PULLMAN, Wash. — You're damn right Mike Leach believes in ghosts. But more on that later.
We've only just begun walking and talking on his daily three-mile path to the office, and knowing Leach, it could go in any of a billion different directions.
"Once we hit this hill," Leach says on a perfectly crisp day in The Palouse, "you can see everything."
And he can say almost anything.
Donald Trump and Howard Stern. Goths and ghosts. Led Zeppelin and Van Gogh.
People and places and history come to life walking through the outskirts of town and into the heart of the Washington State campus, each connecting to Leach's transformation of a struggling Pac-12 outpost into one of the sport's elite. The man leading the way this November morning has taken this middle-of-nowhere place in the college football landscape and made it somewhere.
Take a walk with Leach and delve into the brightest X's and O's thinker of our generation. A wonderfully easy and eclectic amalgam of brilliant football tactician, everyday dude, night owl, seeker, student and believer—and a defining dose of I don't give a rat's ass what you think.
He offers a kaleidoscope of thoughts from attention deficit disorder to pure genius, from attacking a quarters defense to sneaking up on the paranormal. It's all here.
Those who love him, those who hate him, those who still owe him money.
Make no mistake, Leach isn't for everyone. From his brash talk to his stinging bravado, he's not afraid to speak his mind—even if his being controversial costs his university $1.6 million in donations.
"You made the walk with him?" Leach's longtime friend Hal Mumme says. He stops and laughs.
"What was that like?" he says, rhetorically, still laughing.
Like nothing you could imagine.
Up off Skyline Drive, at a pretty good incline, is Farr Cemetery. Legend has it that years ago, after a bout of vandalism, local leaders decided to take the headstones of some of the founders of Pullman and store them in the basement of city hall.
Years later, other politicians decided to bring them back—only to realize they didn't know where each should be placed. So they tucked them in an enclosure area inside the cemetery. It's the reason locals swear the cemetery is haunted.
"It's like something out of Dark Shadows," Leach says. "I saw some goths lurking around [outside the cemetery] one day. I don't know if they were playing Halloween or if they were actually witches. I said, ‘Hey, there's a cool cemetery over there.' They kind of glared at me. Didn't seem like fun people."
This, of course, begs the question: Does Leach believe in ghosts?
The answer is a fascinating soliloquy that begins with the woman at the coffee shop on the strip who once claimed the theater next door was haunted, and how he has heard that nearly everyone in England believes in ghosts and the majority in America don't, and ends with how one day Leach will own his own theater where there will be nothing but John Wayne and Hitchcock rolling off the projectors.
"So I ask if I can go in the theater and look," Leach says. "She says, ‘Sure, but I'm not going in there with you. You go by yourself.'"
He is asked if he saw a ghost.
"If I did, no one would believe me," he says. "I don't think they necessarily do nearly as much haunting as people think. If you believe in the Bible, pretty much part of the deal that goes with it is ghosts."
And he's just getting started.
"You get these Satanists types that don't believe in God. OK, so you realize you don't get Satan if you don't get God, right?" he continues. "Or atheists that want to believe in ghosts. Wait, wait, wait. You can't have a two-way go on that. You want to be agnostic, be an atheist, fine. But you don't bring ghosts along with you."
Leach walked into this ghost town of a program in 2012 and couldn't believe what he saw. In this age of multimillion-dollar television contracts and programs building lavish stadiums and football facilities, Washington State had, by far, the worst setup among Power Five schools.
Martin Stadium in Pullman was smaller and less extravagant than some high school stadiums in Texas—where three years earlier Leach completed the greatest run in Texas Tech history by getting fired for what Tech officials determined was mistreatment of a player (he's still trying to get $2.4 million he says the university owes him from wrongful termination).
The Washington State program had a history of losing sandwiched around a couple of one-off Rose Bowl runs in the previous two decades that made everyone think it can and should be done all the time. The team had recently failed to meet Academic Progress Report (APR) standards set by the NCAA and lost multiple scholarships because of it.
