The story of football coach Mike Leach is multilayered. Coming from a non-football background – he has a law degree – Leach pursued his passion for coaching anyway. In 2008, he was the college football coach of the year, leading Texas Tech to their best regular season ever at 11-1. The following year, after that amazing run, Mike had varied disputes with Texas Tech, ESPN and the father of one of his players, Craig James, an ESPN employee. Leach had coached James’s son, Adam James, at Texas Tech.
To understand the nature of these disputes from Coach Leach’s perspective, a complete listen to this CYInterview and reading of the interview transcript make for a good start. For a more comprehensive understanding of his point of view on these matters, reading the coach’s book Swing Your Sword: Leading the Charge In Football And Life is in order.
What follows is a more than 30 minute interview with Coach Mike Leach. The coach discusses his coaching philosophy, his life today and his future. Additionally, Mr. Leach gives his recounting of some of the events surrounding his termination from Texas Tech, as well as his questioning of ESPN’s journalistic practices.
You can read and listen to the entire interview below.
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Chris Yandek: Going across the country, doing these book tours, selling out across the country, what did you learn about yourself on the book tour?
Mike Leach: “You know, I was shocked. I guess I’m learning stuff every day just ‘cause I don’t know a ton about the book business. I know how to tell stories. I know how to describe situations and people and have a certain amount of expertise in my background in coaching and my path into coaching, which is what the book’s about. But I was shocked. I think that a lot of people have a passion with something and they’ve taken the path that they’ve taken and everybody goes through some turns in the road and I think that as you compare paths with people it’s interesting. I think, I feel very fortunate that they’ve taken an interest in my path.
But it has sold out all over the place and just a number of people have taken an interest I think is really humbling. I think that, you know there’s a little sizzle to the aftermath there at Tech, which got some attention. But I think the foundation of the book as far as the experiences that I’ve had, the people I’ve met and some of the overachievers I’ve had the opportunity to deal with and war stories and X’s and O’s I think is what’s really propelled it after it’s been read.”
CY: I plan to talk with you about all of those things. So we’ll start off though, a lot of your colleagues eat, breathe and sleep football. Perhaps you do too, but at the same time, I think there is so much more depth to your life than the game of football where I could have a conversation with you about anything. I think sometimes people in general need to step back and realize there’s more to life than football or sports and that this is not life or death stuff as much as we might love it. Did you try to teach those lessons to your players over your career?
ML: “Well, it was that, but it was also, sometimes it was more selfish than that. Sometimes it was, I’m sitting here watching film after film, day after day and we need to spice this thing up. So it might be a discussion on some book I read or some documentary, but then also sharing their experiences, learning where they’re from, learning their background and there’s a huge diversity of backgrounds that exist in college football. That’s one of the biggest mixed bags there is. First of all, the number of people, all the places they came from, some it was just selfish curiosity from my standpoint that I wanted to know about them and ultimately it helps knowing what motivates a guy, what’s important to him and can help the performance on the field.
There’s not just more to life to a football coach than football. There’s more to life in everything than just whatever somebody’s doing. I think the opportunity to examine that, study that, share it, ‘cause the most experiences I think you have to experience vicariously you know. I mean, people travel, people go watch things, people go do things, but you can’t cover it all. I mean, if life’s a buffet, you’re not gonna be able to eat everything so you’re gonna have to draw from the people around you too.
So football provides that. I think no matter what you do, there ought to be a certain amount of that because I think it also gives dimension to what you’re specifically trying to do besides the fact it freshens you up. I think it gives you a different point of view and you can draw and learn from that and answer your approach.”
CY: I think what I found most interesting about you and coaching in general is that you focus on the mental aspect of the game and the ability to wear people down and find the advantages on the playing field. At the same, I got the feeling in the book as you explained it that it can be a risk coming up with new ideas and ways to win at the game of football. You wanted to be a lawyer, but you loved coaching. What do you think is the main reason you became an individual with your own unique coaching philosophy of how to run an offense and win football games and marched to beat of your own drum?
