In his elegiac mid-60’s Esquire article on the last days of Willie Mays’ San Francisco Giants career, the late great LA Times reporter Murray Kempton describes lingering with Mays on the grass by third base just prior to the start of a game. Young boys crowd the rails at one side of the dugout, yelping pleas for Willie’s autograph. As I recall Kempton’s description, Mays acquiesces without obvious enthusiasm and signs for five minutes, then suddenly turns and ambles toward Kempton, overtly exasperated with the autographing ritual he faced each time he went out in public, and shakes his head repeatedly, muttering so that only Kempton can hear, “Fuggin’ kids….. fuggin’ kids….’ fuggin’ KIDS.” (And yes, Esquire printed those words, way back then, just as they are printed here.)
Former Texas Tech Head Football Coach Mike Leach’s book, Swing Your Sword – part memoir, part coaching instructional manual, and part polemic in support of his still simmering, and yet-to-be resolved-wrongful termination suit against Texas Tech –might better have been entitled, Fuggin’ Parents. Or Fuggin’ Craig James. Or perhaps just Fuggin’ Officious Intermeddlers. Written with ESPN online reporter Bruce Feldman, the title is taken from one of Leach’s Pirate-themed Texas Tech pre-game locker room exhortations . In fact, many of his teams and Texas Tech fans thereafter appropriated the slogan and the Pirate moniker, though both have, needless to say, been much less evident around Lubbock, Texas since Leach’s December 30, 2009 summary firing for (depending on who you believe): a) endangering the health and welfare of then third-string wide receiver Adam Leach, son of ex-SMU and New England Patriots legendary running back and ESPN analyst/announcer Craig James, by telling James Jr. to stand in a dark shed or closet after Leach had been informed of James Jr.’s mild concussion diagnosis; b) insubordination; c) daring to file for an injunction seeking to stop Texas Tech’s dramatic attempted “suspension” of Leach just prior to the December 30 Alamo Bowl; d) the fact that Tech’s AD, President, and Chancellor “couldn’t work with him anymore,” and/or e) having offended a raging freak show of self-important, power-and-spotlight-hungry Texas Tech top administrators and members of its governing Board of Regents.
THE MEMOIR PART OF IT: If you pay even passing attention to college football, you start this book thinking that it’s going to be all about the firing and the resulting controversy and lawsuit. Instead, Leach distracts and entertains with history, stories and up-close facts: the eyes of “Mike” the LSU real Tiger, who is parked each game directly next to the tunnel where the visiting team has to enter and exit the playing field, are “as big as [Leach’s] fist.” Or the time, early on in his career when he and fellow assistant coach Charlie Moot are on a long and low-budget recruiting tour around the southeast and Leach looks over to see Moot, while driving, peeing into a cup. By the time Leach gets to the firing facts – which is halfway through the book –the glow and novelty of Leach’s unusual character, accomplishments, and contrarian competence is so strong you’ve forgotten about the firing. This is a folksy, engaging life history of a sort of Junior Johnson/Tom Wolfe American original who seems, at the end of it, oddly familiar to you.
Leach, in fact, is one of those guys who reminds you of somebody – you just can’t think who. He looks, maybe, like some dullard with heavy eyelids you knew only vaguely in high school who has spent the last thirty years with a clipboard and a penchant for shirking work, but retired last year with full pension from the State Fire Inspector’s office. And maybe that’s because Leach just looks so… ordinary. He just doesn’t look like a football coach. His shoulders are too narrow. In fact, he looks something like country singer Vince Gill, except more horse-faced. (Which is probably one reason why Gill, not Leach, is married to gorgeous Amy Grant.)
And his is a face which looks now, as he hits fifty, as if the jowls might, over the next decade or two, descend and puff sufficient to allow him to pass for a bullfrog. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Whatever the case, it would appear that Amy Grant — and many other females less patient than Leach’s wife Sharon, to whom he’s been married since their undergraduate days at BYU – probably also wouldn’t have put up with all Sharon has over the years, which includes: three years at Pepperdine Law School; Leach’s first coaching annual salary of $3,000; a string of house trailers and small rental apartments they endured for years while doing the customary “wing-and-a-prayer,” hoped-for-and-seldom-realized shoot-for-the-top-of-the-profession string of assistant coaching jobs around the country; and, Leach alleges, a 1979 Cadillac Deville he bought for $1,500 in 1979 and drove for 15 years. It must be, one might suppose, Leach’s fertile mind that holds Sharon to him. (Leach’s several major-antagonist Texas Tech higher-ups might use a different adjective to describe Leach’s mind and….mouth.)
