PULLMAN, Wash. — Mike Leach’s Monday is not like your Monday. It’s not really like anyone’s Monday. The same could be said for all of his other days, too, though, to be fair, this particular week the Washington State football coach’s Monday is abnormal, even by his standards. Why? USC is coming to town for some Friday night football (10:30 ET, ESPN and the ESPN App) and WSU’s weekly routine has become compressed.
Leach is sitting down to chat after his usual 3-mile walk to campus, morning film session and early-afternoon meeting with the local media. After he is done here, he will record a television conversation for SportsCenter, attend a midafternoon film session, then hit the field for a rare Monday night practice inside Martin Stadium, followed by another film session and the return 3-mile walk home.
But right now, Leach takes a deep breath, crosses his brow and assesses his atypical typical day — whatever day it actually is …
“Really, today is Monday, but to me it’s Tuesday,” Leach says. “So Tuesday will be Wednesday and Wednesday will be Thursday. But then again, we’ll probably do our Thursday night routine about like we normally would, so Thursday, really, is just kinda Thursday. And thinking back on Sunday, it was really more like Sunday and Monday combined. But today? Monday? This is definitely Tuesday.”
This explanation was the postscript of an introductory rapid-fire discussion that touched on the portraiture of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, hurricane damage in Key West and the 56-year old’s weekly internal debate over whether he should wear a ballcap to his media conference. “Really, it’s about my hair,” he says. “If it’s totally out of control, hat on. If it’s looking pretty good, hat off. But look at this hair; it never really looks all that good.”
By the way, this all came in response to a question about USC quarterback Sam Darnold.
Such talk of football will have to wait, as it always seems to do. With other coaches, such offroading might get a little frustrating for a writer seeking to talk about the upcoming matchup. With Leach, though, it’s like flicking through a one-man Netflix library of documentaries.
“Nothing has done more to bring people of different races and different backgrounds together than athletics, certainly more than politicians have done. It’s why the Greeks invented the Olympics”
After a back-and-forth about the journeys of Lewis and Clark through Eastern Washington, the beauty of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and how former Tennessee coach Johnny Majors loved screaming “Check! Check! Check!” through his megaphone during practices, Leach returns to his original topic. “As coaches, we’re all creatures of habit, if you’re USC or us or the Green Bay Packers. And honestly, we’re all just football guys, so we’re not real smart. You mess with our calendar, and were kind of like, ‘Whoa!’ so yeah, the day of the week isn’t as important as it is where that day falls in the countdown to your next game.”
This week, titles of days don’t matter. They only need be identified as “X days before the Trojans arrive.” Everyone in Pullman, Washington (pop. 29,799, a number that includes the student body of 20,000), is on that countdown. From the overserved undergrad sippers at The Coug and Rico’s to the fully grown salespeople at Chipman & Taylor Chevrolet, who have a gigantic WSU football helmet parked between the SUVs on its sales lot. The Cougars are 4-0, and the Palouse has vibrated all week, no matter what day it is or isn’t.
Everyone knows that an upset win over sixth-ranked USC and Darnold might very well create a “Freaky Friday” situation, swapping the 16th-ranked Cougs and their quarterback, Luke Falk, into the roles the Trojans now enjoy, a top-10 team with a Heisman Trophy hopeful at quarterback.
The game has been framed as a coronation, a would-be final over-the-hump victory that fulfills the promise of Leach’s arrival six years ago. There has been a clear climb over the past three seasons, led by Falk. Leach is 33-34 at WSU, but 21-9 since 2015. Last season ended with a chance to defeat archrival Washington and earn a shot at Wazzu’s first conference crown since 2002. That night was a 45-17 disaster. The ’02 title-clincher, perhaps still the season of greatest Wazzu lore, was not. That year was alchemized by a midseason OT victory over USC, the school’s first home win over the Trojans in 16 years.
The media assembled for Leach’s Monday (Tuesday?) Q&A were quick to mention the parallels of ’02 and his upcoming contest. Someone compared it to the pivotal matchup of his time at Texas Tech, when his sixth team there defeated Oklahoma in Lubbock, securing its first Cotton Bowl berth in 21 years.
So what do you think, Coach?
“I think that we are really very shallow people,” he says. “All we care about is winning the next game. The big picture isn’t really our deal. When the Egyptians were building the pyramids or the Romans were building roads, or you had the westward push with the railroads, I don’t think that the guys on the ground were spending a lot of time thinking, ‘Hey, hundreds or thousands of years from now they will look back at the brick I have just laid down here and say that I changed the world!’ No, that guy who broke his back and died right there on the spot, he was just doing work. The ones who survived, they just kept their heads down and focused on their task each day, and maybe one day they finished and looked up and went, ‘Wow, will you look at what the hell we just did here?’ If you aren’t focused on what’s right here in front of you, if you’re daydreaming about what might be, you really aren’t focused at all.”
