A Day With Mike Leach: Sailing Key West's High Seas With The Pirate Captain

Mike Leach, fishing and talking in Key West.

Spencer Hall spends eight hours on a boat in Key West with Mike Leach, The Pirate Captain himself, which gets him an elf story, a discussion of fish and their lack of education, late-night pizza, and much more that he never anticipated.

3:45 p.m. I had joked about it. Oh, I'll go fishing with Mike Leach. The pirate on the high seas ha ha ha. We could go to Cuba, establish a democracy based on freedom, rights, and the Air Raid offense. Rum and cigars would ruin me, he'd return to coach when some team pulls its head out of his ass long enough to realize the winningest coach in Texas Tech history was unoccupied, and spending his free time running the nation of Cuba on a lark. He would go on to win more bowl games. I would be killed in my sleep by my bodyguards. It would all work out, I swear.

That did not appear to be happening, though, and I was stuck. He had already showed reporters around the island. His palm-tree shaded exile was purgatorial in the Dantean sense; he was becoming the island's unofficial tour guide. He had retreated to the furthest flung outpost of American civilization, arraying his forces for a return from banishment to Elba. He was a thousand metaphors, and all of them already used.

I was screwed.


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4:00 p.m. A text message dings in on my phone.

We are going to go fishing at about 4. Does it work for you to come fishing and do the interview on the boat.

Yes, yes that would do quite well, Coach Leach.

4:15 p.m. Fifteen minutes later I pull up in the back of a pedicab to the Half-Shell Raw Bar in Key West. Leach sees me before I see him, and as the pedicab driver pumps the brakes futilely to stop the bike, Leach asks me if I want coffee. Because of the Doppler effect, it sounds like this:

"HEYI'MGONNAGETSOMECOFfeeandifyouwantsomelemmeknow--"

I pay the cabbie. Leach stands at the window of the dockside coffee stand waiting for two coladas. He looks thinner than you've seen him in pictures. He changed his diet, and lives in a walking town without a car. He hands me the coffee. It is inky black and evil down the gullet, pure Cubano wake-up fuel. He hustles to the boat. Mike Leach may be one of the world's most deceptively fast walkers; his legs look like they're going two miles and hour, but the whole pirate skips along at 40 knots or so.

"I'm gonna have to do a few interviews while we're out there on the phone. We'll have time for whatever you want to talk about, I promise, but it's a crazy day."

We will have time, because we will be on the boat for over eight hours.

Star-divide

MIKE LEACH'S FIVE FAVORITE BANDS/MUSICAL ARTISTS: 

  1. Jimmy Buffett
  2. Neil Young
  3. Lynyrd Skynyrd
  4. Jethro Tull
  5. Bob Dylan

4:40 p.m. The water is unnaturally smooth twelve miles off Key West. One long sheet of glass stretches from the tip of the boat out to Cuba, sixty miles unseen over the horizon. The weather is warm, but more than bearable for late afternoon on the water.

Leach sits in the bow of the boat. He is talking to one station after another, working his way through a chain of talk radio spots. Each one follows roughly the same order. Yes, he just wants his day in court, both for himself and the assistant coaches. The state of Texas' claim to sovereign immunity does, in his opinion, invalidate any contract the state of Texas makes anywhere. ESPN was negligent in its coverage of his case. Adam James found his shed exile to be "funny," something he himself admitted on the stand. Yes, he wants to coach again.

We get in bits of conversation in between the calls. This conversation doesn't start to be about music. Somewhere between talking about his recent schedule and his trip to France, a "The thing is" transition pops us into music, and we're talking about Neil Young, a Leach favorite. Leach is laughing with me at Young's inability to play anything fast.

"He's telling Nils Lofgren to slow down all the time because he can't keep up. I read about that in his book. The thing is, people got him all wrong. They think he and Lynyrd Skynyrd had some kind of thing, but Neil would have played at Ronnie Van Zant's funeral if they'd wanted him to, because they got along. It's something people don't get right about them."

A crew of fellow retired or vacationing coaches work the boat with Leach. One puts his iPod into the dock. Frankie Smith's "Double Dutch Bus" comes on, just audible over the lapping of small waves and the noise of feet padding around the deck. Leach pops his head up from a moment on hold. His face looks like he's just caught wind of a massive whale fart wafting over the deck.

"What is this?"

"It's sort of disco-funky," I answer. "You've never heard it?

"Disco?"

He shakes his head. 

"What a dark time for our country."