The previous two coaches relied so heavily on recruiting junior colleges and taking risks on players with character issues, Leach's first roster was a cast of malcontents and misfits. If that weren't enough, there were the working conditions.
The football team shared space with the university: The classrooms used for Psychology 101 were the same classrooms used for position and team meetings.
And get this: Leach's office was in the middle of a hallway.
"There would be professors waiting outside the classroom door with their students, staring at their watches, wondering why the football team was still in the room," said Dave Emerick, Leach's right-hand man—chief of staff for football—at both Texas Tech and Washington State. "Anything you wrote on that grease board was wiped off the moment you left."
Why would anyone coach here? Because then-WSU athletic director Bill Moos, the driving force in reshaping Oregon's football program, promised Leach he would do the same at Washington State.
Leach never visited Pullman during the hiring process. Moos traveled to Key West, where Leach has a second home, to sell the product. Leach hopped on his bike in a T-shirt and shorts and met Moos for dinner and then took the job, sight unseen.
Nine months after he arrived, an $80 million renovation of Martin Stadium was complete, and four months after that, Moos got approval for a $61 million football-only facility.
"I knew if we had the right coach, everything would work," said Moos, now the athletic director at Nebraska. "Mike showed up, and everything changed."
Leach likes to use the three-mile walk to feed his voracious appetite for knowledge. He's a big reader, from history to biographies and an occasional nice, fat conspiracy theory (one day, he says, we'll know who really shot JFK).
But he's not pulling out a book on a walk, so he's 21st-centurying it: He's listening to a podcast.
"I listen a lot to Howard Stern," Leach says. "Not the show, the interviews. He has a separate podcast of just interviews. They're fantastic. I'm on Robert Plant now, and it's pretty interesting how Led Zeppelin came together and how they stayed together. They didn't necessarily like each other. When they weren't touring, they didn't want to be around each other. It couldn't be all band, all the time."
This is when the subject turns to coaches, and those who are consumed with the job and burn out, and those who take themselves way too seriously. There's more to life than football, Leach says.
He sure as hell isn't sleeping on the couch in his office or up at three in the morning trying to find the perfect player. He's up at three, all right—but reading and researching and experiencing life.
He's not in the office at 5 a.m. or grinding through an 18-hour day. He gets in when he gets in (depending on how far off the beaten path he roams on the walk), and the work gets done and games get won.
It is here where we see the connection to where it all began, a story that has rarely been told, but one that—more than anything—describes how the man who never played college football, has a law degree from Pepperdine and was raised a Mormon helped devise an offense that was ridiculed as a "gimmick" at first, was later copied all over college football and now has made it all the way to the stoic and stodgy NFL.
Leach was working as a defensive ends coach at College of the Desert in 1988 making $6,000 (if he agreed to watch the rec center during weekday evenings), and Mumme had an opening on his staff at Iowa Wesleyan. Leach was the only coach who applied.
How about that for dumb luck?
They had so much success in their first two years together, in 1989 and '90, that other private schools in the Midwest eventually refused to play them, forcing Wesleyan to play a more difficult schedule as an independent.
So despite having their best team returning for the 1991 season, one cold and dreary March morning, Mumme told Leach to find a recruit in Florida so they could get out of town and clear their heads. Leach found a kicker in Key West, so they drove four hours to Chicago, hopped on a plane to Orlando and drove to the Keys.
This, everyone, is the birth of the Air Raid offense.
"You have to remember, we're still huddling on offense, nothing fast or tempo," Mumme said. "We land in Orlando, and Mike says the guy that taught him offensive line techniques was working for a spring league team there and we should go see him. So we go over to their practice, and the head coach is Don Matthews, a legend in the CFL [Canadian Football League]. I ask him to show me his best drill. They have this two-minute drill called Bandit, and it was unbelievable."
Mumme stops here because he can't sell this enough: But for that random trip to Orlando and the Orlando Thunder practice—and, really, the need to just get out of the cold and recalibrate—they never would have invented the Air Raid offense.