Leach turns the topic to his quarterback: “Luke is a very analytical guy. That’s good when it adds a dimension to his play. But it’s bad when it slows him down. I like the Luke Falk with quick feet and a clear head.”
If you know Leach’s history when it comes to innovating the downfield passing game, then you know that’s the perfect description for all his great quarterback pupils, from Tim Couch to Kliff Kingsbury. “See where we are again? Focus. Focus on what’s right here. Get a first down. Then we can score. Then we can win games. Then we can worry about winning championships.”
Leach then apologizes for even loosely comparing building a football program to man’s greatest engineering achievements. Then there is some brief discussion about the pyramids and historic mysteries and … hey, we should call up Buddy Levy, a Washington State English professor who co-wrote Leach’s 2014 book on Geronimo. “He’s been here forever, taught Drew Bledsoe.” Leach says we’d probably recognize Levy from his History Channel show “Decoded” and adds, “By the way, I think they solved that whole D.B. Cooper thing.”
You know, he adds, he used to teach, too. Undergrad law classes when he was coaching at tiny Iowa Wesleyan — “The only time I really used my law degree.” Oh, and he was also the sports information director. He got in big trouble with the PR director of the college because he kept getting the Tigers’ prolific offense into USA Today when she couldn’t do the same for the school itself. “I was banned from campus for three days. I was like the Luther Campbell of Iowa Wesleyan.”
Oh, and he also took a ridiculous number of college classes as he coached, to keep deferring his law school loans. His favorite class was modern impressionism. He loves Jackson Pollock. “You know, he’s from right around here.”
WSU practicing for USC. Is their secret weapon to unleash Mothra?!
It is now Monday (or is it Tuesday?) night, and practice is taking place inside Martin Stadium. Students are strolling down Stadium Way, stopping by the locked gates to take in the clear view of the drills being run on the field below. The real show is a literal cloud of moths that has enveloped the light towers above the stadium’s northwest corner, nearly blacking out one section of lights. It looks like something Moses might have conjured up to convince Rameses to let his people go.
“I’ve been trying to figure that one out,” Leach later says of the swarm. “I’ve studied a lot about this region, and I guess that’s a seasonal thing. They have a ton of these little yellow jackets here, but the moth thing is new to me. You said you got some pictures and video of that? Make sure you tweet that. I want USC to be worried about it.”
Falk makes a wonky throw. A whistle blows and Leach steps in to address his team. The talk can’t be heard from the road, but it goes on for a while.
“He’ll go into a football day and just not talk about football,” says offensive lineman Cole Madison. The players’ favorite drill is “Bull in the Ring,” Leach’s take on the old Oklahoma drill. Leach picks two players and surrounds them with the entire team as they battle one-on-one to see who can push the other out of the ring. It is peak testosterone time … and Leach routinely interrupts it. “He was talking about sacrificing your body, and then he just starts talking about the Civil War.”
“But …” Madison adds later, “no matter how far he wanders off, he always ends up bringing it back to a football point.”
Does he really do that, Cole? Because, the fifth-year senior is told, we’ve been waiting.
“I told you, he wanders far off.”
It is now Tuesday (Wednesday?) evening and Leach is wandering off the field with his team, leaving the practice facility behind Martin Stadium. He’s in cargo shorts, a black pullover (“I have one red one and one black because I like to mix it up”) and a crimson ballcap (“My hair required some covering today”).
There is another brief meeting with the media, and Leach finds himself defending a statement he made on Monday, addressing the take-a-knee protests throughout the NFL. He’d reminded everyone that Washington State is always in the locker room during the national anthem, but that as someone who is “proud of this country” he would stand for the anthem. What drew attention were his comments that he was unclear of exactly what the protest was about and questioned why it would be directed at the flag.
After answering the reporters, he expounds after an elevator ride upstairs.
“Nothing has done more to bring people of different races and different backgrounds together than athletics, certainly more than politicians have done. It’s why the Greeks invented the Olympics,” he says, echoing a pointed passage from his 2011 book “Swing Your Sword.” “I am so proud of my players, so many over the years, watching them stand together, but also educate each other and challenge each other about where we all came from, so many different places. Now here you are, wearing the same uniform, together. No one wants police brutality. No one wants inequality. But what I worry about it is when a protest becomes so large and the noise takes over that the original motivation for the protest and the conversation that should go with that protest gets lost.”
This is followed by a chat over dinner at the trainer’s table overlooking the stadium that covers the tactical prowess of Ulysses S. Grant versus his time in the White House; the approaching 200th appearance of the “Old Crimson” flag on College GameDay; and how he and his wife used to do their grocery shopping during their time living in Key West between his stints at Texas Tech and Washington State.
“Do you know how liberating it was to not have a car? We would ride our bikes a few miles to the store and get one of those cabs with a bike rack to bring us home. We’d be set for the next two weeks.”
He points me toward the buffet: “Make sure you get some of that chicken. It looks kinda weird, but it is always really good.”