5:45 p.m The oddest thing about Leach is not odd at all, really. He's just curious in a way adults are not supposed to be as cynical, all-knowing adults, not just about football, or Neil Young, but about you, and the guy behind you, and about anything within arm's reach, really. He peppers me with questions: Do you like Atlanta? Have you been deep-sea fishing before? How familiar are you with Key West? Do you like Hemingway? Have you visited the museum? There's great stuff there really, you should come stay down here with your wife and go there if you're into him."

Reading comes in fits and starts for Leach. He is currently working his way through Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. ("It's good stuff so far.") I ask him for a good book on pirates, and he mentions Under The Black Flag. Another trip down the offramp is coming, because Leach says "The thing is," and now we are talking about Cuba. He hasn't been yet, but would love to go. Then there's the Dominican Republic, which he'd like to go to, and Haiti, too, but not right now because of the situation there. I ask him about television.

"You a fan of No Reservations?"

"I've never seen it, no."

"Put that on your DVR. Also, read A Plague Of Sheep. It's about the New World and the environmental impact of colonization, particularly on the Caribbean."

"Oh, sure. " 

I don't doubt he will. Leach is a compulsive list maker, a compiler of things. He has his list of books to read.  He has his list of favorite bands. He has his favorite playcalls, and isn't afraid to share them. He has lists of his favorite fish to eat in Key West, but he's careful to mention that it changes depending on the season.

MIKE LEACH'S FAVORITE FISH TO EAT IN KEY WEST (THOUGH IT CHANGES)

1. Hogfish

2. Red Snapper

3. Wahoo

4. Yellowfin Tuna

5. Grouper

Star-divide

6:30 p.m. Aside from a few baby yellowfin tuna, the fish aren't biting yet. Leach isn't doing much fishing yet, anyway. He's still grinding on the phone beat. Twelve miles out and reception is still clear, but batteries are failing, and Leach is now using his former tight end James Whalen's iPhone to make calls.

"How does this thing work, James?"

Whalen is perched on the edge of the boat reeling in a long string of pesky six-inch long bait fish. I volunteer to help Leach with the iPhone. Leach has no voicemail on his considerably less fancy mobile phone: either you get him when you call, or you text, or you get nothing. He has a laptop he uses to broadcast his afternoon radio show with Jack Arute, but even then it's not done with wireless. Leach has a T1 line CBS set up for him, and it gets plugged right into the PC for the broadcast. (Leach, later: "I could do it from my lap pool if I wanted to. The cord reaches out there.") 

"So you just slide the bar here, and hit the numbers, and there you go."

"Ah." The look he gives the phone suggests Mike Leach will upgrade his cellphone technology sometime around the time he hires Craig James as his offensive coordinator.

Star-divide

MIKE LEACH'S FAVORITE PLAYCALLS.

1. 4 verticals

2. Stick routes

3. Inside zone

4. Receiver Screens

5. Y Cross

7:00 p.m. Leach is done with interviews. I ask him about his quarterbacks at Texas Tech, how he coached them, how you work with different personalities. He nods, downs another bottle of water (he drinks nothing but water on the trip, and no fewer than eight or ten bottles the whole time,) and talks while he lowers his leader to the bottom. 

"Okay, so here's a story for you. Kilff Kingsbury was our starter, and he was sort of conservative, you know? B.J. (Symons) knew what I wanted to audible to before I even said it, but Kilff was just careful like that. It was third and long against someone, and their corner was cheating way up. Kind of a cheat back, and then at the last second he'd pop up."

"Well, we had good technique, and were pretty good getting off the line, so I called "Six," or our call for four verticals. We had it, and I called it, and Kliff shook me off. Now most of the time I'm fine with quarterbacks shaking me off, but we had this, and I got mad and called time out and said some things to Kliff."

He spits in the ocean, and continues.

"So Kliff goes out there, and I call "Six" again, and he shakes me off again, and now we get delay of game. It's fourth down, and we're on our own forty, but I just call it again and have some words with Kliff. We hit it against that corner cheating up for a touchdown, and Kliff comes up and starts yelling at me angry on the sideline: 'FINE, FINE, ARE YOU HAPPY NOW? WE DID IT YOUR WAY, AND NOW ARE YOU HAPPY?' And I was."

Star-divide

8:15 p.m. Leach reels up a hook full of nothing but tattered skin. Some submarine beast has unfairly stolen the bait off his hook.

"You using live bait, Mike? Live bait might work better."

Leach seems perplexed by this.

"Now, why would you want to use live bait? It seems to me the faster, more active fish would have to take the live bait, but that's not what you want, is it? You want the big fish."

