[Ed. Note: Texas Tech Red Raiders head football coach Mike Leach is unique for a lot of reasons. Only one of which is that Leach is a 1986 graduate of Pepperdine Law School. But instead of beginning a career as a lawyer, Leach put his passion for football ahead of the law. Starting as an assistant coach at Cal Poly and working his way through a series of low-paying, but increasingly more high-profile coaching positions, Leach eventually landed at Texas Tech in 2000. Known as an “offensive genius,” Leach has molded the Red Raiders into a college football powerhouse. Last year, The Associated Press named him the Big 12 Coach of the Year, and Leach holds the distinction of being one of only sixteen active college football coaches who have never had a losing season. Earlier this year, Leach signed a new five-year contract that will keep him in Lubbock through 2013 for a cool $12.7 million. We recently talked with the plainspoken Coach Leach about his unusual and enviable career.]
What made you decide to go to law school?
I always thought I would be lawyer. But I don’t know if there was a good reason for why I thought that. I just got it in my head when I was in seventh grade. But I guess you could say that was a little illogical because no body in my family was a lawyer. In fact, my dad hated lawyers, so it’s not like I was raised to be one.
What kind of lawyer did you think you wanted to be?
I wanted to be like a Gerry Spence. I thought I would stick up for the little guy, you know. I thought maybe I’d do some product liability work and that kind of thing—keep corporations honest. That was what I wanted to do.
What was law school like for you?
It was interesting. Law school was different than undergrad, where you have a lot of fun because there are gorgeous girls running around and you can take all kinds of courses. In undergrad, if I didn’t like a particular course, I’d just find something else. But law school was all law, all the time, and everyone there was pretty competitive.
I was pretty young when I started at twenty-two. Most of the students were much older, and they had a lot of experience. They had been in business and had actually negotiated contracts before. For me, a contract was kind of like a Leprechaun. I had heard of them, but I hadn’t actually seen one. But despite that, I did well for myself. Not Law Review, but I did pretty well.
But you decided not to practice?
Not exactly. I wasn’t against practicing law. In fact, I always figured that I would [eventually practice]. But it was midway through law school when I thought I wanted to do something different before practicing. I wanted to try something new because I didn’t want to have any regrets. And I know this sounds lame, but I really didn’t want to wear a suit every day. I’m a casual guy, you know.
So, how did you get into coaching?
Well, at the time I graduated, I was broke and I had a wife, a child and about $40,000 in [law school] loans. So, I thought I would just give coaching a try, and the way that I would do that was get my masters degree and work as an assistant coach. I started at Cal Poly as an assistant offensive line coach.
And just like that you were on your way?
Sort of. One year just led to the next, and I kept moving up in terms of responsibility, and I kept getting jobs at better programs.
I still wasn’t making a lot of money, but I would go to school in the offseason to defer my loans, and that let me keep coaching. There was a point [during that period] when I was teaching, taking classes, and coaching.
How did you get that first break at Cal Poly? Did you know someone?
Not really. I started coaching at the worst possible time because the NCAA had decided to limit the number of assistants a D1 school could have. I had talked to a lot of top coaches and a lot of them said they’d be happy to have me, but that limit really made it tough. So, I started at Cal Poly because they were D2 at the time. They were a good program that had room for me to move up.
You didn’t play football at the college level, but that hasn’t stopped you from becoming one of the most successful coaches around. Is playing experience overrated for coaches?
I think it’s both valuable and overrated at the same time. I played in high school and I broke my ankle senior year, so that ended my playing career. I played rugby at BYU and we were really good, but I always kept an eye on football.
Football is like anything else. You learn the skill and trade. There are lots of ways to learn. But a great player doesn’t always make a great coach, and someone who didn’t play can be a great coach, if they learn the game in other ways.
Every year we hear a lot of talk about how the BCS is lousy. And last month, some members of Congress suggested that the government ought to get involved and look into whether a playoff system wouldn’t be better. [HERE] What’s your take on all that?
I like a playoff system. But as for Congress, I think it’s really irresponsible for the government to waste taxpayer dollars on something like this, especially when there’s so much else going on. That takes a lot of audacity, and I think there are other things Congress should concern itself with.
Do you have an alternative to the BCS?
Yeah, but it’s not one anyone would probably go for. This business of a four-team playoff or an eight-team playoff is just stupid. I think you have to cut the regular season to 10 games. Then I think you need to invite a lot of teams (maybe 64) into a playoff, but you’d let the rest of the teams continue in an NIT-type deal so that they could play another six games or so, which they need to fund their programs.
The simple fact is that we act like a playoff system in college football is a unique idea. It’s not. Bowls are unique. All levels of college football except for Division have a playoff, and other sports do it too.
Aside from the playoffs, would you change any rules about how the game is played? Either college or pro?
If I were to change the pro game, I’d say they need wider hash marks. As for the college game, I’d like to see a speaker in the quarterback’s helmet, just like the pros have.
Do you think college QBs could handle that?
Yeah, they could. I’m just not sure all the coaches could handle that… having to give instructions to their QB right at the last minute before the ball is snapped. That’s a challenge for the coach.
Which coaches do you think would have a tough time?
Well, there are a lot of high-strung guys coaching in college, and I think they’d have a tough time because they’d always be shouting at their QB, which would likely make it harder for him to do what he has to do. I’d like to play against those guys if they put a speaker in the QB’s helmet.
You’ve argued with an official or two in your day. Does having a law degree help you make a persuasive case?
Maybe a tiny bit. It just keeps you calm when you’re arguing because you’ve done stuff like that before. You’re accustomed to it. I think that’s how it helps.
Does your law degree help in other ways?
Someone once put it to me like this, and I agree with this take. A law degree—and really any form of higher education, but especially a law degree—is all about problem solving. I use it everyday in that sense. Because you don’t always know the answer to something, but the great thing about legal training is that it teaches you how to solve the problem when you don’t know the answer.
Also, I think the law school experience was good in that it taught me how to do a lot under very tight deadlines. That’s really helpful.
Do your players know you’re a lawyer?
Does it give you more street cred with them?
I think they respect it. But I don’t know if it means all that much to them.
Do your players ever ask you if they should go to law school?
Yeah, they do. And I tell them this: If you want to be a lawyer, go. But if you know that you don’t want to be a lawyer, get another type of graduate degree. I don’t regret getting the law degree because I think education is really important, but for those who know they don’t want to be lawyers, they should study something else.
What’s the best part about your job? Admit it, the worst day as a D1 coach is probably better than the best day as a lawyer?[Laughing] Well, I don’t know about that. It’s a really rewarding job for me. I like working with young people, and I love game day. That’s probably the most fun. But let’s put it this way: I wrote a letter to Gerry Spence once and I asked him if he loved law or hated it, and if he’d do it again. He said he loved and hated law and that he would do it again. Bottom line, if you are consumed by something and passionate, go ahead and do it.
Any advice for law school grads or Bitter Lawyers looking to do something non-traditional?
It’s really hard to do something and then to change paths. I struggled for a long time to sort out what I wanted to do. The wondering is the hardest part. I really struggled there. There was a quote I found on a Starbucks cup that said something like, “Do something you love.” I don’t know exactly how the quote went, but the idea was that you need to do the thing you love over and over again, and eventually you figure out a way to get paid for it. My advice is to find that passion and do it. But I know that can be such a struggle.
How’s the team looking for next season?
Really good. We had a great spring and we’ve got a lot of young guys stepping up, so I’m excited.