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Celebrating Uniqueness: Mike Leach and John Gagliardi

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<a href="">The Sweet Season</a>
The Sweet Season

It took me way too long too long, but I finally finished Austin Murphy's book Sweet Season (which was a Christmas gift) and so I don't have to tell you what's it's about, I'll let this review do the talking:

The Sweet Season is an aptly titled, vibrantly entertaining book. After a decade of fall travel covering games, longtime Sports Illustrated football reporter Austin Murphy forgoes the roadie lifestyle to move with his family and cover one of the best football programs in the nation, at Minnesota's St. John's University. With all the self-deprecating and witty style of Bill Bryson, Murphy depicts the coaches, players, monks (it is, after all, a Catholic school), his family, and himself as fallible humans and unsung heroes.

For those of you don't know, St. John's University in Minnesota is home to the winningest football coach in college football history, Coach John Gagliardi, and to start to tie all of this together, Austin Murphy was the Sports Illustrated writer that predicted big things for Texas Tech and he has some history with Texas Tech and the Captain and a little bit with Double-T Nation.

Looking in the Mirror

Here's a little bit of background on Gagliardi, he started coaching at St. John's in 1953, and he's still coaching. In 2006, Gagliardi became the first active head coach to be enshrined to the College Football Hall of Fame.

Gagliardi doesn't believe in stretching, in fact his players mock any sort of calisthenics.

There's no tackling during Gagliardi's practices, he says that he his players knew how to tackle before playing for St. John's, that the point of practice is to study the actual break down of the play, not hitting someone.

Gagliardi believes that repetition emphasizes execution and from reading Murphy's book, it's all about execution.

Gagliardi wants his quarterbacks to call their own plays.

Sound familiar?

I don't think I have to point out the similarities between Gagliardi's coaching philosophies and Leach's coaching tendencies.  As I read The Sweet Season, I couldn't help but understand why Murphy and other writers like Michael Lewis are drawn to Leach, he's different. I know, I'm not telling you anything you don't know, but I couldn't help but think that Leach was perhaps in some way motivated by a coach like Gagliardi and Murphy was in turn drawn to Leach after spending so much time with a coach who was fundamentally different.

I don't know if I'll ever get the opportunity to ask Leach this, but The Sweet Season details the 1999 Johnnie season and I can't help think that Leach and some other coaches who developed Leach as a coach were affected by Gagliardi's method.  It's not as if Gagliardi's coaching tactics were new and nor were they a secret. Especially not for an innovative offensive coordinator looking to make a name for himself.

Perhaps I'm making too big of an assumption, but I think this may be a part of where Leach figured out what he wanted to do in terms of coaching. Not necessarily the X's and O's, but the cerebral part of coaching that Gagliardi presented. Not being a huge coaching historian, I don't think that Mumme and Gagliardi were the only ones that determined that execution is one of the most important aspects of playing the game, but they certainly emphasized it more than others.

Changing Philosophies

September 22, 2007, things changed. After this game philosophies changed. I don't know whether or not it was Setencich or whether or not it was Leach, but there were rumors that Leach's practices had no hitting during the season.  Or it may be more appropriate to say that there was very little hitting (sound familiar?).  Execution and repetition was the key up and until this point I think this was how the team practiced. Since Leach was the head coach, we'll give him the credit and/or blame, but it was a conscious decision of how he thought his team would most succeed. There's no question that this philosophy would and should work wonderfully on the offensive side of the ball but Texas Tech fans have always questioned whether a defense could properly prepare for an opponent, just based on repetition.

Theoretically, it should have worked. Players don't forget how to tackle, so long as they see the plays enough during practice it should work.

Again, theoretically.

I'm not sure what it was, and I'm not sure what made Leach let go of Setencich that day, but he did, and at that point, Leach decided that the way that should have worked wasn't working.  Obviously, the score had quite a bit to do with it and Setencich's wife was ill, but what was it that on this Sunday afternoon, Leach made the decision to let go of one of the guys he trusted.

At the time that Setencich was dismissed, Leach cited personal reasons for Setencich for his removal, but there was no doubt that Leach needed to make a philosophy change and it had to start with his defensive coordinator.  I wonder if this change in philosophy will be permanent, if he still emphasizes repetition on defense.  I can say that I think Leach has squarely put the defense in the hands of the defense and he's trusting Ruffin McNeill to do his job and he's relented some of his free-spirit attitude.

Two Peas in a Pod

As mentioned above, it was not coincidence that every time I picked up Murphy's book and read about Gagliardi I couldn't help but think of Leach. Granted, I think things could not be so different for the two men in terms of where they're each coaching their respective teams, but there is at least one constant between the two of them, which is Murphy.

One of the reasons why Murphy went on the sabbatical to St. John's was that he was tired of the spoiled athlete and the monotony of what sports can become. Players, coaches and owners can all be cliches of themselves. College football is full of your your CEO head coach.  A perfect exterior and no one gets inside. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the CEO head coach is the same story over and over. 

Finding the unique story has got to be so much more gratifying as a writer.  

Gagliardi teaches a List of No's that explain how he wins. Here are some examples:

1. No single way to coach football.
2. No worrying about being different or unique.
16. No faltering in preparing to being brilliant in the basics.
17. No lack of attention to fundamentals and the little things.

Leach, will probably not write a book, but he's trying to teach in his own way, unconventionally, with a plank:

As the Red Raiders were warming up, Leach had a 10- to 12-foot 2x4 board placed flat on the ground and called the players to huddle up around him. He then called up four players at random - running back Harrison Jeffers, linebacker Bront Bird, offensive lineman Joe King and defensive lineman Richard Jones - and told them to walk down the length of the board without losing their balance.

After they had finished without much trouble, Leach looked out as his assembled players and asked rhetorically, "Now, what if it [the board] was suspended 10 stories high?" Leach, who was clearly displeased with his team's effort during Friday's snowy practice, was using the exercise to demonstrate the necessity of eliminating distractions, like the weather, and focusing on the task at hand.

"If you eliminate distractions, you can still walk the board [if it is suspended]," he said. "The board doesn't change. Anybody can still walk the board if you develop the ability to eliminate distractions."

I could go into a number of examples of each coach exhibiting that uniqueness that makes each of them incredibly interesting characters, there are plenty examples on this blog of Leach being nothing but himself, while I can only encourage you to pick up this book.

Celebrate Uniqueness

Gagliardi said it best a few lines above that there's no worrying about being unique or different.  If you haven't figured it out now then you may never, Leach is totally unique in his methods and his methodology and personality, which I think we sometimes take for granted. Hell, it's easy not to think about it anymore. After reading Murphy's book and reading up on Gagliardi even further on the internet, it's easy to see why writers like Murphy and Michael Lewis are drawn to Leach. Hell, it's what all writers are drawn to, the idea of uniqueness is what makes a story and it's what makes it fun to follow this team.

I mean, our coach likes I Spit on Your Grave for Pete's sake. You can't tell me that this isn't the freaking tip of the iceberg with Leach.