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Against the grain


Mike Leach delivered the news flash to a visitor in his office last Monday. The update took place after a Leach digression on the similarities between bullriders and surfers ("Getting towed into a 30-footer is kind of like getting on one of those bulls"), but before his lengthy aside on the upcoming Rugby World Cup final between England and South Africa. ("I think the Springboks are gonna pound 'em. England's not in their head the way [the Brits] got into the heads of the guys on the French team.") So infrequently had the Texas Tech head football coach touched on football, for the first half hour of my recent 90-minute visit, that it seemed a non sequitur when he offered this nugget:

"How about Nebraska firing their AD today?"

Steve Pederson, the brains behind the hiring of Cornhusker football coach Bill ("I'm doing an excellent job") Callahan, had been let go by the university, a firing that bodes darkly for Callahan. It was the latest bombshell to detonate in the conference that, by my reckoning, leads the nation in off-the-field drama.

From Mike Gundy's forceful proclamation of his manhood at Oklahoma State to Dennis Franchione torpedoing his career at Texas A&M with an ill-advised newsletter to Nebraska plumbing new depths with each blowout loss, the Big 12 is the place to be for tabloid headlines.

The most indelible character in this soap operatic league is Leach, who is coaching in a sling these days, having recently broken his left elbow in a wipeout on his road bike. This is the same man who once suffered severe shin splints while rollerblading during a recruiting swing through southern California; a man whose infatuation with pirates is such that he occasionally flies the skull and crossbones from the video tower at Tech practices, and on whose desk lies a Bluebeard-era flintlock pistol.

"When I first met him," allows junior quarterback Graham Harrel, "I thought, 'Is this guy really the head coach? This can't be real.'"

Leach's eccentricities -- he is also fascinated by Geronimo, Daniel Boone and, more recently, Donald Trump, whom he's befriended -- constantly threaten to overshadow the minor miracle he's pulled off in west Texas. Now in his eighth season in Lubbock, the 46-year-old Leach has transformed a solid program into a perennial Top 25 program and fan's delight -- a swashbuckling aerial assault that haunts the dreams of defensive coordinators, and has powered the Red Raiders to seven straight bowls while turning the NCAA passing crown into the University's personal property. (Tech has won it four straight years, and currently leads the nation in passing yardage with -- this isn't a typo -- a 500-yards per game average).

Led by Harrel, who also leads the country in touchdown passes (31), passing yards (3151) and completions per game (36.86), the Red Raiders are 6-1 coming off last Saturday's 35-7 neutering of Texas A&M, a squad Leach seems to take special pleasure in beating. ("How come they get to pretend they are soldiers?" he asks, referring to the Aggies' buzz-cut corps of Cadets, in a superb New York Times Magazine profile from 2005. "The thing is, they aren't actually in the military.")

The Red Raiders and their against-the-grain head coach travel to Columbia, Mo., there to take on a funhouse-mirror version of themselves. Mizzou quarterback Chase Daniel directs an attack that resembles but doesn't duplicate Leach's creation. Where Harrel seldom runs, pulling the ball down only for the occasional QB draw or sneak, Daniel rolls out and is comfortable throwing on the run. He's also more apt to throw to either of his gifted tight ends, Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman.

While Leach has A&M's number, beating the Aggies six of the past seven seasons, he is 1-for-3 against the Tigers. Two years ago, after Missouri clubbed the Red Raiders in Columbia, 62-31, Leach launched into one of the toxic rants for which he is renowned ("We lost this game because I'm not a good enough coach to get our offensive players to play in control when the other team scores a couple of points ... because I'm not a good enough coach to get our kickoff return team and our kickoff coverage team to play.") Leach reached new levels of snark Sept. 22, after the squad's sole loss of the season, a last-minute, come-from-ahead, 49-45 defeat at Oklahoma State. "We had an offense ... that probably sits and reads their press clippings and in arrogant fashion sat around the sideline with their arms folded for most of the second half."

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Nor did he spare the defense, which, after all, had allowed 610 total yards. That unit had acted, he fumed, "like somebody took our lunch money. All we wanted to do was have pouty expressions on our face until somebody dabbed our little tears off."

Just because he's avante garde and a trifle wacky doesn't mean Leach lacks a mean streak. Or that he's incapable of brutally difficult decisions. The following day, defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich -- who long ago, as head man of the Cal Poly Mustangs, hired a bright young assistant named Mike Leach -- was shown the door. Leach installed Ruffin McNeill, the assistant head coach and defensive line coach, as interim coordinator. McNeill's fire and passion have transformed both the atmosphere at practices and the results in games. After Tech held A&M scoreless in its final 10 possessions, Red Raiders fans chanted Ruffin's name.

To contain Tech's Airborne Carnival, teams throw their base defense overboard. "We tend to see the extremes," says Leach. "Either heavy pressure or dropping everyone. Teams either drop more than they would against most people, or they bring more than they would against most people."

Gazing at the screen where he has frozen a play Oklahoma ran against the Tigers last weekend, he laser-pointers an oval around an alley of unoccupied green behind Missouri's linebackers. You look at what they're in, what they're running. You try to figure out where there's space, and how you're gonna get the same piece of space, within the context of what you do."

This is Leach's gift: the ability to reduce the game to its most basic element, finding a piece of space. To his mind, that is something below the level of genius. "We're not that smart," he says of coaches, in general. "We practiced the play. We made the call. We threw it to the guy. He made a play. He broke three tackles along the way. We sure didn't anticipate that when we called the play.

"You call another play, the ball hits some kid in the chest, and now you're dumb. You've gone from brilliant to being a complete idiot. When the fact is, you're somewhere in between."

He will only talk football for so long before embarking on another digression. Did you know, he asks, that Colorado State head coach Sonny Lubick went to the high school from which Evel Knievel dropped out? That Knievel, according to Butte lore, once rode a motorcycle through the hallway of the high school? That story puts Leach, a native of Cody, Wyo., in mind of the time he may or may not have ridden his motorcycle up the steps to the front door of his high school. What follows is a discussion of school-administered discipline, which puts him in mind of a former wood shop teacher who dispensed "swats" with a wooden plank -- seldom so many as the day Leach and a cadre of his goombahs mooned traffic through the glass door of a trailer that was being pulled by that very instructor.

From Cody High, Leach went to BYU, where he played rugby, not football. He still remembers every ebb and flow of an early-'80s 12-11 loss to the Cal Bears, who did not score a try in the match, but won it on the strength of four penalty kicks by Mick Luckhurst, who later went on to kick for seven seasons for the Atlanta Falcons.

As long as he's talking rugby, Leach might as well revisit the subject of the upcoming World Cup final. (The match will be contested in Paris on Saturday, and televised Sunday on Versus.) While some tout England's flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson as the MVP of the tournament, Leach much prefers South Africa's brilliant fullback, Percy Montgomery. "He drop kicks almost as well as Wilkinson, but he can punt it further. He never misses when he's kicking for touch, and he'll get right in the mix. He's got a great sense of the game ..."

A mention of France triggers a discussion of the Tour de France, which leads to Leach's own foray into road biking, and, not long after, the emergency room. Assistant strength coach Aaron Uzzell is a competitive cyclist, it turns out, and set his boss up with a sweet new ride ...

But I digress.