KEY WEST, Fla. -- Mike Leach tells me to park the car outside a locked gate. The botanical garden is closed for the day, but Leach wants to show me something. Moments later, we're both on our toes staring through slats in a fence.
"Nobody even knows this is back here," the Coach in Exile says.
Inside the fence sit some of the least seaworthy boats ever to float on salt water. Lawn mower engines powered a few. Cheap, orange spray foam and duct tape kept others afloat. One mast appeared to be made from leftover sewer pipe. These vessels fascinate Leach because years ago, Cubans piled into them and braved 90 miles of treacherous open water because they wanted to live free of Fidel Castro's oppression. Less than four miles away, tourists wait in line for almost an hour to take a photograph in front of a buoy that marks the southernmost point in the continental United States. Leach could have shown them a much better time.
"Forget the botanical garden," Leach says, his green eyes flashing as he waves his hand at the dilapidated dinghies. "
Leach speaks as passionately about the boats as he does about his love for wide offensive line splits or the superiority of barbecued pork to barbecued anything else. ("It's indisputable," he says.) Within seconds, a conversation with Leach can roll from the importance of scout teamers to the time he hung out in Jimmy Buffett's studio -- a nondescript, windowless white building steps from multiple bars on a marina dock -- with the guys whose enthusiastic housesitting inspired Buffett's song
Because Leach isn't afraid to admit or indulge his interest in a variety of topics, the college football establishment views him as an eccentric. Despite this, his record of success outstrips most "safe" coaches. In 10 seasons at Texas Tech, Leach averaged 8.4 wins a season at a school that won eight or more games only twice in the 23 seasons before his arrival.
Athletic directors, who usually talk about making bold choices shortly before they make uninspired hires, will tolerate a little eccentricity from a football coach. Except when that coach has lawsuits pending against his former employer and the world's most powerful sports media entity. Leach remains embroiled in one lawsuit with Texas Tech over unpaid wages. That case is due to go before the Supreme Court of Texas, which eventually will rule once and for all whether the case will go forward or whether it will be thrown out based on the school's claim of sovereign immunity. Leach also has a libel suit pending against ESPN and Spaeth Communications -- the firm ESPN commentator Craig James hired in 2009 to help smear Leach's name. In a statement released Tuesday, attorney Scott McLaughlin said the James family "sees no need to respond to this." (I'm not sure ESPN itself belongs as a co-respondent here. The company got stuck in the awkward position of reporting on the actions of one of its own employees. The reporting wasn't perfect, but ESPN could have done little short of giving Leach his own show to avoid the appearance of bias.)
The lawsuits almost certainly have hurt Leach's quest to get a notoriously risk-averse group to consider him for employment, but he refuses to abandon the quest to clear his name and get the money Texas Tech owes him for services rendered. "[The lawsuits] don't affect my ability to coach," Leach says. "My record speaks for itself."
Today, SI.com is running
Leach's book, which includes transcripts of depositions and e-mails sent by the p.r. firm -- including a particularly enlightening series of e-mails in which the firm's employees attempt to determine the best way to drive traffic to a YouTube clip that seemed to support the story -- puts the lie to that tale. Adam James was sent to a room large enough to accommodate a visiting media horde, but he chose to go into the closet and film himself with his cellphone. No matter the truth, the controversy was precisely what Hance needed at the time. Still smarting over the fact that Leach and his agents bested the school in a contract negotiation, the chancellor ensured Leach would be fired just in time for Texas Tech to wriggle out from paying a large retention bonus.
(A little more than a year later, Texas Tech would hire basketball coach Billy Gillispie, who once made one of his Kentucky players spend an entire halftime in a bathroom stall and then
After the firing, Leach moved his family to Key West, where he had bought a house in September 2009. He began working on his book with
On the island, Leach lives the life of a hero in
If the mood strikes, Leach and Sharon can ride their bikes to nearby Stock Island, where Leach can dine on grilled hogfish and blackened scallops at Hogfish Bar and Grill. Afterward, he can stroll along the docks, where a community of fishermen, artists and native Conchs have turned everything from a safe to an 18-wheeler trailer into living spaces only steps from their boats. "Mostly, I like to eavesdrop," Leach says.
Sharon Leach said her husband has taken full advantage of his break from football. He has exercised his curiosity. He has enjoyed the mid-career break most driven professionals never get. But she wants him to coach again because she knows he wants to coach again.
Reading Leach's book, the most enlightening passages have nothing to do with the coach's wide variety of outside interests. They focus on the single-mindedness with which he attacked his dream of coaching football. He didn't come into the profession the traditional way. He didn't play college football. He spent his undergraduate years at BYU fighting school officials about the length of his hair and wooing Sharon. He attended law school at Pepperdine and racked up massive loans before he realized he'd rather starve as a football coach than feast as an attorney. Then he clawed his way to the top of the profession.
"It's ridiculously fulfilling," Leach says of coaching. "But it's kind of a narrow existence. It changes all the time, because young people that age change. Their lives are changing. ... Now, I get variety. The payoff's not as big, but I get wide variety." But would Leach rather have the big payoff or the wide variety? "I plan to get back into coaching," he says.
Leach apparently was too dangerous to hire this past offseason. Maryland, a school that needs to sell luxury boxes and put butts in the seats after a stadium renovation, brought Leach to campus for an interview but ultimately passed in favor of Connecticut's Randy Edsall. While Edsall is a fine coach who probably will eventually fill those seats by winning, Leach would have filled them immediately. He also would have won. "I probably shouldn't have gone up there without being offered the job," Leach says. "I'm not sure I wasn't used to dress up the interview."
Meanwhile, UConn, Pittsburgh and the rest of the schools with vacancies didn't even give Leach a sniff. In this age of near-constant scandal, a coach who wins, who draws fans and donations, who graduates his players, who doesn't commit major NCAA violations and who doesn't tolerate drug use, stealing or violence against women can't find a job.
For now, the Coach in Exile waits in paradise. In six months, more schools will fire their underachieving coaches and begin looking for a guy exactly like Mike Leach. Maybe this time some athletic director will wise up and hire Leach. Until then, Leach will drink his tea at the little coffee shop next to the Tropic Cinema. He'll marvel at the way the giant tarpon swim right under the docks at the marina. He'll wonder aloud why those boats that carried refugees to freedom aren't the centerpiece of a museum.
As Leach walks through Sloppy Joe's explaining how a haul of Ernest Hemingway's belongings was found stashed in a closet in the bar years after the author's death, a patron double-takes and nearly spits out his drink. "That's Mike Leach," says the man, who shakes Leach's hand and explains that he's a huge college football fan. Naturally, Leach begins asking questions. The man, who knows Leach's back story, volunteers that he dates an attorney. Leach's eye twinkles, and he can't suppress a grin. "If she wants to sue someone," Leach says, "I've got some ideas."