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Sportsman

My Sportsman: Mike Leach

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.

Never mind that sportsmanship is not a quality often attributed to my Sportsman of the Year. Mike Leach has always been about misdirection. His many redeeming qualities aside, the Texas Tech head coach can be a tad absent-minded, such as when he forgets to inform his quarterback that, because the game is well in hand, it's probably a good idea to stop throwing into the end zone.

On the other hand, Leach may be providing opponents with a lesson consistent with the self-reliant ethos of west Texas: It's not my job to hold the score down. You'll thank me for this later.

In a sport more susceptible than most to conventional thinking, I salute the least conventional mind on the college football landscape. In his ninth season in Lubbock, having finally come up with a better-than-average defense to complement his storied Air Raid offense, Leach is 10-0 and two wins away from a berth in the BCS title game.

It probably helps that he is one of just a handful of Division-I head coaches who didn't play college ball himself. Rather, he played rugby at BYU. (A visitor's casual mention of rugby World Cup last year triggered a lengthy digression on English flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson -- "He may be the best drop-kicker in the world, but I think he's playing out of position" -- and a prediction, later borne out, that South Africa would take down the Brits in the final.)

After earning his law degree at Pepperdine, Leach concluded he was no longer very keen on practicing law. Having long coached football on the side, he made it a vocation, then made stops at Cal Poly, at the College of the Desert, (in Palm Desert, Calif.) and Pori, Finland. Having found a kindred spirit in passing guru Hal Mumme, Leach followed his mentor to Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State and Kentucky, where his imaginative attacks caught the eye of Bob Stoops, who lured him to Oklahoma nearly a decade ago.

The Big 12 hasn't been the same since. The passing game Leach brought to the plains -- where it could never work, critics insisted, because of, you know, the elements -- has opened minds and plagued defensive coordinators all over the league. So potent was the spread offense he installed at Oklahoma that Leach landed a head job -- at Texas Tech, his current gig -- within a year. If the profusion of absurdly prolific Big 12 offenses has been the story of this college football season, Leach is its main protagonist, the prime mover, the guy who shook things up in the first place.

His philosophy seems less revolutionary than commonsensical and democratic: force the other guy to defend the entire field. Get the ball into the hands of as many players as possible (a tenet whose importance, Leach once told me, became clear to him while coaching Little League). Streamline. From the vast buffet of wonderful offensive plays, choose some you want to be good at, then become very good at them. "Otherwise," he said, "you're going to mediocre at all of 'em."

Mix in the coach's signature quirks: the vast splits between offensive linemen; a visceral disdain for punts and field-goal attempts; his ability to hold court at great length on subjects ranging from Geronimo to Jackson Pollock to the Grateful Dead, and what you have is a bike-riding, roller-blading American original, incapable, it seems, of an unoriginal thought.

Befitting a spread disciple, Leach has said he wouldn't mind widening the field by five yards. When I ran that idea past Urban Meyer, the Florida coach smiled and said, "Mike's a good friend. But he's a different cat."

Vive la difference.

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