He may soon resemble a bullfrog, but Leach will always, it appears, continue to act more like a Labrador Retriever: ever out on some nose-twitching quest, wandering enthusiastically up ahead or out behind, literally or figuratively, or diving low in the switchgrass, tail woggling straight up and around. And, like a Lab, he might look simple, but Leach’s career-shaping curiosity usually has had him coming up with some either never-before-seen or, at least long-lost, nugget of — What-ever: Spacing lineman so far apart that opposing linemen, and coaches, have no clue as to how to defend. Or, forswearing the use of “playbooks” in favor of forcing players to pay attention to live or video instruction. Or, “People think you need to yell all the time to be a discipline guy. I don’t think that could be more wrong.”
In fact, this memoir portion (along with an oddly “tacked-on” final segment) of the book gives the hungry coach or football player much fruitful narrative background about many of the unique Leach Coaching Rules, such as:
“Don’t try to do too much starting out…. Technique is more important than scheme…. Look for big hands on a quarterback [paraphrase]…. When you’re hired to take over a program, the most important recruiting process is actually the one you do hiring your coaches…. How do you get the most out of your offense? You utilize all of your people. You attack all parts of the field…. Arm strength is about sixth on the list of what I look for in a quarterback….I like to start a game with something we are really good at—a bread-and-butter play…. At Tech, we were big on [having receivers always] looking at the quarterback.”
Whatever his rules, on the short green grass of a college football Saturday, at eight or ten different schools where Leach has coached in one capacity or another, Leach has shown an astonishing knack for winning with undeniably second-tier recruits and usually one only better-than-average high school quarterback, plucked by Leach out of some Nowhere, but then trained to think and “check” (play-change as he lines up behind center) all the way to record-setting careers. (Leach’s system depends heavily on nimble-minded quarterback play.)
Much of Leach’s success, as has been outlined elsewhere, derives not just from his habit of thinking unconventionally, but also because he is usually the smartest man in the room. But the world is full of wayward intelligence; Leach’s kinetic and iconoclastic genius is for organizing and moving people (players and coaches) with his systems, his insights, and humor. Leach quotes Emery Ballard, the Wishbone-offense inventor, now in his nineties: “With offense, you decide what you want to do. Then you decide, now, what is the best way to carry out that plan? So many people line up and then try to decide what they want to do from that. It should be the other way around.”
Leach seems always to make his own independent decision, after taking in every variable – though his decisions often have that Everyman, common-sense, even familiar air about them – as reflected, for example, in his abiding commitment to “use the whole field”, or to “use ALL skill position players.” It all has a sort of “hey, this looks interesting” casualness – until you find yourself coaching against a Leach juggernaut.
THE JAMES BROUHAHA:
“…Put his [Adam’s James’] pussy ass in a place so dark that the only way he knows he has a dick is to reach down and touch it.” [From Deposition transcript]
“Craig James then called up a bunch of guys on the staff. He called our football operations director Tommy McVay. He told him, “You coaches are crazy. You’re screwing my kid!” Then he called Lincoln and left an enraged voicemail, “You don’t know what you’re doing! Adam James is the best player at the wide receiver position.’’ He concluded his message to Coach Riley by stating, “If you’ve got the balls to call me back, and I don’t think you do, call me back.” [From Leach book]
“You tell Craig to butt out and have Adam talk to me if he’s got any problem.” [From Depositions]
“I never swore at the chancellor or threw salad at him in public like Bob did.” [From Leach’s book]
So, halfway through this engaging book, you’ve forgotten about the James brouhaha. But Leach won’t let you forget, as the book shifts to a more serious gear, and Leach reveals his often hidden—but fundamental – habit of paying attention to the hard heart of what is going on around him.
Like a Lab who spends too much time wandering out in the switchgrass, Leach came home one day with a few ticks on him. Named Craig and Adam James. (The crafty, ever-ambitious Leach, if you believe the version of events provided by Tech Athletic Director Myers in his deposition, had earlier thought he’d landed a public relations and access-to-ESPN prize of a football player when he originally offered a walk-on scholarship of sorts to high school wide receiver Adam Leach.) But the James-ticks caused Leach more than a little skin rash. Which inflammation eventually led to Leach’s firing by Texas Tech. Leach has lit a match to those ticks with this book; it remains to be seen what the legal system will do with his lawsuit. Let’s look to the above quotes to let us make some educated guesses.
‘Pussy Ass’: Leach admitted (in his deposition transcript – and I have read all the transcripts) to making this statement to his Trainer, when informed that Adam James had a mild concussion which required him to avoid light and stay out of practice.
Now Leach omits specific recitation of the statement in his book, which I think is unwise. It’s Leach. It’s also Texas. In Texas they like to make anatomical references to bring home a point. After all, Lyndon Johnson is from Texas, and he’s the one who famously commanded to an aide, regarding some fellow Senator, “I want his pecker in my pocket.”