"They've got this tempo thing down to a science," Mumme continues. "Offense on one sideline, defense on the other. They're spotting the ball as fast as they can. I'm looking at Mike, and I say, ‘This is the edge we need right here. Not just for the last two minutes of the game, all the time.'"
They returned to Wesleyan, and the 1991 season opener was against Truman State. Two quarters in, they were down 24-7, and as they walked to the locker room, Mumme felt the arm of his quarterback around his back.
"We played two quarters and Truman was dog tired. You could see it," said Dustin Dewald, Mumme's record-setting quarterback at Iowa Wesleyan. "I told Hal, ‘Don't worry, we're winning this game. They're worn out.' The offense was a game-changer. I knew it after two quarters."
Two hours later, they were celebrating a 34-31 win with an offense equal parts Run and Shoot from the old USFL days, the Bandit two-minute drill from the Orlando Thunder and a whole lot of tweaking from Mumme and Leach.
"Don't kid yourself," Mumme says. "Mike is the reason the offense is what it is."
"This is where the journey gets tough," Leach says, and the huffing and hiking begin as the trek reaches campus and winds 800 yards over a quickly increasing double-digit percentage incline.
He tracked a raccoon for a couple of miles on one of his walks, he says between deep inhales, just to see where it lived (in the corner of a backyard behind a suburban home). He has seen a herd of deer in the snow, and owls and foxes and coyotes. He once walked up on a mountain lion, and if that doesn't flash mortality in front of your face, nothing will.
He makes it to the office on this day, and he and the quarterbacks meet for 30 minutes before he goes over the practice plan with Emerick. His cellphone rings, and he begins a pleasant, five-minute conversation—with a person he has never met in his life.
Wrong number, right connection.
A year ago, during what was then his best season at WSU, he got a call from a number his executive assistant didn't recognize. The caller said Donald Trump was on the line.
Leach and Trump met years earlier after Leach read one of Trump's books on a flight to New York City and was so impressed with his management style, he went to Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan and asked to see him.
Trump wasn't in, so Leach left a message and Trump called back and they talked and built a friendship, and the next thing you know, Trump was announcing Leach's starting lineup during an ABC telecast of a Texas Tech game, and Leach was introducing Trump to a political rally in Spokane.
So when the phone rang in the middle of a staff meeting last year, after Washington State beat USC for what was then Leach's biggest win in Pullman, it should come as no surprise that the guy on the other end was the president of the United States.
"I walked out and took the call and he congratulated me and we talked for 10 minutes," Leach said. "I mean, this is the president of the United States calling. So I figure I'll take a shot and asked him if he would say something to my staff. I walk back in the room and hold the phone up and say, 'Someone wants to say something to you.' He proceeds to tell them it was a terrific win, you're doing a great job and to go get ‘em!"
This, of course, leads to another obvious question: What's he like?
"He's a really warm guy, but I think sometimes that gets muted," Leach said. "You've got to be quick on your feet when you talk to him. When I first talked to him, I wanted to ask him a bunch of questions, but he's firing questions faster than you can answer them. And you better get him interested early or another question is coming. He wants to know about you. What do you think of this or that? About anything, not football. He wants to know because he's curious.
"Regardless of what side of the [political] aisle anyone is on, it appeared to me that people wanted something different. That's why he and Bernie [Sanders] were so popular. People wanted to change gears and get away from what was established."
Similarly, Leach found himself bucking the college football establishment this season, complaining that his Cougars, who won 10 games, somehow weren't selected as one of the Top 12 teams in the final 2018 College Football Playoff poll.
That distinction would've come with the opportunity to play in a New Year's Six bowl on the sport's marquee stage. Instead, Washington State will play Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl on a random night at a random time in a game that really doesn't mean anything to anyone other than the teams competing.
This, Leach says, is the problem with the CFP. And it sets him off like nothing else.
"There's a certain amount of control tied up in the conferences, and they don't know how to split the control of a bigger playoff," Leach said. "It's indisputable that you'll make way more money with a larger playoff. They used to try to argue that, then gave up on it and tried to throw out academics. Every other level of college football has a larger playoff and they're graduating players. So when that doesn't work, then they move to every game means something and a larger playoff diminishes the regular season."