ML: “Well, I think a couple of things. I think there’s a lot of lessons I had to learn along the way that people that were more in coaching, played college football and all that already knew. But then by the same token, I think my approach provided some independent thought. I was talking to an engineer, a guy that graduated in engineering and now he’s a filmmaker. I had run across former attorneys all over and a lot of former engineers all over and a lot of them have gone on to do, stepped out of the field, done diverse other things and I think that part of the reason and obviously there’s more examples in this, more professions, but one thing that I think helps engineers and law graduates is they’re basically degrees in problem solving.
Law, we have a problem, how we gonna solve it. Engineering alright, well we need to cross these two canyons, how we gonna solve it or the lane’s shaped this way, how we gonna solve it. I think when you go out there and you try to figure out how to solve a problem, I think both of those disciplines are pretty good as far as providing mental approach. I think I’ve drawn from my law degree in coaching more than I realize you know as far as because it’s similar to preparing for a trial if you think about it.
You have a ton of material, a ton of film, you have very limited time, you can’t cover everything and you can’t go through all of it. So you have to make choices to select what things are going to put you the furthest and what things are gonna hopefully lead to the best results and then all of a sudden there’s Armageddon at the end of the week and you know some of the stuff hits, some doesn’t. Some of what you covered featured one thing instead of another and then you go through the post mortem after that, do it again the next week so from that standpoint, law and coaching have some similarities as far as timelines and bigger volume than you can master you.”
CY: You went to law school, you considered being an attorney and then you wrote the great Gerry Spence and you asked him did he love law? Two lines that stands out from his response is this, “If you are consumed by the law, go be an attorney. If you are not, find something else.” Why do you think it’s so hard for individuals to put aside what other people think and go try to do what they love, follow their dreams? Instead most go and find a job they’re not passionate about and become miserable for one reason or another. But even with your law school degree and the college debt you had, you still went off and found a coaching job and you went after what you wanted. I find that quite inspiring.
ML: “Well the tough part about that and my wife was key to that, very supportive and always encouraged me to do that. But I guess the hard part about is a lot of the times the things you’re not as passionate about pay the bills and a lot of this passion pursuit stuff you start out doing for free and at the end of the month figuring out how you’re gonna pay it. I deferred student loans for years.
My student loans from law school and my masters ended up being about $45,000. I didn’t get that paid to my second year at Texas Tech. So you know there are some sacrifices there, but I’ll tell you, even with that, I very much got into that and was excited about that. So the process, no matter what you do and John Wooden talks about this, there’s certainly more process than there is destination so you better enjoy the battle to get there.”
CY: Absolutely. Focusing now on Texas Tech, you thought in many ways before the incident with the James family, you believed your days were numbered at Texas Tech. If the incident with the James family didn’t happen, do you still believe you wouldn’t be at Texas Tech right now or that it was evident either way you were going to leave the program one way or another because you believe the day after you finished your new contract negotiations with Texas Tech in 2009, you believed they were finding a way to fire you. Tell me about that. Were you gone either way?
ML: “I think so and that’s not I believe. That’s specifically stated in their words. The thing on the two chapters on the Tech aftermath that makes them so powerful is the fact that it’s not my words. It’s their words in sworn statements, memos between them, phone calls, things like that. I mean, they literally stated that and had to do with acrimony from the contract negotiations. In the case of the James family, they were dissatisfied with their son’s playing time and 10 days before they complained about anything, they’d hired a PR firm. I mean, if you can imagine that.
So you have a broadcaster for a national media organization who covers the games at his school that’s trying to get the coach fired and he’s covering games that his son plays in, which you gotta wonder about that. I don’t recall Bob Griese ever covering games that his son played in and then he’s gonna utilize his national format to publicly smear me to justify firing me because he thinks his son should play more and that’s well documented in the case of the Tech chancellor and a couple of Regents in his back pocket.
