Eccentric Leach ready to lead Red Raiders to ultimate treasure

LUBBOCK, Texas -- Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach ripped the plastic wrapper from his newest pirate flag and carefully unfolded it to reveal an image of a blood-red skeleton on a black background.

"It's kind of a semi-perfect Red Raider flag, but he's not my favorite guy," Leach said of Edward Low, the notorious 18th-century pirate who was known to savagely torture his victims before killing them. "But can't you imagine? There's some guy sitting on the ship deck, who has had way too much rum to drink, saying, 'Here, give me some red paint; I'll fix it up!'"

Can't you imagine Leach standing on the field at Dolphin Stadium in Miami on the night of Jan. 8, holding a Waterford crystal trophy high above his head, smiling at the rest of the college football world with an eat-you-know-what grin?

Like the pirates who have fascinated the eccentric coach for much of his adult life, Texas Tech might be on the verge of robbing college football of its most cherished treasure this coming season. As long as Leach has resided in this close-to-nowhere town in west Texas, the Red Raiders have been equipped to launch an all-out assault. After he became their coach in 2000, they led NCAA Division I-A in passing for five straight seasons and then again in 2007. Under his watch, Texas Tech has broken more than 150 NCAA, Big 12 and school records and scored 50 or more points in 21 games.

And the Red Raiders might be more explosive than ever before during the 2008 season. Quarterback Graham Harrell, who last season led the country in total offense and became only the sixth player in NCAA history to throw for more than 5,000 yards in a season, is back for his senior year. Michael Crabtree, who set NCAA freshman records for receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns last season, returns after winning the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the sport's top receiver. Eight other offensive starters are back, including all five linemen.

But what is expected to make the 2008 Texas Tech team different from others in the past is its defense. Eight starters are expected to return to a unit that led the Big 12 in defense over the final eight games of the 2007 season.

Of course, the Red Raiders will continue to do what they always have done under Leach. They'll throw the football as much as possible, even at a place where wind never seems to stop blowing hardpan dust.

Pirates function as a team. There were a lot of castes and classes in England at the time. But with pirates, it didn't matter if you were black, white, rich or poor. The object was to get a treasure. If the captain did a bad job, you could just overthrow him.

--Mike Leach

"I think this is the year we break through," Crabtree said. "It's the year I plan on doing it. We've got everybody back on offense, and the defense is going to be better. The goal is to go undefeated."

And then Leach, who never played college football and didn't try coaching until after he had earned a law degree from Pepperdine University, can show everyone that maybe he really is not as strange as his postgame tirades and off-field oddities might make him seem.

Leach, 47, isn't like most of his colleagues in a profession dominated by millionaires and workaholics. He typically reports to the office around 10 a.m. and leaves before 9 p.m. Once Leach returns home, he often stays up until 2 a.m. or later, watching TV programs few others know exist.

"If you're getting to the office at 6 a.m. and getting home at midnight, well, then you're wasting a lot of time," Leach said. "That's just a failure to manage your time. What are you doing in the middle of the day? Are you having a siesta?"

Leach doesn't look like most football coaches, either. On the Tuesday afternoon during the Red Raiders' final week of spring practice, he wore camouflage shorts, a golf shirt and flip-flops to the office. He drinks several cups of hot green tea each afternoon and doesn't use his spacious, well-decorated office. He spends much of the day in an adjoining conference room, where dry-eraser boards are covered with scripted plays, formations and, of all things, several wedding invitations.

To begin to understand the man who put Texas Tech football back on the map, one must consider how Leach spent a Sunday afternoon a couple of years ago. While watching a TV documentary about South Texas tourist spots -- "with a Charles Kuralt kind of guy, who tells you the best chili in Texas is in this place and the biggest ball of string in Texas is here" -- Leach became enthralled by a painter who does replicas of Vincent van Gogh's classical works.

Leach did what any other football coach would do: He loaded his family into the car and drove 330 miles to meet Ran Horn of Van Horn, Texas.

"The plan was hatched that morning and conceived that afternoon," Leach said.

After meeting Horn at his second-hand store, Leach persuaded the artist to paint a portrait of college football's most unique coach. Last month, more than two years after the initial meeting, Horn showed up at a Texas Tech practice, carrying a portrait of Leach wearing a large straw hat one might wear in the French countryside. The painting is now the centerpiece of the Red Raiders' war room.

"I was hoping he'd cut my ear off," Leach said, referring to a later self-portrait of van Gogh that included the painter's bandaged left ear.

Leach's office is more of a museum for visitors and recruits. It is filled with pirate paraphernalia and collectables from his myriad interests. A couple of years ago, Leach became interested in the Irish mafia. He bought a plane ticket to Boston, jumped in a taxi cab and visited the sites of infamous crimes in South Boston. A copy of the death certificate of Geronimo -- the Apache warrior who was one of his boyhood heroes -- hangs on a wall in his office.

But pirates are what made Leach famous among college football fans. Michael Lewis, author of the best-selling book "Moneyball," profiled Leach in a cover story in The New York Times Magazine in December 2005. When Texas Tech fans learned Leach told his players to "swing their swords" before games and even delivered a three-hour lecture about the history of pirates to his team the day after a disheartening 32-25 loss at Texas A&M in 2004, they began waving pirate flags during games.

"Pirates function as a team," Leach said. "There were a lot of castes and classes in England at the time. But with pirates, it didn't matter if you were black, white, rich or poor. The object was to get a treasure. If the captain did a bad job, you could just overthrow him."

Flags from the ships of notorious pirates such as Bartholomew Roberts, Calico Jack Rackham, Henry Every and Blackbeard fill Leach's office. There is even an alligator head, and there are replicas of pirate swords. Leach's quest for an authentic pirate sword has been fruitless so far ("It's hard to find because salt water and steel don't mix," he said). Texas Tech basketball coach Pat Knight gave Leach a life-size skeleton dressed like a pirate. It has a motion detector and screams, "Oy, matey!"

"That one really scares the cleaning ladies," Leach said, joking.

Leach seems to know a lot about everything and is ready to share his knowledge with anyone willing to listen. He majored in American studies at BYU in the early 1980s, then went to law school at Pepperdine. He received a master's degree in sports science/coaching at the U.S. Sports Academy in Daphne, Ala. He took his first coaching job at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo in 1987, and he worked the next two years at College of the Desert in Palm Desert, Calif., and as coach of a European League team in Finland. He was the offensive coordinator, offensive line coach, equipment manager and sports information director at Iowa Wesleyan for three years.

By the time Leach was hired as Hal Mumme's offensive coordinator at Division I-AA Valdosta (Ga.) State in 1992, the U.S. Department of Education wanted him to start repaying more than $44,000 in student loans. Instead, Leach enrolled in classes such as contemporary art, history of the Caribbean and any other classes that offered knowledge a football coach would need. He finally repaid the student loans in his second year as Texas Tech's coach.

At least Leach knows it was money well spent. A conversation with him begins with his ideas for correcting traffic patterns in Atlanta and ends four hours later with a parking-lot debate about the most under-used mascots in sports.

Leach's next mystery sits in the office he never uses. Under his desk is an unopened box of John F. Kennedy assassination material.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.