Then it’s off to watch more film, this time of the practice that has just taken place. “I’ll be walking home in a couple of hours,” he says as he grabs a cup of sliced fruit and heads off to the meeting rooms. “I might stop somewhere on the way home. I’ll let you know. Bring Buddy.”
Yeah, OK, Coach, whatever. It’s USC week. You aren’t stopping anywhere. You have work to do. Besides, this town is so electrified right now, you’re not just going to walk down Main Street and into a watering hole without sending the Palouse into a frenzy.
Might stop somewhere … bring Buddy … pfft.
A few hours later, it is Tuesday (Wednesday?) night, and football coach Mike Leach, professor/author Buddy Levy and a dumbstruck sportswriter are sitting around a tiny table in a second-floor bar. Levy talks about Montezuma. Leach talks about Jackie Sherrill. A couple joins in. Justina and Michael Blackburn work in the tech industry and used to live in Seattle but now have a loft on Main Street and attend every Cougars game, home and away. “We went to the UNLV game his first season here ,” Justina says. “We were at a casino table and had on our WSU stuff on and a bunch of people in Texas Tech shirts saw us. They looked so sad. They said they missed Coach Leach. You want to know why?”
She points at Leach, who is now talking about the time the Navy Seals in Key West let him come out to watch their training sessions. A group of students behind him are leaning their heads in his direction to listen in.
“They miss that right there. He’s just Mike. He just fits in.”
Levy, who’s just taught a day full of classes, is laughing. The impromptu meeting, the location, the zigzagging from topic to topic, that’s exactly how they wrote their Geronimo book. Levy has a new book, co-written with Erik Weihenmayer about the blind adventurer’s kayaking of the Grand Canyon. Leach is bragging about it, as well as Levy’s works on Davy Crockett and the last stand of the Aztecs against Cortes and the Conquistadors. Levy, meanwhile, is bragging about Leach’s guts to punt it away late against Boise State while also trying to mount a comeback during Week 2.
Did you know that the Apaches hunted ducks by filling the pond with floating gourds? They would wait long periods of time, until their prey got used to swimming among the foreign objects. Then one day they would slip under the water, using those gourds as cover, and pounce on the unsuspecting birds for dinner.
Did you know that Geronimo maintained a tactical advantage over the U.S. Army because his people traveled over the hills instead being hampered by the European-trained habit of sticking to the rivers?
Did you know that Geronimo also preferred to run counter to conventional warfare by fighting with the mountains to his back?
Did you know that Carmen Rasmusen, the sixth-place finisher in Season 2 of “American Idol,” is Mike Leach’s niece?
Everyone in attendance Tuesday night now knows all that and more.
“Have you ever met a football coach who did so little talking about football?” Levy asks. The answer is no. “Well, here’s the thing: He actually is talking about football. You just have to try to use Mike’s brain when you listen.”
Hunting ducks with gourds? That’s using creativity to create an advantage and developing the discipline to wait for the right time to use that advantage.
Traveling over mountains instead of on rivers? That’s charting one’s own path, relying on open-minded thinking instead of letting old rules and old, traditional, immovable routes force you into problems.
Fighting with the mountains to one’s back? That’s dictating the terms of engagement, flipping the field of battle to both confuse the opponent and provide an unconventional escape route if needed.
Having a niece on “American Idol”?
“OK,” Levy admits, chuckling. “Not everything gets back to football. But most of it does.”
“I was banned from campus for three days. I was like the Luther Campbell of Iowa Wesleyan.”
As Tuesday (Wednesday?) night bleeds into Wednesday (Thursday?) morning, Mike Leach does indeed get back to football. He speaks with wonderment about defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa and his family, whom Leach met en masse when he traveled to Maui for a recruiting visit. On the flight over he’d marveled at photos in the Hawaiian Airlines magazine of an island kid performing incredible physical acts. Turns out they were of young Hercules. Marveling at the houseful of athletes, Leach joked that all they lacked was for one of them have survived a shark attack. “And his father stands up, pulls up his pants leg, and he’s got a calf full of bite marks!” Then Leach’s voice drops. He talks about the importance of Mata’afa getting to Darnold Friday night.
He goes back to Geronimo, speaking of the warrior’s ability to keep thousands of soldiers at bay with only a small number of men. Then he mentions USC again. Then he mentions David and Goliath.
“Ol’ David, he measured up Goliath and didn’t worry for one second about how big or strong Goliath was or how much better his weapons were. He didn’t worry about what Goliath could do. He worried about what he could do. That’s what he worked on. And then, when he’d prepared as well as he possibly could, he wasn’t afraid to stand in there. He was ready. You have to give yourself the best possible shot. Then, who knows?”
It is now Wednesday (Thursday?) morning and Mike Leach is gone. He has work to do. The talking stops — OK, pauses — and the planning resumes.
All is quiet on the Palouse. For now. The countdown to Friday night is nearly done.