They ask me to renegotiate my contract and it was the president [at Texas Tech] who’s the appropriate officer at the University to do it. So we agreed to a contract eight months before and it’s just gonna get written up and signed and it was a low ball third in the conference. My record in over 10 years was third behind Oklahoma and Texas. So it was within the market and so then the chancellor takes it over and that violates their policies and procedures for him to be involved anyway and even more so with the Regents and there’s only two, two or three. Then they said, ‘Well, we’re not planning to do anything at this time.’ And then of course we go 11-1 and then they offer me a low-ball contract that’s like 10th in the conference that’s worse than the two years that I have on my current contract.
So I said, ‘I’m not gonna sign it.’ They said, ‘Well, if you don’t sign it, we’ll fire you.’ I said, ‘Well, why would you fire me? We filled the stadium, expanded three times in six years, have the highest graduation rate of any public institution and higher than anybody in the top 25. We’ve won more bowl games, we’ve been to 10 straight bowls, we’ve won more bowl games than all the rest of the history of the university combined and you got this ridiculously below market contract and I’m not gonna sign it, so you’re gonna fire me?’
And so, well, I didn’t sign it. Then of course the public outcry came out on my behalf. The chancellor caved in, we eventually signed the contract that we basically agreed to eight months before and then literally the day after all this word from West Texas, you look a man in the eye shake his hand, your word, your bond, all that goes out the window along with all the signatures on the contract and they say amongst themselves, they pass around the memo if we fire him by November, we don’t have to pay him and I haven’t been paid for 2009 for that matter. Just trying to get our day in court and get paid.”
CY: I’m happy to cover all that with you going forward. I want to talk with you. When it comes to the depositions Craig James and his [son] Texas Tech player Adam James, which you coached took, it would seem they have two very different accounts. Craig James according to emails demanded you be fired. Adam on the other hand looked at this as something funny and believed you shouldn’t have been fired. He also admitted he went into the electrical closet voluntarily, filmed the famous video that made its way to ESPN. It would seem there are holes in the evidence for why Texas Tech terminated you. Tell me about why do you think Craig James and his son Adam are not on the same page in regards to your behavior and firing from Texas Tech?
ML: “Well, first of all, I think that at the end of one of those chapters we have a quote from Abraham Lincoln. And Abraham Lincoln says, ‘No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.’ And you know, the only story on this subject that hasn’t varied is mine, but I have the advantage of telling the truth the whole time and so basically, I think that Craig James was so enraged that his son knew that the thing was a lie. I think that under oath through the threat of perjury, I think he [Adam] could only carry the thing so far. Craig James on the other hand so arrogant and enraged that his son’s not playing was a different story.
And Craig James is caught in several lies in the course of his deposition. It’s almost one of those things where he thinks he’s gonna pull the wool over everybody and then of course the attorney breaks out statements, bills to PR firms, things like that. And you know, he use to call me up and tell me Adam’s the best receiver on the team because the James bloodlines. Craig played in the NFL. His grandfather or his uncle or somebody played somewhere else you know, but that didn’t have anything to do with Adam’s work ethic and production.
We have 12 coaches watching every practice and every inch of film and if we valued Craig’s decision on the subject, we would’ve invited him to the meetings and taken his input. We didn’t nor would we because we don’t from any other parent. You know, the fact that our decision didn’t work for Craig James was secondary because I coach a lot of players that don’t have a father.”
CY: Yeah. That’s not fair.
ML: “So they earn their position on the field, so why are we gonna let Craig James decide on the starting lineup you know.”
