh. Whatever weird formation and play call he thought was interesting enough to draw on a whiteboard that year and try and figure out if the pieces moved the same way on Saturdays. I heard him talk at that clinic about progressions, drills where every receiver caught a ball and every quarterback thew a route, every play. I know that he liked to have extra wide splits up front and claimed to appreciate coaching the offensive line more than any other position on the field.

I saw his incomprehensibly small play sheets that he held every Saturday, and read about how he planted a fake one for Texas to find when he was OC at Oklahoma. I watched his introductory press conference with Bill Moos, shocked that Pullman, WA could somehow draw the most interesting and accomplished head coach on the market. I saw his rants and ravings, where he talked about candy corn, 64-team playoff tournaments and fat little girlfriends.

Leach was, as anyone who watched him knew, not perfect.

He ends his career one victory shy of the 60% winning percentage threshold the College Football Hall of Fame requires for coaches to be eligible, and we could make a book out of the many opportunities we wish could have gone a different way to put him over the top. Our CougCenter Slack did exactly that the day his passing was announced. But his legacy transcends any one of those losses, or really the games he himself coached all together. This is a man who looked at the game, picked one of its basic tenants, “you must balance your number of run plays and pass plays”, and simply said…

No.

Then went on to explain that real balance was putting the ball in each skill position players hands about the same percentage of the time. You didn’t stretch a defense by balancing run-pass, you stretched a defense by making them defend the whole field on every play.

It shouldn’t have worked. It was spitting in the face of every football color commentator ever to wear the lapel. It was madness. Silliness. Too cute by half. Soft. A gimmick.

It was a revolution.

Every level of football was fundamentally changed by the offense Mike Leach and Hal Mumme dreamed up, and Mike Leach coached until the day he died. Both Tom Brady and your 9-year-old nephew run core concepts of it every single practice. The ‘gimmick’ has become elemental. Earth, Wind, Fire, two inside receivers giving each other a high five as they cross the middle of the field.

It was a revolution he brought to Pullman.

Mike Leach took Washington State to six bowl games in eight years. The last bowl game before his tenure was in 2003, a full decade earlier. I was fifteen. A whole generation of our CougCenter staff may or may not have been alive.

I was spoiled, because my first cougar football memories are of Rose Bowls. Chris Jackson. Jason Gesser. My Uncle Mike playing the same damn cassette tape of the 1997 squad’s radio highlights at a tailgate before each game we went to, including a few on Montlake. What I never quite realized was that my first Rose Bowl was my uncle’s too, and my grandparents as well. In fact, WSU went to only thee bowl games of any kind in the 1990s, including that 1997 Rose, two bowl games in the 1980s, and exactly none in the four decades before that.

I hope my Uncle Mike still plays that damn cassette tape.

For the intrepid youths out there who spent their formative years watching me play football in 2008 and 2009, well, they didn’t exactly experience a panacea of fun football did they? In fact, considering the degree of bowl game inflation we’ve experienced across time-it’s not unreasonable to argue that when Leach took over the helm WSU was in the midst of its lowest point in program history.

Which is why the most impressive feat of Mike Leach’s tenure at WSU was not his bowl streak. It was the fact that he turned this program into a winning one.

Every coach pitches themselves as a “culture guy”. Someone who can flip a program much like they might flip a house. Turn over the staff, the playbooks, probably the players. Give it enough money, time and their patented process and they can turn this fixer upper of a football program into a tidy little profit.

But the thing is, most people can’t. Especially those bold enough to say they can.

Shifting the culture of a program is roughly equivalent to shifting the direction of the wind. People mostly just get lucky. But some don’t. Some people know how to lead, how to teach*, who to bring in and who to let go. Some people know which places they can impact and know exactly what it takes to make those places successful. It is not a mistake that Leach coached at Texas Tech, WSU, and Mississippi State. Nor is it a mistake that unlike most of his predecessors, he won at each of those stops.

*I never got to experience it, and have no inside knowledge, but as an observer what always struck me was that Leach must have been an incredible teacher. His offenses played with so much understanding of the game. When I think of Leach, that is what I think of first, his ability to teach.

So while Leach’s win-loss record won’t blow anybody away, the experience of watching his teams couldn’t help but blow you down. I remember the first time I watched us score 60 points in a blowout win, mostly because it felt like a bizarro flashback. I had lost games like that, but never won them. With Mike Leach we won games like that sometimes. We beat USC. We beat Oregon (like a lot!). We led the nation in passing. We went to six bowl games in eight seasons, did I mention that!

We played winning football. An opaque standard I know, but just about the biggest compliment I feel I can give to a program.

The players deserve most of the credit for that, since they’re the ones who had to go out and actually do it. But if football is a journey through a dark and dreary forest, and the players are the ones walking from one end to the other, someone has to draw the map. Someone has to prep the equipment, and point out when we’ve lost the way. Someone has to take the seemingly impossible task of going from one end of this forest to the other, and make it merely very difficult.

That is what Mike Leach did. Everywhere he went. He was a great coach and a great teacher,* who made the seemingly impossible, possible.

*These are the same thing

Huh, doing the unimaginable…ya know that’s kind of what pirates are known for isn’t it?