For weeks after the firing of Mike Leach as football coach of Texas Tech University, and through all of the surrounding controversy, I was angry and focused only on this subject matter. During the Christmas Holidays and New Year's Eve, a certain pall loomed over me as I could not separate myself from Red Raider football. Writing this was my therapy, and I thought I'd share it with others that felt similarly.
As it relates to Tech football and the recent controversy, few things frustrate me more than when it is suggested that I "move on". "Mike Leach is gone, he’s never coming back, and this is just a game. Why don’t you just get a life"! When I hear this chatter, it angers and frustrates me.
For those who are in the just "move on" camp, I hereby claim you didn’t like Mike Leach and don’t support him. And if that’s true, then by any standard you really cannot claim to be a loyal Tech football fan. For you cannot love Tech football and dislike Mike Leach. Don’t waste your time trying to persuade me otherwise, it won’t work.
So why do I feel this way? I’m a 1980 Tech graduate, and except for my freshmen year in 1976 when Tech climbed to #3 in the polls having beaten ranked UT and A&M to finish the season 10 -2, there’s been little to cheer about until Mike Leach arrived. After the 1977 football season, Tech had only 1 winning season over the next 8 years compiling an abysmal record of 31 – 53 - 4 through 1985. From 1986 to 1999, the last year of Spike Dykes and the year before Mike Leach arrived, Tech’s record was 89 - 71.
In other words, since my freshmen year in 1976, until the year before Mike Leach coached, Tech’s combined record over the course of 23 seasons was 133 wins, 134 losses and 4 ties. That’s a winning percentage of .4901%. In other words, there was very little to cheer about, very little to get excited about, and quite frankly, as it related to Tech football, just very little.
Enter Mike Leach. His tenure ended after 10 years with Tech with a record of 85 - 45, for a winning percentage of .664%. He has taken Tech to a bowl game in each of his 10 years, with a combined bowl record of 6 – 4 (including the 2010 Alamo Bowl). Mike Leach is one of only sixteen active college football coaches who have never had a losing season. Of those, he is among nine who have been a head coach for at least five seasons.
With the implementation of his Air Raid spread offense, Leach created perhaps the most exciting offense in college football history, rivaling the wishbone of the 1960’s and 1970’s. In fact, over the course of his 10 years, Tech was the most prolific offense in college football. His QB’s litter the NCAA record books on just about every category, including the #1 and #2 ranks for single season passing yards (Symons and Harrell). The list goes of NCAA record holders goes on and on with Tech entries. This is unprecedented!
So what’s so special about that? What’s so special about Tech football during the Leach era? Everything. There’s a reason why Texas Tech gained national prominence, why ESPN was camped-out with Tech 3 weeks in a row for ESPN Gameday. There’s a reason why the New York Times ran several major lead articles on Mike Leach and Tech football. The press continued with the USA Today, Texas Monthly, and throughout national television broadcasts. For the 2008 season, "the catch" – that is Michael Crabtree’s catch of a Graham Harrell pass, while shedding two Texas defensive backs, to score the game-winning touchdown with 3 seconds left – was named the greatest play for the 2008 college football season. "CrabGrab" became a household name.
Pirate-mania took on a whole new dimension. Sure Johnny Depp portrayed Jack Sparrow in the "Pirates of the Caribbean", but the most famous pirate of all was Mike Leach. Tech football crowds, at home and on the road, filled stadiums with a gruesome display of pirate faces resembling the now deceased Heath Ledger as the Clown Prince of Crime in "Dark Knight".
Mike Leach was an odd ball, a man with weird peculiarities, crazy idiosyncrasies, and an orthodoxy that few could understand, but most were amused. A lawyer who never played football but decided he wanted to become a coach, and in that pursuit, coached a semi-pro team in Finland. Leach is not polished like a Mack Brown or a Jim Tressel, or even a Bob Stoops. He’s his own man; a man that when he opens his mouth he speaks as if he’s taking the garbage out, or cleaning the garage. His conversation skips from subject to subject, randomly, absurdly non-sequitur, as if he’s sifting through years of keepsakes stored in his attic. If college football coaches are the "city", Mike Leach is the tent in the prairie – way out there, and all alone. Just as he prefers.
So, Tech had a great, memorable season in 2008. But that happens nearly every year in college football. Why did Tech become such a national sensation? Because it was Texas Tech University. Actually, before it was Tech, it was Texas Technological University, a small school with four colleges best known for its agricultural programs. Tech became prominent because this agricultural school - located in the dusty plains in the panhandle of Texas, where cotton and dust storms rule, where Willie Nelson’s "momma don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys" is fightin’ words, and Wranglers, boots and a belt buckle larger than a hubcap are common - is coached by a mad genius that happens to have the most advanced passing game and offensive attack in the country.
Yes, spirals flinging straight as arrows in the plains past fields of cotton, moving faster than tumbleweeds during a red sandstorm in the spring. A tier 3 college, a second-rate institution in a small West Texas town featuring the most feared, the most prolific and most modern passing game in college football?
Mike Leach and Texas Tech achieved all of this with athletes considered too slow and too small by the major Big 12 powerhouses such as Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M. In fact, in the 10 years during Mike Leach’s coaching career at Tech, he never had a recruiting class rated in the top 40. So, when you can’t beat em’ you out work them. And that he did. Mike Leach demanded more out of his athletes than almost any coach in the country. His philosophy was if you can’t out-recruit them you can sure out-work them. And as his teams got better, he slowly recruited better athletes, and he won more big games. He presented a passing game that had no trick plays. Everyone knew what Tech was going to do (pass). He didn’t care if the opposing coaches picked up his play signals – that didn’t matter. Heck, he’d probably give you his playbook if you asked. Well, it wasn’t really a playbook, but rather a small laminated card with a handful of plays on it – nothing larger than the cocktail napkin from which Southwest Airlines was born.
And on Halloween night in 2008, on the season’s biggest stage, in one of the most storied college football games, and an instant ESPN Classic, the Pirate shocked the college football world as Texas Tech University beat the #1 ranked Texas Longhorns in what Tech fans remember as the greatest win in Texas Tech history.
So, back to the question of why I can’t "move on"? Because Mike Leach is Texas Tech football, and Texas Tech football is Mike Leach. He made Tech relevant. He made Tech a household name. He was the Pirate, the odd genius, the weird scientist, the strange guy that took small, slow athletes that no one else wanted and created the Air Raid spread offense that turned college football upside down. And in doing this, he won, and won big, going to a bowl game in each of his 10 years, with a winning record in each year, becoming the most successful football coach in Tech history. Finally, Tech football had a brand, and Tech fans had a product it could relish. For once, the dusty plains became The Dusty Plains, Home of the Texas Tech University Red Raiders.
Yes, Leach is gone, and whether I like it or not, I have to move on. I’m glad we have a coach of the caliber of Tuberville, and it seems he has put in place a competent staff. But for me, The Pirate will live forever. He made Tech football. He made Tech football successful, and relevant. Long Live The Pirate! God speed. Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!