The coaching hopeful kept calling Hal Mumme, persistently telemarketing his dreams.
Mumme, the new coach at Iowa Wesleyan, studied the skimpy résumé and saw a law degree from Pepperdine but no experience playing college football.
The young man recently had done some coaching with the Bears, though. Wait, that wasn’t the Chicago Bears or the Cal Bears it was the Pori Bears, a semi-pro team in Finland.
Iowa Wesleyan, an NAIA school in Mount Pleasant, had gone winless in 10 games the previous season. So it wasn’t as if Mumme was buried in top-drawer applicants. But for all his persistence, this wannabe seemed to have a slim chance of landing a job south of the Arctic Circle.
Mike Leach, the 28-year-old on the phone, was relentless, often keeping Mumme on the line deep into the night. And Mumme grew intrigued.
“I could tell a lot about him from the depth of conversations we had,” Mumme said. “A lot of them had nothing to do with football; sometimes they had to do with Civil War history or the current political scene, things like that. I could just tell he was a brilliant guy.”
The calls continued but Mumme needed prodding from a third party before a job offer was extended.
“I was a night owl, so I didn’t mind (the calls), but my wife was not,” Mumme said. “After about a month of these calls, my wife said, ‘Would you please just hire this guy?’ ”
Whether through impatience or wisdom, Mrs. Mumme spotted something in Leach that would take him a long way in college football, and would be one of the most important things he would transmit to his players:
Coach Sonny Dykes found a unique way to describe it. Leach’s greatest skill, he said, lies not necessarily in coaching the game, but in coaching a “passion” for the game.
Mumme had no way to be certain if this fervor could be harnessed and channeled to help shape a football team, but he decided to take a chance. And it wasn’t just because his wife needed the sleep.
“This was 1989, and I wanted our line to set up in two-point stances with big splits so we could throw the ball 50 times a game. If I said that to most offensive line coaches, they wouldn’t even listen to me,” Mumme said.
Leach not only listened, he was an instant enabler, jumping in with his own improbable notions.
Mumme laughs when revealing the way he viewed Leach’s candidacy at the time.
“It was like that Billy Joel song,” he said. “ It just (may) be a lunatic you’re looking for.”
In that regard, he decided, Mike Leach was perfect.
WHAT NO SWORD AND EYE PATCH?
It takes time to pick out Mike Leach on the Washington State practice field. The days of imperious coaches overseeing their domain from a tower are gone, but most still tend to be in the middle of the action.
During team drills Thursday, Leach is off to the side, signaling in plays to his quarterbacks. He wears a pair of cargo shorts and never raises his voice in almost three hours of practice.
“What I really like is that he doesn’t get too high or too down,” said Jeff Tuel, WSU’s senior quarterback, and the Cougars player whose life changed most dramatically when Leach was hired to bring his pass-first (last, and always) offense to Pullman.
“He’s really level-headed; he’ll say something to you about what you did and then we’re able to move on to the next play.”
Really? That’s it? Mike Leach? The guy deemed so colorful that “60 Minutes” did a segment on him, and The New York Times Magazine printed a cover profile by Michael Lewis that cast Leach onto contemporary culture as a pirate-loving iconoclast who was breaking down the heavily buttressed walls of football convention?
“Oh, he’s colorful in the film room,” Tuel said. “That’s when he gets to be fun, you never know what to expect and that makes it very interesting.”
Not only was Leach conspicuously un-swashbuckling, the Cougars’ spring practice looked an awful lot like every other college’s spring practice. Yes, they have a sand pit on one side where players may get the same training benefits as running on the beach. And some passing drills early in practice are conducted using tennis balls rather than footballs – a smaller implement requires greater focus and concentration, as well as the use of both hands.
But the rest of it is, simply, football practice.
“I think a lot of times people come to see our practices and they’re surprisingly routine, surprisingly similar,” Leach said. “The variation has to come with the communication.”
An example, please.
“You try to figure out ways to communicate and keep it fresh and exciting,” Leach said. “We’re two-thirds of the way through spring and we showed a video the other day about a bass fisherman who has no legs and one arm.”
Leach pantomimed an example of how the man still manages to cast his lure with part of one arm and his chin.
“The message is that if you think stuff is going bad for you or you have some limitations, well, look at this guy,” Leach said. “This guy is happier than hell he’s a world-class bass fisherman. I think a different point of view allows them to draw from other people.”
