Part I, Mike Leach after midnight
On Saturday afternoons in the fall of 1981 the roar of the crowd would echo across campus every time BYU scored a touchdown. It happened a lot that year. BYU led the nation in offense, scoring more than five hundred points, thanks to the arm of two-time all-American quarterback Jim McMahon. On his way to setting seventy NCAA passing records, McMahon had put Provo, Utah, on the college football map.
Twenty-year-old Sharon Smith hardly noticed. But one evening that fall she was outside her apartment when a rugged-looking guy with wavy, shoulder-length hair approached. He introduced himself as Mike Leach, a twenty-year-old junior from Cody, Wyoming. He lived in the apartment complex next door. They even used the same laundry room. Turned out they had been neighbors for months.
Smith was surprised they had never crossed paths. But Leach traveled a fair amount. He was a member of BYU’s rugby team.
She was intrigued. Leach didn’t look like a BYU student. For one thing, his hair was too long. It should have been above his collar, according to BYU’s honor code. But Leach ignored the rule. That got him repeatedly summoned to the dean’s office. Still, Leach didn’t cut his hair. He didn’t talk like a BYU student either. His vocabulary was a little more colorful. So was his upbringing. He grew up in Wyoming with boys who spent Friday nights popping beers and getting in fistfights. Ranchers wearing sidearms would come into town for lunch at the local diner. Gunsmoke reruns were all the rage. Marshal Dillon was Leach’s boyhood hero.
Smith had met lots of guys at BYU. None was as authentic—or as funny—as Leach. They ended up talking until after midnight, and she accepted his invitation to go out the following night.
Their first date was a meal at an A&W restaurant in Provo. That’s when college football entered the picture. Over hot dogs and a couple cold root beers, Leach started talking about coaching. His idol was BYU’s head coach, LaVell Edwards. During Leach’s freshman year he had entered his name in a drawing and won season tickets on the forty-yard line. From that perch he began studying BYU’s offensive scheme: a controlled passing game with somebody always in motion before the snap; lots of receivers running a combination of vertical routes and crossing patterns; throwing to the backs in the flat. Edwards’s innovative system was a forerunner of the West Coast Offense ultimately popularized by Bill Walsh in the NFL. But at the college level in the early 1980s, no defensive coordinator in the country had figured out how to stop it.
To the casual fan BYU’s system looked pretty complicated. And to a certain extent, it was. But Leach had figured out that the genius of Edwards was the way he packaged his plays. He used an endless number of formations to disguise about fifty basic plays. That made it easy for the offense to memorize and difficult for defenses to recognize.
Smith had no idea what Leach was talking about. But one thing was obvious to her: the guy sitting across from her sipping root beer through a straw was no casual fan of the game. He wasn’t some armchair quarterback either. In high school Leach had started a “coaching” file, filling it with newspaper clippings from the sports pages and schematic ideas he scribbled on loose sheets of paper. By the time he got to Provo and could watch LaVell Edwards up close, he was mapping out his future. “BYU had a state-of-the-art offense,” Leach said. “The best in the country. I started studying it very closely. LaVell Edwards had a major impact on me.”
After one date with Leach, Smith never saw anyone else. “Of all the people I dated at BYU, he was the only guy who knew exactly what he wanted to do,” Smith said. “He told me right away that he knew he was going to be a lawyer or a college football coach. I found it very attractive that he had a plan and was very confident about achieving it.”
Never mind that Leach had never played college football and his only coaching experience was as a Little League baseball coach back in Wyoming. Smith wasn’t worried. “He could analyze the game and the way coaches were coaching, and he had it in his mind that he could do it better at a young age,” she said. “Confidence is a very attractive feature.”
In June 1982, Mike and Sharon were married in St. George, Utah. After BYU, they moved to Southern California, and Mike attended law school at Pepperdine. But just before he got his law degree, he posed a practical question to Sharon: “Do you want me to come home miserable and making a lot of money or come home happy and not earning as much money?”
She told him that being happy was more important than making a lot of money.
