Mike Leach feels at home in Pullman

PULLMAN, Wash. -- Most days, the first part of Mike Leach's workday is spent knee-deep in a field of garbanzo beans.

He and his wife, Sharon, refer to this as going "over the hill," but it's actually a bit more dangerous than that. It's a downhill trek that's best done in a slightly sideways maneuver, keeping one foot angled in front of the other. The dirt gives under any amount of weight and the burrs that hide beneath the plants are unforgiving to socks and skin.

Leach recommends light hiking boots for this route to his office, and he isn't wrong.

Halfway down the hill, he reaches down and grabs a stem, pops a tan pod off the plant and cracks it open.

"Hummus is a relatively recent food fad in America," says Leach, as he bites down on the garbanzo bean and throws the shell over his shoulder.

It has been a hot, dry summer, making the top layer of soil even more arid than usual. Here, they call this region the Palouse. Everywhere else, they just call it Eastern Washington. It's a hilly area doused in rich soil, perfect for the farming of legumes and wheat.

When Leach moved here in December of 2011, after becoming Washington State's head football coach, that's what he was most curious about. He spent the entire flight from Spokane to Pullman asking the Cougars' media relations official about the Palouse.

Why was it called the Palouse? Is it due to volcanic activity or glacial runoff? What is grown there now? What's the projected agricultural value of the land in the coming years?

At previous coaching stops, Leach rollerbladed or biked to work, but in Pullman -- through the Palouse -- it's a hike. The first 10 to 15 minutes are spent wading through the garbanzo patch. From there, he removes the burrs from his socks before crossing the road, where his route varies among the different neighborhoods, parks and streets leading into town. The whole trip takes him anywhere between 40-55 minutes, sometimes longer, depending on what captures his attention along the way.

He's the busiest man in Pullman who has no interest in keeping a schedule.

His most frequent stop is at Café Moro, where owner Tyson Feasel almost asked Leach to leave the first time he entered. Leach had walked into the café with a competitor's mug, but as Feasel approached Leach, Feasel, a college football fan, realized it was the school's new coach and decided to forgive the transgression.

The regulars at Café Moro know Leach well. He wrote the majority of his most recent book, "Geronimo: Leadership Strategies of an American Warrior," in a small room tucked away near the back. Typically, he orders a tea, though on particularly rough days he'll order a shot of espresso and mix in four bags of sugar.

Today he has already finished one cup of tea and one cup of coffee. He again has walked into the coffee shop with a non-Café Moro cup, but Feasel says nothing.

"I feel like a caffeine addict," he says as he sips green tea and makes his way down Main Street.

Everyone here knows him. Leach seems to know mostly everyone, too.

Some, he knows better than others. He likes Feasel and asks how business is going. He really likes Cesar Ramirez, the owner of Taqueria Chaparrito, Leach's favorite Mexican restaurant. Leach admires Ramirez, who left a more successful restaurant to open up a hole in the wall place that still manages to serve the best Mexican food on the Palouse.

For Leach, this walk is an easy way to get exercise during the season. Even in the dead of winter, he still makes the there-and-back tour at least four times a week.

"When else could I get that in?" he asks. "Two birds. One stone."

It also allows him to indulge his curious nature. He's lived in Pullman almost three years, but there's still plenty for him to explore.

"Follow me this way," he says after getting onto a path. "There's an interesting cemetery through the park. Once, I saw a group of kids dressed in all black doing a séance or something there."

The locals say there are four main hills in Pullman.

Leach has yet to figure out which four those are amidst the other hundred or so.

There doesn't seem to be a single part of the city that is naturally flat. Even the roads seem to favor one side or the other. It's a wonder anything built more than 10 years ago is still level.

It's in this tiny, condensed pocket, comprising of the Pullman campus, with roughly 20,000 students, and the bordering neighborhoods, amid fields that stretch as far as the horizon, where Leach has made his new home.