Ah, yes, perspective. Leach knows all about it. For the past two years, Leach looked at college football through a different prism. He’d served as an analyst for SiriusXM radio after being fired from Texas Tech in December 2009, despite a run of 10 consecutive bowl seasons with the Red Raiders.
His coaching re-entry has been smooth, he said.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Leach said. “It’s part of what’s consuming about football: It changes all the time. It’s busier now on the front end, as it always is.”
He said he has to guard against assessing Cougars who are newly introduced to the attack by the standards he held for the highly ranked Red Raiders who had been schooled for seasons in its intricacies.
But stepping away has had its benefits.
“I think it’s pretty positive,” he said. “Your mind kind off clears and you embrace and lock into the things that were most effective. You can purge and be more efficient. You can streamline your communication, streamline your emphasis.”
In his book, “Swing Your Sword,” Leach writes that a benefit of not having played college football was that he avoided having his ideas institutionalized by convention. And when asked about it, he quickly points out that some of his trial-and-error experiments over the years have came down on the “error” side.
“In some cases, there may have been less trial if I were more familiar with convention,” the 51-year-old Leach said. “People have figured some of this out. I wasn’t trying to re-invent the wheel, but I didn’t have a full knowledge of the dimensions of the wheel that was already invented.”
AIR RAID ALERT
As it turned out, being a “lunatic” wasn’t nearly enough. When Leach unpacked at Mount Pleasant, Mumme made him offensive line coach, recruiting coordinator, equipment manager, video coordinator and the sports information director for football. And because he had a law degree, the university asked him to teach a couple of business law classes.
“All for the grand total of $12,000,” Mumme said. “On top of that, his wife Sharon was my secretary one of the best I ever had. In fact, if it doesn’t work out at Washington State, she can come work for me again.”
Mumme and Leach submerged into a think-tank of offensive scheming, with the foundation rooted in LaVell Edwards’ offense at BYU. Although Leach hadn’t played as an undergrad at BYU, he’d studied Edwards’ scheme. But from there, Mumme and Leach started breaking rules, challenging convention, and rethinking even the structural architecture of the game.
Their linemen were barely within shouting distance of one another, and receivers were spread from sideline to sideline. The ball was in the air, the tempo breathtaking, and the scoreboard at the meltdown threshold.
“This was in 1989, and in those days, there weren’t many of us doing what we do,” said Mumme, now at NCAA Division III McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. “Right now, every other college team you see is similar to what we do. But back then, everybody thought we were crazy.”
The birth and evolution of the offense in the tiny Iowa town continues to create ripples. A Mount Pleasant native named Dana Holgorsen played wide receiver on that team. He’s now the coach at West Virginia. One of the linemen on that team, Bill Bedenbaugh, is West Virginia’s offensive line coach.
“I’ve known Coach (Leach) since I was 17,” Bedenbaugh said. “He recruited me to Iowa Wesleyan. What you saw right off was how smart he was. When you’re a young kid playing for him, you don’t really know much about life, but he would teach you. He knows so much that sometimes you had no idea what the hell he was talking about, but (he) was always a great guy to be around.”
Mumme and Leach took over a program that had lost all 10 games the previous season and won seven, eight and 10 games the next three seasons.
In one game in 1991, quarterback Dustin Dewald completed 61 passes in 86 attempts for the Tigers. In a three-game stretch, he connected on 21 touchdown passes.
“I just absolutely loved (Leach),” Dewald said. “He was awesome to be around. He was so intelligent and had a great sense of humor. But you could see that he worked his butt off, doing the work of three coaches.”
While his coaching instincts allowed Leach to help Mumme fashion an almost indefensible offense, the marketer in him was responsible for another important element: The nickname.
“We had Dustin Dewald throwing for more than 400 yards a game, and, as part-time SID, Mike had to try to get him in the newspapers,” Mumme recalled. “Mike read an article about Steve Spurrier at Duke having an offense they called ‘Air Ball,’ so Mike came to me and said, ‘We’ve got to call our offense ‘Air Raid.’ ”
It caught on so well that when they left Iowa Wesleyan for Valdosta (Ga.) State, the father of one of their receivers brought an old air-raid siren to games and cranked it up after every score. There were so many scores, though, that the siren threatened hearing and sanity, and the Gulf South Conference banned it, Mumme said. So the father responded by mounting it atop a fraternity house across the street from the stadium, where the conference held no dominion.
“So, as far as being an SID, Mike was pretty good at it,” Mumme said. “He’s a great wordsmith.”
