PULLMAN, Wash. — The conversation started with a question about using plays suggested by prison inmates and quickly shifted to a Valdosta State custodian named Big John who once offered a helpful tip for the school’s offensive linemen.
It was typical Mike Leach, for whom football is both an all-consuming passion and merely a platform for indulging his renowned curiosity about the worlds outside of his own.
“I looked at all of them and thought them out,” Leach said, pantomiming himself scrawling the so-called “prison plays” on the whiteboard at the front of the room.
And Big John, as it turned out, had correctly noticed Leach’s offensive linemen had gradually gotten sloppier in their stances over the course of the season.
“I’m sitting here watching all of this film and Big John caught something I’d missed,” Leach said. “I go back and look at three games ago — they were lower and their feet were moving and they were more violent.”
Imagine Nick Saban investigating tips on line play from the janitor. Or Kirby Smart spending a night during spring practice sitting through a half-hour presentation about the differences between conventional and insurgent warfare. How about Jimbo Fisher reviewing route combinations suggested by local prisoners?
Yes, only in Mike Leach’s world is this possible. Which is why 40 students — and a handful of friends and staff — find themselves in the weekly Insurgent Warfare and Football Strategies class he teaches with former state senator Mike Baumgartner every Wednesday night. It’s surely one of the few classes at Washington State, or on any campus anywhere, where staff members check ID at the door to keep out interlopers.
The seminar is an ambitious, if still unfinished, attempt to merge the specific expertise and broad sociopolitical interests of Leach and Baumgartner into a 90-minute class session. There are PowerPoint slides detailing the many ways governments can handle insurgent movements in occupied countries, some entry-level discussion of some of Leach’s favorite football concepts, and special guests in every class.
The idea for the class came to Baumgartner when he and Leach were part of a delegation of Washington State representatives on a trip to Cambodia and Taiwan last spring.
Baumgartner, today the treasurer for Spokane (Wash.) County who previously worked for the State Department in Baghdad, had already started peppering some of his guest lectures with football references after hanging out regularly with Leach. And Baumgartner became intrigued with how Leach’s boundless curiosity — his interests ran the gamut, from fishing techniques to how the locals in Cambodia kept their clothes so bright and clean — might fit in an academic setting.
“He’s just a certain kind of genius, always asking questions,” Baumgartner said.
Leach, who’d done some substitute teaching while attending law school at Pepperdine, still wasn’t sure there’d be enough interest to make creating a class worthwhile. Baumgartner nudged the coach to poll his Twitter followers.
Hey WSU students, I’m thinking about teaching an evening seminar class next semester w my friend Senator Baumgartner. “Leadership Lessons in Insurgent Warfare & Football Strategy.” Would meet once a week for about 6 weeks. Would this be of interest?
— Mike Leach (@Coach_Leach) November 28, 2018
“It took off like a slot machine,” Baumgartner said of the tweet, which garnered 44,000 likes and drew nearly 2,000 responses. “When I was talking about this, I thought about what would be the coolest class we had when we were in college?”
By February, the university announced it would be offering the five-week seminar — for no academic credit — and that it required applications from interested students. As part of that application process, students had to submit two essays of no longer than 200 words that answered the following questions: Can the British strategy in the Malayan insurgency be used today? Is the wishbone a potentially viable offense for the NFL? Why or why not?
“I was surprised I got in and not only because I’m a girl,” said Georgia Robinson, an 18-year-old freshman from the Seattle area and one of three female students in the class. “I’m not super-educated on counterinsurgencies.”
Last Wednesday was the second of the five classes, which are held in a fourth-floor meeting room in the Cougars’ football complex. It had already been a busy day on the Palouse, with Leach and the football team hosting pro day and then an hourlong team banquet in the afternoon.
Leach had crammed for his lesson plan in the minutes after the banquet ended.
“I like these days better when they’re all in one chunk of time,” Leach explained later that evening. “Not when they’re spread out all day.”
In a red hoodie and khaki cargo shorts, Leach barged into the room a couple of minutes late with a TV camera crew trailing him.
He quickly reviewed the notes from the previous lesson and then turned the class over to Baumgartner, who spent the next half-hour lecturing about how to best implement a counterinsurgency strategy based on his time spent in Iraq and Afghanistan working under Gen. David Petraeus.
Then Leach returned to the front of the class to ostensibly address the question, “What do you look for in a defensive coordinator?”
“I want a guy that’s got a body of work,” Leach said, referring to his recent hire of former Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys as his defensive coordinator. He looked up at a PowerPoint slide of him embracing Claeys following Minnesota’s win over WSU in the 2016 Holiday Bowl. “Basically, I was looking for somebody that thought like I did.”
Then for the next 30 minutes or so, in a darkened room, Leach took the class through video clips of seven plays in which the Cougars had successfully found open receivers on so-called “mesh routes.”
It could have been any other film session with Leach, who famously doesn’t use a playbook to teach his offense. Either you get it, or you don’t.
Sample commentary, minus the red laser pointer Leach used to illustrate his points throughout the lecture:
On Utah: “Look how huge these guys are. Brutal.”
On Colorado: “It’s hard to detect the impact you’re having on a [defense]. Then all of a sudden … they’re slaying their own dragons. Like Clint Eastwood said in ‘Unforgiven,’ ‘what scares men is what they know about themselves. So we’ll let them think about what they know about themselves.'”
On Stanford: “They had big, strong guys. If you don’t believe me, ask this guard who just got run over.”
Leach got a little more animated when students finally got to quiz him about his offensive quirks.
“You’re not having any of this George Washington, Johnny Appleseed stuff,” Leach said somewhat confusingly, answering a question about his receivers’ routes. It was unclear if the student got the answer he sought.
But nothing could’ve been clearer than Leach’s response to a question about what to do if the defense double-teams one of his best receivers.
“Throw it to everybody else.”