He's addressing the air, or us, or no one in particular, or everyone, or maybe just the dying light of the sun burning a brilliant purple-red hole hole in the horizon. Sometimes it's hard to tell.

"If I'm a big fat lazy fish, I'm not gonna work. I'm gonna eat the dead fish. It wouldn't make a difference to me, would it?"

The captain says something, but it's cut off by Leach's closing argument.

"Fish aren't smart. It's not like they have advanced degrees."

Star-divide

9:25 p.m. The talk turns to football because four hours of steady fishing has yielded nothing better than a smattering of bait fish and some impressive fights between fishermen attempting to pull up the seafloor with monofilament line.

"Why do you call the slot receiver in your playbook 'The Elf'?"

Leach laughs. "Because that was Wes Welker, and Welker looks like an Elf? One time it's late, like eleven o'clock or midnight on Sunday, and we're having an offensive staff meeting when Welker comes in and he's wearing an elf costume. Tights, the whole thing. He jumps up on the table and does a little jig. He's smiling, and then he jumps down, and just before he leaves he clicks his heels and then runs out of the door." 

Leach's long climb up to watching an elfin receiver who would be an all-Pro comes through a series of random observations. An undergrad at BYU, the football academy where he and Andy Reid swear they learned everything they needed to learn. Finland, where he coached a men's semi-pro team, was nicer than Los Angeles. Iowa Wesleyan, where he lived in a dilapidated school-owned trailer with his wife and newborn daughter. Leach found Key West for the first time recruiting; because Iowa Wesleyan didn't have the money to fly him home, Hal Mumme told him to just check the place and spend his weekend there. Leach recommends affordable guest houses out of firsthand knowledge.

Then Valdosta, a criminally underrated place where he and Hal Mumme mounted an air raid siren on top of a building adjacent to the stadium to skirt noisemaking rule passed specifically to quiet the roar at their stadium. Oklahoma, where he swears Mark Mangino has a better sense of humor than you can imagine. The touchy interview process with Texas Tech, where his interview awkwardly coincided with a horrendously awkward loss to...Texas Tech.

And then Texas Tech, the job he turned into a national power despite coaching on the far side of the moon in Lubbock. Is he anxious about returning to Lubbock for a book signing? No, it's hard to get from one place to the other there without people stopping him on the street to say hi or thank him. He's already been back for his daughter's graduation, actually, and slipped the cowl over her head at the ceremony with little controversy or fanfare. Lubbock's cool with Mike Leach, and Leach is cool with Lubbock.

He doesn't seem bitter about any of this. He seems determined, but not obsessed with getting his day in court. The sun is completely gone now. We string fish by the light of the moon and mobile phones, but nothing bites. The iPod flips on and on through songs. Bachmann Turner Overdrive's "Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" comes on, and he nods approvingly.

"Now that's something way better than that Double Dip crap you were playing earlier," he says. 

10:45 p.m. Me: "Free Bird" should be our national anthem.

Mike Leach: "This is indisputable."

Star-divide

MIKE LEACH'S FAVORITE COACHES, PAST AND PRESENT, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER

  1. John Wooden
  2. Billy Martin
  3. Bear Bryant
  4. Lavell Edward
  5. Vince Lombardi
  6. Andy Reid
  7. Mike Scioscia
  8. Clint Meyers

12:30 a.m. We wouldn't be out this late, or maybe we would: coaches do not like going to bed, ever. When the fish started biting at the second spot we checked out on a lark on the way into shore, Leach and the coaches were talking about the logistics of arranging your day, and their days are always long by any standards. Leach had his staff come in at ten, but leaving at eleven or twelve was considered a short day. The other coaches mention their bosses coming in at five in the morning, or four, or worse. 

They're all up as long as the beer doesn't run out for the others, which it does, and now we're heading in against the tide. Leach is in my ear about Dennis Erickson. I can barely hear him over the engine and the waves.

"I ran his three-step stuff before I coached with Hal. He's got the highest winning percentage ever at Miami, but I think they were worried about him leaving eventually. I think people assume Butch Davis rescued that program, but Erickson won two national titles there."

Where would he coach if he could, carte blanche, pick a school? He wants a place with good tradition and the chance to compete for titles, but a place with some challenges and history of recent struggle, some place like UCLA or North Carolina. The nice thing about talking to Leach is how you can throw the e-brake and turn the car around in conversation mid-stream without worrying about losing him, and I do this by wondering out loud about how aberrant the success of a place like Virginia Tech was, a school without an easy local recruiting gold mine to sit on, a place sort of thrown out in the hills with no major city near it.

He nods.