Now he's getting worked up, because it's early November and the narrative since October is the Pac-12 is out of the CFP. No shot at one of those four precious spots.
"Diminishes the regular season?" Leach continues, elaborating with an anecdote about how more casual fans like his wife will still find themselves yelling at the TV over less prominent games without even knowing much about the teams playing.
"So then they say, ‘How would it work?'—like it's some crazy geometrical equation. Well, you go down to your local rec center and you ask the guy who has run the annual softball tournament for years if he has an idea about how to fit 10 or 12 or 16 teams in a tournament. It's not like you're sitting there teaching a first-grader Egyptian. It's the craziest thing. What do you mean you don't understand how it would work? You understand perfectly. You just don't want to do it."
This season began long before the first snap in September, before spring practice and before anyone could've dreamed Washington State would've mailed fake mustaches to Heisman Trophy voters to promote star quarterback Gardner Minshew II.
It began on January 16 with the death of Leach's favorite player, projected starting quarterback Tyler Hilinski. Leach was crushed by Hilinski's suicide, an unthinkable moment that, to this day, he doesn't understand.
If anyone on the roster were like Leach, it was Hilinski. Irreverent, dry wit, a blast to be around. Everyone was drawn to his personality.
"They were really the same person," Emerick said.
The three-mile journey on this day is complete, and the doors open to his meeting room in which quarterbacks begin watching game tape in preparation for the Arizona game. Minshew, a graduate transfer from East Carolina, nearly signed with Alabama because he wanted to learn how to coach from the best in the business, Nick Saban.
Then Leach called and asked him if he wanted to sit on the bench in his final year of college football or lead the nation in passing.
"Once he put it that way, it was an easy decision," Minshew says.
They're sitting at a large oak table and staring at video cutups Minshew selected from last season. Leach is telling Minshew which plays he likes and which he believes will work against the Arizona defense, and Minshew and the other quarterback are answering Leach's situational questions.
Then one cutup from last season plays. It's Hilinski throwing crossing routes—a staple in the Air Raid—against Arizona. He completed 45 passes and threw for 509 yards in last year's loss to Arizona, replacing ineffective starter Luke Falk.
A silence fell over the room for nearly a minute while Leach rolled a specific play back and forth. Back and forth.
Later that night and at the end of a long day, Leach sat in his office surrounded by the random collection of who and what he is beyond the field—a mechanical, talking pirate, framed letters from Trump, a parody Van Gogh painting of Leach in a straw hat from a man in Texas—while more of who he is and what Hilinski meant to him began to unfold.
"He was a guy," Leach says, pausing and collecting himself, "he wasn't mopey, didn't appear depressed. He was a guy who picked up everybody else. He didn't have a particular group because everybody was his group."
He looks out into the dark Pullman night. Snow is on the way, and he's more than 2,000 miles from his flip-flops in Key West.
"You wonder," Leach says, "if he didn't leave enough time for himself."
Minshew never dreamed of playing in the NFL, but after leading the nation in passing yards per game—just like Leach said he would—the idea of coaching has been put on hold.
He arrived in Pullman in the early summer and just wanted to fit in. He wasn't replacing Hilinski. He just wanted to help a talented team win games.
So he worked harder than anyone in the weight room. He was the first on the field for practice and the last off it. He pushed himself to win every sprint.
The team eventually rallied around him, and by the second week in November, it was clear Minshew had not only helped the Cougars reach their potential, but he was also part of the healing process.
As Washington State won its sixth straight with a rout at Colorado, Minshew found Leach during a postgame television interview and placed a Minshew mustache on Leach's upper lip. It sat there, through the entire interview, crooked and quirky as can be.
With a win in the Alamo Bowl, this team will set the school record for wins in a season (11).
"It's so humbling," Minshew said. "To come into this unique situation and be taken in by this team and Coach Leach, it's just unreal. I've been asked so many times what's it like to play here. There's no way to really explain it."
Like nothing you could imagine.