Leach didn’t bother taking the bar exam. Instead, he and Sharon headed to Alabama so Mike could attend the U.S. Sports Academy. After he obtained his master’s, they returned to California, and Mike talked his way into a part-time assistant’s position with the football team at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, then a Division II school. The fact that Leach had a law degree intrigued the head coach enough to offer him a job helping out for $3,000. Sharon figured that was a monthly salary. But it was $3,000 for the season.
With a one-year-old baby, the Leaches moved into campus housing. Their bed was a floor mattress. They didn’t own a television. Their motto was “Opportunity trumps money.”
After one season, the head coach at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo predicted that Leach would develop into a big-time college football coach. Over the next decade Mike and Sharon crisscrossed the country, taking coaching jobs at College of the Desert in California, Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State. Leach even spent a year coaching football in Finland. He held every position from offensive line coach to linebacker coach to quarterback coach. He even served as sports information director and equipment manager at one school. And when all the other coaches left at the end of the day, Leach stayed behind to watch film—always alone, sometimes until dawn—night after night.
For the first fifteen years of marriage, Sharon made more money doing clerical work and miscellaneous jobs than Mike made coaching. They were happy but broke. Plus, they were up to three kids with a fourth on the way. Then things changed in 1997. Kentucky’s head coach, Hal Mumme, hired Leach as his offensive coordinator. Suddenly Leach jumped from small schools in the middle of nowhere to the SEC, the best conference in college football. His offensive scheme—referred to as “the spread”—would be tested against Florida, Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Auburn.
Working under Mumme and drawing from the BYU offense he’d studied in the early 1980s, Leach added new wrinkles that opened up the field even more, making it easier for his quarterback to throw into open passing lanes. “I spend more time trying to make my offense easy for the quarterback to memorize than anything,” Leach said. “I want to make it as simple as possible because I want guys to trigger as quick as possible. The key isn’t finding good plays. The key is packaging.”
One of the most revolutionary aspects of Leach’s system was spacing the offensive linemen three feet apart. At first glance, it appears to give pass rushers a clear shot at the quarterback. But the result was fewer sacks and cleaner passing lanes for the quarterback. The SEC had never seen anything like it. In Leach’s first season as offensive coordinator, Kentucky upset Alabama and finished the year with the No. 1 offense in the country, led by quarterback Tim Couch. The following year Kentucky knocked off LSU; Couch threw for more than four thousand yards and went on to become the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Meanwhile, Leach’s offense set six NCAA records and forty-one SEC records. The Wildcats had a winning record in the toughest conference in the country.
Coaches in the SEC weren’t the only ones who noticed. Coaches from around the country—including Urban Meyer at Notre Dame, Tommy Bowden at Tulane and Mark Mangino at Kansas State—traveled to Kentucky to learn more about Leach’s system. Even a number of NFL coaches made the trek to Lexington. The interest level was so high that Leach made an instructional video on the finer points of throwing and receiving techniques. It sold thousands of copies.
After two seasons at Kentucky, Leach accepted the position as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. He was there less than one year before he got offered the head job at Texas Tech. The opportunity had some downside. It was 1999 and Tech was on academic probation for recruiting violations, academic fraud and unethical conduct. Eighteen scholarships were stripped from the football program between 1999 and 2001. Not only would Leach be competing against Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, but he’d be doing it with eighteen fewer scholarships for his first three seasons.
There were other problems. Tech’s graduation rates were among the lowest in the nation. Leach held two advanced degrees and had no interest in a football culture that ignored the importance of academics.
Plus, there was the unenviable task of replacing Tech’s Spike Dykes, who had won more games—eighty-two—than any football coach in the history of the school. In Lubbock, where football is right beside God in importance, Dykes was beloved.
Despite all this, Leach said yes. At thirty-eight, a guy who never played college football was off to Lubbock to coach the Red Raiders in the Big 12.
Six years later, a cup of coffee in one hand and a remote control in the other, Mike Leach was alone in his office going over game film. Play. Pause. Rewind. Play. Pause. Rewind. Next sequence.