CY: So the fact that Craig James hired this PR company to distribute this joke video as Adam James calls it in his deposition with him in this dark closet and it became the reason for your termination from Texas Tech, doesn’t that show ESPN, where Craig James is employed, got one sided information from one of their own employees, which to me is a conflict of interest and it became this huge story. He, Craig James, he shouldn’t have been part of the story besides possible questioning. But they took his word as fact on a story that they didn’t even investigate your side of it and you were guilty in a court of opinion and by the biggest sports media machine in the world before even getting a chance to explain the events of what happened. What are your thoughts, anything you’d like to add and why do you think ESPN ignored your side of the story?
ML: “Well, it’s even worse than that ‘cause ESPN refused to retract or make any changes when corrected and I think part of it is I think they didn’t care. I think they were, they had regardless, they weren’t gonna admit that they made a mistake. In other words, it was hard to get the toothpaste back in the tube after it had got out and so then they arrogantly disregarded the truth. They didn’t care about smearing me nationally, provided Craig James public media time to make a variety of statements and were arrogant and irresponsible in the entire process. They did all that while referring to themselves as journalists which is really ironic.”
CY: In this new information age, I believe people like you can end up, you know dealing with alleged claims, the media runs with them and whether they’re true or not before a full investigation by the media has occurred and other institutions, your reputation is already damaged. Other media outlets covered both sides of the story with the James family. But is ESPN the main reason you believe it’s limited your opportunities to get a new coaching job or are there other factors?
ML: “I think that’s the biggest. I think there’s a risk averse quality that exists in college football and so just the fact that there’s false allegations out there, there’s an inclination not to look further. As the facts surfaced, other media outlets I thought occasionally they were incomplete in their information, but I thought did their best to report the facts as they knew them because the thing on the whole deal, ESPN’s side remains ridiculously contrary to nearly every other news media outlet and one can only guess. They just refuse to say that they were wrong and then to go so far as to even try to muscle Bruce Feldman by pretending they didn’t suspend him and well if they didn’t suspend him did they kidnap him? I mean, where is he?”
CY: ESPN employee Bruce Feldman helped in assisting writing this book with you. He got the ok to write this book a few years ago prior to everything that happened with ESPN and you. There were reports, of course, for that period of time that Bruce was suspended. However ESPN stated quickly after that Feldman was never suspended. There was a huge [Twitter] campaign supporting Feldman against ESPN. Have you spoken with Feldman since the incident, what did you make of it and what did you make of the amount of support for Feldman? What did that say to you?
ML: “Well, I think reporters know how badly he got railroaded on the thing. I think they know the true story. You can imagine the chilling effect it’s gotta have internally there if you’re a reporter there for ESPN and all but two notable exceptions that I’ve ever encountered, they’re good people that do a good job, but now it’s like you go to journalism school, you get a job at ESPN and the facts are supposed to tell the story and all this other stuff. Well now if they tell a story, forget what the facts are. We gotta figure out what’s gonna be satisfactory to ESPN.
So they have to effectively do some level of mindreading in order to not jeopardize their jobs is what it appears. Facts can be troubling things and Bruce wrote the facts. I knew that Bruce was writing the book every step of the way. The documents in the thing are the words of the perpetrator and they bear out the facts. Those are uncomfortable to ESPN. So rather than accept the truth, what do they do? They suspend Bruce Feldman or whatever it is they want to categorize it as, but he’s not writing for them, he’s not on TV, he’s one of the most respected journalists in the country and I think if you’re a journalist, I mean that threatens the integrity of your entire profession. I think their support manifests that.”
CY: Over the years, ESPN has been called into questions for their journalistic ethics, and on some occasions people have said they want things both ways. They probably wish your book didn’t happen, wasn’t written by someone at ESPN that calls their journalistic practices into question as you believe it was a smear campaign against you. What do you believe about the way ESPN covered your story says about their journalistic practices and investigative reporting practices as well?
ML: “Well, I think that they want to, I guess, evidently, I think it’s just sort of arrogant disregard, but I think that the suggestion there is they don’t care what the facts are, they will say what the story is however they want and they’re gonna throw out whatever they want and they expect the public to consume it and if the public doesn’t, well, they’re upset, so then they’ll even attack one of their own in this case Bruce Feldman for putting anything out there that is not manufactured to their satisfaction.”
