My dinner with WSU coach Mike Leach

PULLMAN – This wasn’t going to go well. My interview of Mike Leach had been pushed back until there were but six minutes before the day's practice. So I’d be rushed. And he’d be rushed, wanting to get out on the field. Plus, Leach has been known on occasion, after a question, to look at a reporter as if they’d just invited him to attend a Hello Kitty convention. But something unexpected happened.

When I walked into the conference room connected to his fifth-floor office in the Cougar Football Complex, Leach greeted me like a long-lost friend even though we'd never met face-to-face before.

He was gracious, witty and completely engaged. We first talked about ribs. Leach loves barbecue, and I’m becoming obsessed with it since getting a smoker. He turned me on to what he believes is one of the finest BBQ joints in all these United States: CD's Smoke Pit, eight miles east, in Moscow. And picking up on my fascination with it, Leach said that if I talked shop with the owners there, he wanted a full report.

"We've got guys (on staff) from Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Memphis and they go to the place and one, they want it to be good, and two, they don't want it to be as good as the place they're from ... And Dennis (Simmons) flat out says -- Dennis is from Memphis and probably is the most unbiased guy (around) and he says, 'This may be the best barbecue I've ever had,'" said Leach.

We talked about the youth and inexperience of the 2014 Cougars, with Leach rattling off quite the list from memory: three players who have started in the secondary are playing their first college football this year, as are three of the starting o-linemen, three of the wide receivers, three d-linemen and two linebackers, plus the two primary running backs.

We talked about injuries. For two reasons, Leach hates it when injuries are reported and when media ask about them.

First, it gives opponents a list of vulnerabilities, he says. If a d-lineman has a balky right leg, for instance, opposing o-linemen are going to cut block him on that right knee. And then maybe you lose a guy for a game, or a season.

And second, he doesn’t want any excuses. “The bigger thing to me has always been the reverse message of it. ‘Okay these guys are going to be awful because so-and-so is down,’ … I don’t want to minimize the backup who is going to play for that guy. The mentality needs to be that it doesn’t matter who plays -- we’re going to go out there and play well,” said Leach.

We brushed on Leach’s record on academics (impressive) and his one-strike and you’re out policy for violence against women, theft or drugs (more on this in a future article). But then, just like that, we had run out of time. My six minutes were up. Except they weren’t.

Leach invited me to have dinner with him after practice.

Let’s see now, go grab a sandwich back at the hotel … or accept the coach's invitation and head to the training table on the fourth floor with the Cougar players and coaches?

Easy choice.

The dining area is impressive, as were the myriad healthy food choices. I had the salmon. But I’d have eaten dinner in a dumpster if it meant five more minutes picking Leach's brain.

LEACH ENDED UP talking to me for a good half hour, despite it being readily apparent he would have left far earlier to review tape of that day’s practice with his assistants had I not been there. Just like in his office, our discussion began with barbecue. Listening to Leach, I mentally revised my schedule so I could get over to CD's the next day for a late lunch.

"CD's ribs are so compelling you have to get the ribs," said Leach. "Just from a standpoint of getting it on my face and hands, sometimes I'll get the pulled stuff. But CD's just does such a good job on the ribs... It's all good, but the ribs are a must."

With the weather turning colder, I was curious on the odds he’d wear a fur coat on the sidelines, something really garish along the lines of what Barry Switzer (whom Leach has known a long time) or Joe Namath have donned.

“Probably not -- I would if it would help get recruits,” Leach quipped. “I don’t know if that’s as big a deal now. It was sort of edgy-fashionable back then. I think it’s not as in style right now.”

Leach didn’t have to think long when asked about the favorite part of his day during the season.

“Practice, no question,” said Leach. “Practice is my favorite part of the day. I collect my thoughts when I walk to and from (campus and home) but practice is my favorite.”

LEACH TAKES THAT walk, more accurately described as a trek, about 3-4 times per week during the season. Each way is 50 minutes, 3.4 miles and, depending on which route he takes, requires careful stepping. In the morning, he uses the time to get phone calls taken care of.

But then there are times like Sunday nights where Leach and his assistants might not call it a day until 2:30 a.m. Despite the hour or the weather, it wouldn’t be unusual to see Leach making his way home on foot in the middle of the night. Like the time a cab driver spotted him.

“‘Coach Leach, is that you?’ Yep, it’s me. And he says, ‘Coach, it’s awfully cold out, you need a ride?’ ‘No,' I said, 'part of the point of this is exercise. But it’s awfully nice of you to stop and ask.’ I think he was feeling sorry for me.”

You would think the nearly hour-long hikes would allow Leach time to listen to music, something else he's passionate about. Not so much.

“Part of it is you’ve got to tinker with your phone,” said Leach.

Leach rattled off a top 10 of his favorite artists that eventually expanded to 12: Jimmy Buffet, Neil Young, Lynard Skynard, Bad Company, Jethro Tull, Bob Dylan, Toby Keith, Alan Jackson, Willie Nelson, Robert Earl Keane, Jerry Jeff Walker, Marshall Tucker Band. He said his kids will make a musical discovery from time to time that leaves him amused.

"'Hey dad, have you ever heard of Led Zeppelin!’ Like they’re really onto something,” said Leach.

With dinner eaten and a long night of film and meetings ahead of him, I asked Leach to do some quick word association on his staff.

Jim Mastro: “Intense.”
Clay McGuire: “Good old boy.”
Joe Salave’a: “Mount Kilauea.”
Dennis Simmons: “Happy Dennis.”
Dave Yost: “Unique.”
Dave Emerick: “Super Dave.”
Paul Volero: “Fishing.”
Ken Wilson: “Thorough.”
Mike Breske: “Iowa.”
Eric Mele: “Mafia.”

LEACH SAID HE doesn’t have any ideas percolating for a “next book” but that he thoroughly enjoyed his time in working with co-author and WSU professor Buddy Levy on Geronimo.

I went over to CD's the next day around 2 p.m. They had sold out of ribs two hours earlier. Leach was right. Compelling, indeed. I got the pulled pork sandwich and it was very good, but I lamented not getting there when they opened and Leach's words, "the ribs are a must," echoed in my mind on the way home.

Leach is extremely curious about all manner of things, not just football. He knows a lot about a lot, I was told by his staff repeatedly during my time on the fifth floor.

I’m hoping his next book is about barbecue.

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