Ruthless, cunning and resourceful, Mike Leach counts Geronimo as a personal hero. In the off-season he co-authored a book about the Native American chief with Washington State English professor Buddy Levy, drawing life lessons from the leader who led an undermanned, under equipped force in a 50-year battle with the American military. Outnumbered 233-1, Geronimo was never captured, leading a proud people who could cover 40 miles a day carrying all their possessions, and capture ducks with their bare hands.
Swinging his sword: Mike Leach gestures to an official during last season’s Apple Cup (Joe Nicholson, USA Today Sports Images).
Leach sees Geronimo as a perfect model for coaching and leadership. The book begins, “When I was a kid growing up in Wyoming, there were Cowboys and Indians, and I always wanted to be an Indian.”
Coaching at a school that had won just nine games in four years and hadn’t been to a bowl game since 2003, the eccentric, brilliant head coach has done justice to his idol, winning three games in the first year and making the New Mexico Bowl in the second, complete with a 10-7 upset of USC in the Coliseum in game two.
Leach has made the Cougars more dangerous, and he’s not done. At Texas Tech he made ten bowl games in ten years, molding players nobody wanted into the most innovative and productive offense in the Big-12 conference, making diverse players like Kliff Kingsbury, Wes Welker, Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree into stars. The Leach offense thrives on creating confusion out of simplicity, with wide offensive line splits and five receivers crisscrossing in every direction. The line splits create natural passing lanes, while the quarterback is trained to read the defense, recognize options quickly and get the ball to fast receivers in open space.
The coach employs unusual methods to train his players, having the receivers run 2500 yards a day, finishing with windsprints in a custom-designed sand pit to strengthen their ankles and knees. He has them catch tennis balls out of a bazooka to sharpen their hand-eye coordination. In recruiting, he’ll take on oddly-shaped players other schools pass on, but insists on speed, looking to run opponents ragged in the Geronimo style. Against Oregon last year receiver Gabe Marks caught a season-high 13 passes for 167 yards.
The Cougs rarely run the football but the passing game is brutally efficient and fiercely paced. Last year Connor Halliday scorched the Ducks for 557 yards and four touchdowns, completing an FBS-record 58-89 passes in a 62-38 loss. Halliday threw four interceptions, though, the last one returned 51 yards for a score early in the fourth quarter.
That made it 62-24 Ducks but Leach’s squad tacked on two late scores to make the final score look closer. Frustrated by the offensive barrage, Nick Aliotti let loose with a tirade after the game that got him fined $5000 by the conference.
“That’s total bulls**t that he threw the ball at the end of the game like he did,” Aliotti said, sipping on his ever-present water bottle. “And you can print that and you can send it to him, and he can comment, too. I think it’s low class and it’s bulls**t to throw the ball when the game is completely over against our kids that are basically our scout team. … Make sure he knows that. Because I don’t really care.”
Leach saw it, rightly, as teaching his players to keep competing. He wanted to make them tougher, not satisfied with fat girlfriends and keeping the score close. A couple of months later the team missed out on a winning season when they blew a 15-point lead in the New Mexico bowl, allowing Colorado State to score twice late in the fourth quarter to tie, then fumbling the kickoff with 27 seconds to play, setting the Rams up for the winning field goal. It was the only time CSU led in the entire game.
In the interview room Leach told reporters, “Colorado State finished the game. We didn’t. They finished the game better than we did. The lesson to be learned from that is it doesn’t matter where you’re at. You need to go out and finish the game.”
The third year of the Mike Leach experiment is intriguing. In May the Cougars opened up a $61 million football operations center, and in June he took his coaches sturgeon fishing in Idaho, landing a monster. They have a 3-year starter returning at quarterback in Halliday, and the question with him is whether he’ll fully embrace the system and cut down on his mistakes. After throwing 39 career interceptions he had just one in the bowl game, while completing six touchdown passes to six different receivers, the kind of distribution the Air Raid thrives on.
WSU returns Marks and a raiding band of receivers, among them Vince Mayle (42 catches, 539 yards, 7 tds) and River Cracraft (46 catches, 614 yards, 3 tds). The defense is anchored by Xavier Cooper, a 6-4, 299-lb. defensive lineman who erupted for 50 tackles and 5 sacks last year. He had eight tackles and 1.5 sacks against the Ducks, returning a Marcus Mariota fumble 29 yards for a touchdown. Linebacker Darryl Monroe, 6-1, 235, is a punishing tackler who had 94 stops last year, including four against Oregon, with a sack and a forced fumble.
With the crafty and innovative Leach, this squad could go either way. Either he loses them with his long diatribes and mumbling disconnected lectures on pirates, Geronimo, Daniel Boone or chimpanzees, or they begin to see the genius and accept the eccentricity as part of the deal. Halliday calls him “Leach” and the two squabble constantly about routes and reads. They’re in the third year of an arranged marriage, and how the two coordinate their battle plan, Halliday making instantaneous decisions in real time against the West Coast’s best defensive athletes, Leach reading from a crumpled sheet of paper, will spell success or failure for the underdog Cougs.
He can scheme in ways that completely befuddle defenses, just giving them too much to cover in too short a time. Someone is always open, often for big gains. They tormented the Ducks with shallow crossing routes, matching their pace for much of the game but surrendering too many big plays to Mariota, Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall, who ran for 192 yards and three touchdowns.
This season the Cougars are going to shock someone on the arid plain of the Palouse, and with the ambitions the Ducks have, they should be careful that it isn’t them.
Leach, who sat on the bench in high school and didn’t play past his junior year, played rugby at BYU while watching the LaVell Edwards squad run roughshod over the WAC with a quick passing offense, got a law degree at Pepperdine and decided to go into coaching at 25 after two of his four kids were born, lurks. He stays awake until 6:30 a.m., synthesizing football, whales, grizzly bears and Jackson Pollock. He’s mastered the art of creating simplicity for his players, dazzling complexity for the defense, turning Tim Couch and Josh Heupel into NFL draft choices while he was an offensive coordinator at Kentucky and Oklahoma.
If anything interesting is said at PAC-12 Media Day today, it will probably be Leach who goes off script. If anything unexpected happens in the PAC-12 North race this season, it will probably be the Cougars that create the confusion.
They await on the forbidding arid plain, like Geronimo and the Apaches before them.