CY: What is the status of the lawsuits with Texas Tech and ESPN now currently? Has the Supreme Court [of Texas] yet decided whether you can sue Texas Tech for monetary damages and what is the latest on the libel lawsuit against ESPN at this current point in time? [Note: Leach is also suing Craig James and PR company Spaeth Communications whom he claims Craig James hired to distribute the electrical closet video shot by his son Adam James. Leach noted all the lawsuits will be merged together for one trial.]
ML: “ESPN, Craig James and his PR firm, they’re sitting there ready to go. We want to do the cases altogether at the same time.”
CY: Oh. Ok. They’re not gonna be separate.
ML: “We’re waiting on the status of Texas Tech. The trial court, there’s an obscure law that exists in Texas. It exists in other states too, but it’s not applied to integrated contracts that basically says the state’s a sovereign as Tech being a part of the state. The state can’t be sued because they’re the sovereign. It goes clear back to the Middle Ages which is where it belongs and so the trial court said that we’re allowed to go to trial because of Tech egregious conduct. The appellate court said, ‘Well, you know, it’s not a particularly fair doctrine, they need more help from the Supreme Court [of Texas] and the legislature, but without further guidance, sovereign immunity exists.’
So we can’t get damages, but we can take Tech to court to clear my name and so then it’s on appeal before the Supreme Court. The case has never been heard and so we just want our day in court with Tech and then when and if we get that, then everything proceeds with ESPN, Craig James and Spaeth Communications and but, you know, you gotta understand the impact of this ‘cause Tech offers no defense for their actions other than we’re a state institution you can’t sue us, so what, it didn’t matter what we did even if we didn’t pay you for 2009, the season I worked. We don’t have to pay you anything, we’re the state, ok. Which is not what anyone thinks about when they put their hand over their heart and say the Pledge of Allegiance I don’t think.
Then so, but if they prevail [in the Texas Supreme Court] it essentially will hold that contracts with the state of Texas are unenforceable and therefore irrelevant. It’s not just my contract, it’s just not coach’s contracts.”
CY: It’s a bunch of other people under your certain clauses that have your kind of contract.
CY: It’s unbelievable to me. I have two questions and then will move on, first off, any idea when the Supreme Court case might be heard in Texas and secondly it’s unbelievable to me that you could get fired, you could get terminated, but you can’t sue somebody for monetary damages even if you can prove that they did something wrong. That’s unbelievable to me.
ML: “Well, and the other thing is there’s a certain level of premeditation on their part inducing me in the contract and the day after making it clear that they don’t plan to pay the contract. You know, inducing me into signing it, taking public heat off themselves, but they never planned to uphold the contract during the contract to begin with by their own words. As far as the Supreme Court, I don’t know when they decide if they hear or it not.”
CY: So if the Tech decision is heard [by the Texas Supreme Court] and you can’t sue Tech, you’re still gonna after ESPN, Craig James and the PR company together?
ML: “Yes and will also bring Tech in to clear my name because it’s not much of a detour when you consider the cases will have against Craig James, ESPN and the PR firm Spaeth Communications.”
CY: I didn’t know you could put them altogether. That’s very interesting to me. So thank you for filling me in on that. If Adam James believed you shouldn’t have been fired, says the whole thing was funny and he wasn’t in danger, he volunteered again to go into that closet and he’s the key witness in your termination, he’s the victim and this is all in an on the record deposition, how can Texas Tech defend your termination? I just don’t get that.
ML: “Well at this point that’s why they don’t offer any defense. You don’t hear them talk about Adam James very much because that’s been shot so full of holes. Any time they mention it they lose all credibility. Their only defense at this point is sovereign immunity. We’re a state institution. We can do whatever we want. It doesn’t matter if we had a contract with you, you can’t sue us.”
