Reflections: Mike Leach and Josh Heupel

Marvin Westwestwords

So, the flowers wilted and the steady flow of Mike Leach stories slowed to one more now and then.

I doubt that college football’s most intriguing coach would have given a snap. His fame is secure. He was truly one of a kind, known for his Air Raid strategy, for changing the subject in the middle of conversations and fighting a fight there was no way to win.

His mind was deep. He knew something about almost everything and was always interested in learning more. He was said to be sometimes stubborn.

There is so much Josh Heupel in my Mike Leach file, I’ve been reluctant to just dump it. They were close friends but very different.

It seemed many peers admired Leach but never really understood him. One coach said “It’s like he’d been given a chessboard and all the pieces but none of the rules, and he was trying to figure out where all the pieces should go.”

Mike was twice national coach of the year. His head-coaching record was 158-107 at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State. That’s one victory short of eligibility for hall of fame consideration.

Leach was colorful. I thought he was fearless. His nickname was Pirate. His office was a museum of pirate paraphernalia. Bobby Knight contributed a man-sized carving.

“Swing Your Sword” was Leach’s battle cry and the title of his best-known book. He had made a study of piracy. He found a tie to football, that pirates functioned as a team.

His book about Apache leader Geronimo was good, too.

Just because he wanted to, Mike also studied Daniel Boone, grizzly bears and whales.

Traditional conversation with Leach was rare. Without even a hint of a connection, Mike thought nothing of switching from Blackbeard to baked squash to why he became a rugby player.

So, why did he?

He failed the BYU football physical because of an old injury to an ankle. The team doctor thought rugby was almost gentle in comparison to football.

Leach did not fail academics. He earned a bachelor’s degree in American studies from BYU, a master’s from the U.S. Sports Academy and a law degree from Pepperdine. It was fascinating how such a person, more of a bohemian intellectual than a hard-nosed drill sergeant, also had a great grasp on football.

His sudden death, much too soon at 61, dusted off a small batch of memories. His all-time favorite prank was the bogus Oklahoma game plan dropped for Texas coaches to find. On behalf of the Sooners, Heupel hit the Longhorns with two TD passes before they realized they had been had.

The impossible fight was with former SMU and NFL running back and ESPN analyst Craig James about James’ son, a walk-on at Texas Tech when Leach was coaching the Red Raiders.

In December 2009, Adam James supposedly suffered a concussion. Somebody told him not to practice. The coach was suspicious. He told James to go stand in the equipment shed. He would be safe in there.

The famous father protested. Craig called it “mistreatment of a student-athlete” and brought in a public relations firm so others would get the message slanted the way daddy wanted it.

School officials gave Leach an ultimatum to apologize. Mike missed the deadline. He was suspended. He sought an injunction so he could coach in the Alamo Bowl. He was fired for “a defiant act of insubordination.”

This was reportedly a day before Leach was due a big bonus based on years of service.

Leach claimed the controversy stemmed from Craig James’ constant lobbying for more playing time for his son. Leach characterized Adam as lazy. “Entitled” was an inflammatory word.

The most recent Leach memory was from January 25, 2021. Heupel was about to become Tennessee’s coach. Of course, Mike could provide background. They had made a bit of history together.

Leach left the Hal Mumme staff at Kentucky to be offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in 1999. He didn’t like the looks of inherited quarterbacks and searched junior college ranks for an improvement.

He didn’t go to the ends of the earth but Snow College in Ephraim, Utah is near enough. Heupel was a junior college all-American. Leach saw potential. Heupel came to Norman to visit. The December weekend was different.

Heupel didn’t want to run around town. He had no interest in touring the campus. He didn’t care about the new learning center. He knew he was already smart.

“He wanted to watch and talk football,” said Leach.

There was no office furniture. The building where coaches “lived” was being renovated. Recruiter and prospect sat on the floor to watch reel after reel of film. They studied seven hours of Kentucky games. That was a lot of Tim Couch,

Josh wanted to know if he could run that offense?

Leach tried to change the subject. He suggested they go to dinner. Heupel wanted to order delivery so they could keep doing football. Leach really wanted tacos. Heupel preferred cheeseburger and fries. They had cheeseburger and fries.

Leach decided Heupel would be good enough to make Oklahoma some better.

“Josh had thrown a lot of balls. Josh was really accurate. And really smart. Really knows football, a coach’s kid. I liked all of those things.

“I thought Josh always had a great command of the field, a great knowledge of the game. The other thing was he was really accurate. He did not have a strong arm, but he was accurate.”

Leach said there was an early realization that Heupel would become a coach.

“No question in my mind. I absolutely knew he was going to be a coach.”

When Heupel returned to Snow to start packing, he reflected: “That was the craziest guy I’ve ever been around.”

In time, Heupel found he could run the Pirate’s offense. He threw for 3,460 yards and 30 touchdowns and helped the Sooners go 7-5, ending a streak of five straight non-winning seasons.

Leach left Oklahoma to become head coach at Texas Tech. Heupel guided Oklahoma to the national championship in 2000. He was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.

Indeed, Heupel became a coach. Leach watched from a distance what he did as Missouri offensive coordinator. He was impressed by how gracefully Heupel followed a championship coach at Central Florida. Leach came to Mississippi State before Heupel made it to Tennessee. Of course, they were together at SEC meetings.

A reporter asked Leach if he saw anything in the Volunteer offense that reminded him of old times at Oklahoma.

“There are some things that look familiar. I can think of one play in particular that we ran back in the day. He’s got his quarterback (Hendon Hooker) running that play better than he ran it.”

Zing!

Heupel took Leach’s death very seriously.

“College football lost an iconic figure, someone that changed the way people thought about the game. One of the most unique individuals that I’ve come into contact with, someone that had a huge impact on my career …

“So grateful to him for everything he helped me accomplish.”

Memory of the Pirate will be with us a while.

Marvin West welcomes comments and questions from readers. His address is [email protected].

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