"I think we were almost there in Lubbock. Other schools like Texas and Oklahoma are getting 23 draft picks in five years, and we're getting nine. They turn out draft picks all the time there, and we were getting there. We could have had something like Virginia Tech in Lubbock, I think." 

He says this factually as the boat slows and rolls down the canal toward the boat trailer, as factually and calmly as he tells me about watching the local deployment of Navy SEALS on maneuvers, and how their rebreathers allowed them to dive to unreal depths without telltale bubbles breaking the surface, or how he narrates the houses lining the canal. This one belonged to Jimmy Buffett; this one belonged to a shadowy rich guy who had the floors done with ridiculously expensive African tiles; this one has a zillion dollar boatlift that, for some reason or another, holds the corpse of a pontoon boat that costs no more than $858.83.

"That doesn't seem to make much sense," he says, looking at the mismatched boat/ramp.

A pickup truck waits at the end. Leach tells me about an island just off Key West that is a kind of glorified tropical squatter's camp. Filled with hippies, a couple of trustafarian kids who have money but like slumming it. Weird people, living off generators and weekly service boats, who take homemade boats to go shopping at the Publix just like he does, piling their supplies for the week and then paddling back to their mosquito-infested utopia. One has left their bowl in the street, broken bowl shards scattered in a circle after the truck broke it backing up to pick up the fishing boat. Leach looks to the marshes to our left.

"He might be sleeping over there. They're all over the place."

There's exiles all over the place in Key West. Leach, contrary to public perception, might not even qualify as a low-ranking officer in their Foreign Legion.

Star-divide

MIKE LEACH'S FIVE TIPS FOR SAVING MONEY IN YOUR COACHING HOUSEHOLD IN NO ORDER

  1. Coupon Books. College communities have discount, 2 for 1 coupon books. Use them.
  2. Recruiting meals. Bring your family if allowed and bring home the leftovers.
  3. Go to all-you-can-eat specials. Lots of times BBQ places have these.
  4. Blue plate or local specials, like turkey night.
  5. Eat at home. Don't go out.
  6. Grow a garden. (I did this one this year.)

1:30 a.m.  Leach is interested in parasailing, but this shouldn't surprise you. He's also interested in the guy talking to us about parasailing, a sunburnt shirtless bro with long blond hair and a droopy blonde mustache who could be either a parasailing instructor or a cult leader. Maybe both, but Leach doesn't care, and in five minutes of conversation Leach has unearthed the man's life story:  an econ major from Towson State who couldn't stand the world, turned down a job with his dad, and came down to Key West to escape the world. That was three years ago.

Somehow, I get a question in.

"How many times have you been off the island in three years?"

He looks off at the off-camera place everyone looks when doing math.

"Five times, maybe? Not often."

Leach gets a cheesesteak and gives his cellphone number to the guy to talk about taking him out paddleboarding in the mangroves. I get two slices of greasy pizza, the first thing I've eaten in nine hours because when men go fishing, they never forget the beer but sometimes neglect to pack necessary things like food. I'm drunk with fatigue from the boat, but we sit in the Green Parrot in the back eating without ordering anything, and Leach is wide awake and perky, talking to the unofficial mayors of Key West. He's still asking questions, saying hello, and still going on nothing more than a nightowl's adrenaline and one very greasy cheesesteak from Mr. Z's.

"Did you expect to go fishing today?" 

I shake my head. No, I did not expect to spend somewhere around eight and a half hours on the water with Leach. I did not expect him to be so normal, though thinking Mike Leach is normal and easy to follow might say more about the conversationalist's own position on the scale of normal. I did not expect to improve his iPhone literacy by 300 percent, or get into a discussion with him about the advanced education credentials of ocean-going fish.

Most of all I did not expect Leach to recommend a guesthouse on the walk home, where he stopped, opened the gate, and began tromping around the place at 1:45 in the morning. I follow him in, and we tromp past windows where vacationers are sleeping, blissfully unaware the Pirate Captain himself is barreling past their beds.

"See, it's not too far from everything. Nice porch here, and well-priced, they really do a lot and there's this pool here, it's really nice. You need that room there. It's not too loud, and you get lots of privacy---and there's a continental breakfast, because food can be kind of expensive here, so you have to think about that, too, and it's close to everything, too, just perfect, you should bring your wife down here--" 

Leach is walking around the place with the ease of a building inspector checking joists against code, listing the details, illuminating the finer points of his object of focus. He has an argument. He has his conclusions, and believes in them. Even in the dark of early morning, he is awake, making his case.

 

Mike Leach's book "Swing Your Sword: Leading The Charge In Football And Life" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores now.

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