A BETTER MOUSETRAP
The wins compounded at Valdosta State, which earned Mumme and Leach a place on the big stage, the Southeastern Conference, even if they were at a perennial lesser light – Kentucky.
Some Bluegrass hardboots rejected a pass-first attack as unsound, if not completely un-American. But the SEC was not prepared to defend against an Air Raid. In the first season, they beat LSU on the road, Kentucky’s first road win over a ranked team in 21 years. The second year, they beat Alabama for the first time in 75 years.
“Mike was a really tenacious recruiter,” Mumme said. “He’d always go out after people we weren’t supposed to get at Kentucky. Even I would tell him we had no chance, but Mike wouldn’t believe it and keep working at them. We got really close to landing Drew Brees, even though we already had Tim Couch. And he was convinced we were going to get Eli Manning. I told him there was no way, but Mike didn’t give up to the last second.”
Because of Mumme’s reputation as an offensive mastermind, prospective employers questioned the significance of Leach’s contributions, and whether he was ready for a head coaching position. Mumme wouldn’t be specific, but said that Leach was passed over for a number of head-coaching jobs. Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, though, trusted Mumme’s recommendation and hired Leach as offensive coordinator in 1999.
Texas Tech hired him away as head coach after one season.
The Red Raiders won 84 games in Leach’s 10 seasons. The highlight came in a 2008 upset of top-ranked Texas.
“We had 10 great years,” Leach said of the experience in Lubbock. “The fans were great, the vast majority of the administration was great, the situation was great. I was always excited to be there because we were building. One team was better than the last, and it was a lot of fun. Heck, we expanded the stadium three times in six years and filled it each time.”
And an image of Leach was projected to the nation’s sports fans. But that may not be strictly accurate.
Sonny Dykes, now the coach at Louisiana Tech and former assistant with Leach at Kentucky and Texas Tech, calls Leach “kind of laid back.” While the perception is that the Air Raid offense is designed by NASA engineers, it is based in sound football logic.
“People see a lot of plays and think there’s magic bullets,” Dykes said. “But that’s not it; he’s an execution-based coach. It’s really about keeping things simple and allowing players to play fast and letting them execute.”
Dykes shared a list of distractions every college coach faces, which he called “clutter.”
“Mike does a great job of ignoring the stuff that doesn’t matter and focuses on the things that are important the things that influence whether we win or lose,” Dykes said.
Dykes was in the meeting room when Leach unleashed his renowned pirate analogy. The message was simply that precision was required to effectively wield your weapons.
“Yes, he’s definitely unconventional,” Dykes said. “But football is a grind, and if it’s no fun, what’s the point?”
Leach won’t second-guess others’ adjectives, although he thinks he’s more practical than eccentric.
“The biggest thing is to try to figure out how to build a better mouse trap and be as efficient as you can,” he said. “If you do what everybody else does, that’s exactly what you are everybody else. If you want your results to be different, then being everybody else isn’t going to get that accomplished.”
To be successful at places such as Iowa Wesleyan, Kentucky, Texas Tech – and very definitely Washington State – a coach has to understand the psychology of underdoggery.
“All great players have one thing in common, they’re passionate about playing,” Dykes said. “Mike coaches passion well, and that’s what Hal Mumme did a good job at; they understand how important passion is. A great athlete without tremendous passion will be an average football player; an average athlete with tremendous passion can become a great football player.”
And so an underestimated kid with no scholarship offers other than Mike Leach’s to Texas Tech can turn into four-time Pro Bowl player Wes Welker. And a university that had known modest success can become a conference heavyweight.
“But you just can get some guys with dubious agendas and it is surprising what they’re capable of doing,” Leach said, prefacing comments on his controversial dismissal at Texas Tech.
THE SWORD FALLS
The incident probably seemed insignificant. As Leach and Tech prepared for the 2009 Alamo Bowl, controversy arose over Leach’s treatment of player Adam James, who had been diagnosed with a concussion.
Conflicting reports portrayed James as a malcontent or Leach as abusive, with it all being heated to boiling by subplots that included: James’ father was former NFL player and ESPN announcer Craig James, and some Tech administrators may have been at crossed-swords with Leach over previous contract negotiations.
Leach was suspended and then fired – a day before an $800,000 contract payment was due. Suits, depositions and volleyed accusations ensued.
In February, the Texas Supreme Court denied the appeal of his wrongful termination suit, based on sovereign immunity of the university.
Last week, Tech chancellor Kent Hance told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that Leach “ told me to go ‘F’ myself.”