It was after midnight when he stood up to stretch his legs. He parted the blinds on his office window that overlooked the Texas Tech practice facility. That’s when he spotted a shadow moving across the field. It was a human shadow. “Who in the hell is that?” he mumbled.
The facilities were locked, the lights off. The place was deserted. Leach wondered if it was a prowler. He headed downstairs to have a look.
Approaching the field, Leach spotted tiny orange cones. They were arranged in rows. Someone was darting in and out of them. Suddenly the figure came into focus.
“Oh, hey, Coach.”
It was Tech receiver Michael Crabtree, considered the top wideout in the country.
“Michael, what are you doing?”
“I got to thinking about the corner route,” he said in between deep breaths. “If I come out of my cut like this”—Crabtree pointed his toes and jigged hard to the right—“I’ll be open every time.”
Impressed, Leach folded his arms and nodded.
“So,” Crabtree continued, “I set up some cones, and I’m out here working on it.”
Leach’s eyes went from Crabtree to the cones and back to Crabtree. The most talented wide receiver in college football was alone in the dark. There was no ball. No quarterback. No position coach to tell him what to do. It was just Crabtree in his stance, doing starts and stops, running in and out of cones.
The truth was that Crabtree worked out alone at night a lot. He lived across the street from the practice complex and would sneak in after dark. “I always worked on my game,” Crabtree said. “Coach Leach just happened to catch me that night.”
Determined not to disrupt hard work, Leach turned and headed back inside without saying another word.
Leach and Crabtree had the kind of relationship that didn’t require much talk. When Leach arrived in Lubbock six years earlier, Tech didn’t land blue-chip recruits like Crabtree. A star quarterback at David W. Carter High School in Dallas, Crabtree was also one of the top high school basketball players in the state. Bobby Knight offered him a basketball scholarship. And Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and LSU were all over him with scholarship offers to play football. Tech’s facilities couldn’t compete with those schools’. And Leach’s budget was a fraction of his rivals’.
Still, Leach was winning with guys who had been passed over by the Longhorns and the Sooners and the Aggies. In Leach’s first six seasons, Tech had gone 49-28, appeared in six straight bowl games and finished in the top twenty in both 2004 and 2005. But the thing that really got Crabtree’s attention was Leach’s Air Raid offense. “They threw the ball every play,” Crabtree said. “Leach had the whole program going. I said to myself, ‘Man, if I go to Tech, it’s gonna be on.’ ”
Tech indeed had the most explosive offense in the country when Leach started recruiting Crabtree in 2004. That year, Tech’s football scores often looked like basketball scores. The Red Raiders put up seventy points against TCU. Then they put up seventy against Nebraska, marking the most points scored against the Cornhuskers in the program’s 114-year history. Virtually every Tech game was an offensive exhibition, and Leach’s quarterbacks were leading the nation in passing year in and year out.
But Leach told Crabtree up front that he planned to play him at receiver, not quarterback. Crabtree had been the best athlete on his high school team, and—as is often the case for superior high school athletes—he got asked to play quarterback. But Leach saw in him all the raw materials to make a great receiver—breakaway speed, great leaping ability, big hands and fearlessness. He went as far as to tell Crabtree that he could see him playing wideout in the NFL.
Crabtree had never played receiver. But it didn’t take much to convince him to switch. “I didn’t want to stay in college that long,” Crabtree said. “I wanted to get on to the NFL. If I played quarterback, I’d be at Tech for five years. I figured if I played receiver at Tech, I would tear it up.”
The chance to play receiver at Tech also made it easier not to choose Texas or Oklahoma. “I didn’t want to go to Texas or OU and just be another guy,” Crabtree said. “I wanted to go somewhere to make a name for myself. With Leach at Tech, I had a chance to take it to another level.”
All he told Leach, however, was one thing: “I want to score touchdowns.”
Excerpted from The System by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. Copyright © 2014 by Jeff Benedict. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.