According to Leach, Adam had violated team rules in two immediately preceding team practices. Whatever Adam’s prior behavior, Leach also admits in his deposition that he told the Trainer to insure that Adam remained standing at all times while in the dark shed chosen by the Trainer for this isolation. While the “pussy ass” language chosen by Leach probably wasn’t exactly the way Christian Amy Grant, for example, might have put it, the “order to stand” might nonetheless have been the dumbest thing Leach did in this entire set of events. And even the isolation in a dark shed (which apparently continued for two episodes over the succeeding three days) wasn’t so smart. But remember, this is not just Texas. It’s Texas Football. And also remember that son Adam called Dad Craig from the shed at one point, laughing about the episode – and essentially laughed it off at deposition.
“You’re Screwing My Kid”: The second statement quoted above is what, according to Leach’s Director of Football Operations Tommy McVay, was said to McVay by Dad Craig Leach in mid-September when James Sr. called after having been told of his son’s demotion to third-string. It was after this call that Leach says he stopped calling Craig Leach back. And you can’t blame him.
“Tell Craig to Butt Out”: In fact, when the “standing in the shed in the dark” episodes took place in mid-December, Dad Craig had by then apparently long been in the habit of calling Chair of Texas Tech’s Board of Regents Larry Anders to complain about his son’s playing time. And when Leach received a call on or around December 20, from Chancellor Hance, who had just talked with Anders, Leach made one of his smartest statements, which just about sums it all up (as quoted in his deposition transcript): “You tell Craig to butt out and have Adam talk to me if he’s got any problem.”
This statement by Leach is the heart of the book, and of Leach vs the James gang and Texas Tech, but Leach has inexplicably omitted this quote from the book. Craig James’ huge ego has steamrollered his son’s own best interests by making a mountain out of a molehill. And what’s sad is that it’s not difficult to imagine that son Adam might not soon fully recover from this tempest.
The evidence is uncontroverted that father Craig loved to call anyone he pleased, no matter how many “steps” he jumped in the Texas Tech hierarchy, to press for more favor – and playing time– for his son. (Nowhere in Leach’s book, or the many emails and documents and deposition transcripts reviewed pertaining to the lawsuit, is there a whole lot of positive evaluation of son Adam James’ character or particular athletic prowess.) So Dad Craig James, the record shows, is anything but shy about using his influence — an influence which derives not only from his athletic-hero and ESPN fame, but also from the odd Texan (and American) male habit – manifested even by Leach’s Texas Tech antagonists, Chancellor Hance, and Board of Regents Chair Larry Anders and Vice-Chair Jerry TURNER – of going into a slack-jawed drool as soon as he encounters, or even gets a phone call from, some Craig James hero-type.
These events illuminate another facet of Leach’s character, which has allowed him to tower above his profession at a relatively young age: when he gets serious, he means business, and he’s usually both confident that his methods are not just appropriate and effective – but stubborn when second-guessed. And Leach was, after all, a record-setting coach who was getting second-guessed by bungling (and shameless) small-time manipulators on the Tech Board of Regents. (This entire scenario may be the best empirical data supporting the notion that big-time alums and Board members care less about winning than they do about demonstrating their own ostensibly mature-adult power and influence.) The book does answer some of the public’s many questions raised about what exactly went on there at Texas Tech as Leach’s team prepared for the Alamo Bowl, and many of these details are scattered in amongst some lengthy excerpts from transcripts of depositions of the principal characters (Leach, AD Myers, President Bailey, Chancellor Kurt Hance) taken in the Leach lawsuit.
Leach had an outstanding — no, let’s call it a Killer — employment contract – and that’s not just because it paid him more than $12 million dollars over five years. It had a “for cause” clause, which meant he couldn’t be fired willy-nilly, and that there had to be a good reason. But there’s more: the contract also had a “ten-day-cure” clause. Which means that, even if there exists some “good cause” for firing, Texas Tech was obligated to notify him clearly about the defect, and give him ten business days to “cure” that defect. Trying to keep a long story short, let’s just say it’s very hard to find any interpretation of the facts, from Leach’s book or deposition transcripts, or any other public source, which allows an objective observer to conclude that Leach actually got that ten business day period of cure before he was fired. Bingo.
Some leaders lead because of their superior intelligence. Some, just by force of personality. Leach has both. But he got fired by Texas Tech. Yet legendarily self-serious bullies like Bobby Knight get to throw the salad bar at the Texas Tech chancellor and not get fired. (I’ll let you read about that one in the book.) And – hey – if you’re dumb enough to not buy the book, then – next time you run into former Sooner Coach Barry Switzer – ask him to tell you the great story about his ex-wife, “The Wizard.”
Fuggin’ Parents….. Fuggin’ Craig James….. Fuggin’ Officious Intermeddlers.