“That’s a total lie, a complete lie, and he knows it’s a lie,” Leach said Thursday. “And I’m not sure he shouldn’t be charged with perjury because he said it under oath, too. He claims I said that, which is patently false; I’ve never sworn at an administrator in my entire life.”
Leach also denied that he was ever asked to apologize to James as a condition for his continued employment at Tech.
“It was a whole railroading from the beginning,” he said. “I was never asked to do that. The only thing I was asked to do was admit to something that I didn’t do, that was false.”
WSU athletic director Bill Moos studied the matter before hiring Leach in December.
“We discussed it and I was comfortable with what happened and how it got translated into what ended up costing him his job,” Moos said. “He’s tough; I like the disciplinarian part. I don’t believe he in any way abused that young man.”
Mumme said he suspected that “personalities got involved,” which helped fuel the controversy.
“I have my opinions,” Mumme said. “I think they took a molehill and turned it into a mountain. Sometimes bosses don’t always want the truth, and Mike will always tell you his opinion of the truth.”
While Leach is unconventional, he’s “still a football coach,” Dykes said. “He makes it fun and allows the players to have a good time and to be themselves. But it’s football, not all rainbows and puppy dogs. He’s going to demand you do things the right way and do them with tremendous effort.”
CHANGES IN LATITUDE
After his firing in Lubbock, Leach moved to Key West, Fla., and spent the next two football seasons talking about college football with broadcaster Jack Arute on SiriusXM satellite radio.
“He thinks like a coach and that’s what made him good at it,” Arute said. “But unlike so many of them, he doesn’t live this myopic life of Xs and Os. He’s so well-rounded. He might be reading a book about Geronimo, or spending a couple weeks with a Hollywood producer seeing how movies are made. He is always trying to feed his intellectual appetite.”
Arute asked Leach a number of times what sort of landing spot he sought for his next coaching adventure. Arute said it sounded as if he were describing WSU.
“He’s going to be a great fit at Washington State, a place where you might not be tied down by conventional wisdom, where he can help players get their education and turn them into quality men,” Arute said.
Moos had Leach on his short list during a time when he was AD at Oregon and searching for a coach.
“I liked the fact that he worked his way up through the ranks,” Moos said. “I don’t think the big-time assistants who have had the silver spoon all their career are a good fit here at Washington State. (Leach) is a small-town guy and when he got the Texas Tech job, their program was kind of in the same situation as ours and he devised a plan that was successful.”
In a way, the controversy at Texas Tech probably helped WSU by taking a shine off Leach’s appeal in the marketplace. Now, his national profile could make Pullman a destination for prized recruits, and his record of success hints that he might help WSU disrupt the balance of the Pacific-12 Conference.
Moos also noted the record of academic success by Leach’s teams. Tech had one of the top graduation rates in the country.
“You’re talking about a guy who went through law school,” Bedenbaugh said of Leach, having known him as both a player and colleague. “Some guys sit there and tell you how important it is to get your education, but this guy put himself through law school. He shows you exactly how important an education is.”
You’ve seen them in college sports, the charismatics, the coaches who come in all charm and platitudes, and it might not be until a few seasons pass that you realize the high gloss was only veneer hiding a lack of substance.
That’s not Leach.
“He’s probably the most honest person I know,” Mumme said. “He will tell you exactly what he’s thinking, even if it’s not what you want to hear. When he believes in something, he’ll stand up for it.”
College football is rarely a haven for independent thought or unvarnished expression.
“It’s hard to find in college football, but Mike is authentic,” Dykes said. “He’s not trying to be anybody he’s not. And I think everybody who works for him appreciates that, and players appreciate that, and I think that’s a big reason he’s successful. He’s not afraid to be different, to try something nobody else is doing. He is who he is, completely authentic.”
Adam James notwithstanding, players like to know where they stand.
“He’s going to tell you exactly what he thinks,” Bedenbaugh said. “He’s not going to hide what he’s feeling and you’ll always know where you stand. Players have to understand you care about them; that’s the most important thing. If they know that, they’ll do anything for you. And teaching them about life is an important part.”
The lessons continue after graduation. Decades, in fact.
“The great thing about him is he could be in the middle of a press conference or something and he might get a call from a player he hadn’t heard from in 15 years and he would stop what he’s doing to take the call,” said Dewald, his quarterback at Iowa Wesleyan.
Given what he’s known about Leach for more than 20 years, Dewald was asked if he had any projections for what Washington State fans and players might expect.
“Y’all are in for a great ride.”
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440