CY: No matter what happened at Tech, do you feel like you held to your principles and beliefs in society today where so many people are so quick to cave in under pressure?
ML: “Well, I can’t speak for others.”
CY: For yourself.
ML: “I’m satisfied with my actions. It’s like on one hand they say, well, you know, you can’t tick off ESPN. If you tick off ESPN, you’ll never work again, all this. Well, if that’s the case, I mean that’s not the way things should be. Head coaches only work at the pleasure of ESPN? That’s insane. So and then if I don’t defend myself and I don’t pursue this, well then there’s an assumption that these facts are accurate, that the false allegations are accurate and so I have to do what I can to set the record straight. So given that Catch-22, then it’s like alright, what’s the right thing to do? And then so that makes it all pretty easy.”
CY: Ok, a few stories from the book and then will wrap this up. While at Kentucky as an assistant for Hal Mumme, former Gators coach Urban Meyer who was an assistant at Notre Dame at the time came by and were learning things from you at Kentucky. Tell me about your relationship with Coach Meyer.
ML: “Fantastic guy. A real student of the game, upstanding individual, believes in doing things the right way, always had a high level of accountability with his teams I think which ultimately aided their success and a friend of mine and really a quality guy.”
CY: I wonder looking back when Meyer did retire and finally leave the University of Florida, did you have any contact with the University of Florida for the head coaching job or the offensive coordinator position? I know you were rumored and would you have taken either? Did they talk to you?
ML: “I never had any contacts so it’s difficult to say if I would or I wouldn’t of. I mean, Florida’s is one that I think anybody would talk to the University of Florida.”
CY: And what’s in your coaching future at this point and time? I heard maybe the NFL might be in your future, but I wanted to confirm that with you.
ML: “Well, I mean, I’d look at anything. I mean, the NFL’s a little different than college. It’s not recruiting base as much as having a good relationship with the owner, the GM and everybody having the same goals, objectives and pulling in the same direction.”
CY: And have there been any offers or any new things coming your way recently? Has there been anything?
ML: “Nah. They’ve been too busy being on strike so no there really hasn’t.”
CY: Finally, after all these lawsuits are finalized and wrapped up and everything else like that, putting the pros aside, what is your message to any college institution that might be interested in hiring you, but they are of course worried about what happened at Texas Tech. What is your message to them?
ML: “Well, I stand behind my record. I was at Texas Tech 10 years and had a great relationship with a revolving door of upward administration and then out of eight individuals, I had trouble with one and I think his actions speak for themselves. But the biggest thing is look at my body of work. We went from being on academic probation to have one of the lowest graduation rates in the country to the highest of any public institution and the highest of the top 25.
We went to 10 straight bowls, won more than all the rest of the history of the school combined and won more games in the toughest conference of the history of the school, won more games than a 10 year period than anybody else had at any other point and time and significantly higher, expanded the stadium three times in six years, filled it up. Went from being on TV three times to being on TV 11 a year and my players never got in trouble, we never had a major NCAA violation and I think all that speaks for itself. I can’t really speak to it more than my record.”
CY: And what will college football Saturdays be for you this year?
ML: “You know, I think it will be similar to last year. I’ve got the radio show on Sirius XM 91, The College Football Playbook from 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM Monday to Friday and then I have – the biggest thing is the variety. I have more variety now than I ever had before. It’s great to see more of the family, but also just the array of activities I’ve gotten to be involved in and all the stuff you kind of wanted to do and check out. I had no idea I’d be a writer much less we’d end up on the NY Times Bestseller List. I mean, that’s fun and exciting too.”
You can find more information and purchase a copy of Mike Leach’s Swing Your Sword: Leading The Charge in Football and Life here.
You can find Mike Leach’s official Twitter clicking here.
You can email Chris Yandek at ChrisYandek@CYInterview.com