There are parts of the city that remind him of his hometown of Cody, Wyoming, several hundred miles east, on the opposite side of the Rockies. Both are roughly 10 square miles and feature a dated main drag.

"They're both full of hard, strong people that spend a lot of time outdoors," said Leach.

In Cody, he was right in the mountains, different from the "foothills" in Pullman. But there are mountains nonetheless.

"You're gaining more than you're losing in a small town," said Leach.

Cody isn't a place that anyone is just going to drive through. It's a place that one needs to be going to in order to get to.

That, like Pullman, has left it a bit isolated and untainted.

There isn't a major city within an hour of Pullman, but it's a place where nothing feels rushed. Even the Missouri Flat Creek slows to a trickling stream here in Pullman.

It had been a struggle to recruit to a place like this. It doesn't really offer anything that any other Pac-12 school or town doesn't have. Seattle has the food and the ocean. Eugene has Nike. Los Angeles has the Cali vibe.

And what does Pullman have?


On one of Leach's walks last spring, he made a phone call to Graham Harrell, his quarterback when he was head coach at Texas Tech.

He had invited Harrell to Pullman earlier that spring to spend a few days with his staff and watch film. Leach framed it to Harrell as "just coming to hang out." On the last night of Harrell's visit, sitting in Leach's backyard with other members of Leach's staff, Leach asked if Harrell would be interested in a position at Washington State if he were able to work something out.

Harrell said yes. Leach nodded, and left it at that.

A few weeks later, while walking through the garbanzo field, Leach called to tell Harrell he had, in fact, been able to work something out, and he expected to see Harrell in Pullman in the next few days.

"Eventually he's going to be a coach," said Leach. "There's no question about that.

"He's got a great mind and he knows how we do things."

When Leach says "we" he means the team and the staff. But there's a more important "we": Leach and his quarterback. The understanding between Leach and his quarterback is vital to running his offense effectively, so the benefit of having one of his best pupils in the room is certainly a plus for the Cougars.

For Harrell, the transition from being Leach's quarterback to being on his staff has made for an interesting change in perspective. He helped make Leach and Texas Tech a household name in 2008, becoming the school's all-time leader in passing yards and leading the Red Raiders to as high as No. 2 in the AP poll. In many ways, Harrell is the embodiment of what the Air Raid offense can achieve.

There was one thing, however, that he never really got while he was Leach's quarterback. And it's the same thing that Cougars QB Connor Halliday doesn't get now.

Ask Halliday if -- or when -- Leach gets sentimental, and he'll respond that he only sees it when Leach is talking about his children.

"Leach lights up," said Halliday.

Harrell would have given the same answer when he was at Texas Tech. That is, until the moment his career came to an end, in the locker room following a loss in the 2009 Cotton Bowl, when Leach was visibly choked up while delivering a postgame speech.

Even then, it took a while before the realization struck. As his teammates gathered their things, Leach came up to Harrell and, as he had done many times previously, put his hand on Harrell's shoulder.

Leach had done it plenty of times before. At practice, during games, during film study, when everything was going wrong, when everything was going right -- whenever Leach spoke to Harrell seriously, he put his hand on his shoulder.

"When he started doing it -- he'd do it between series and stuff -- at first I was like, 'Why is he so awkward? Why does he do that?'" said Harrell.

"I think it was his sentimental side, letting me know he cares about me."

Leach told him that he had realized this would be the last time the two were in a locker room together as player and coach, and that he had enjoyed being Harrell's coach.

"It's not something profound or something that nice, but coming from him, when you never see that side of him, it meant a ton to me," said Harrell. "I don't know if I'll ever see that side of him again or if he'll ever say something like that to me again.

"I don't know if I'll ever get that moment with him again."

Perhaps he won't. But he does recognize those moments between Leach and Halliday.

And though Halliday doesn't see it now, he does get the softer side of Leach. Harrell had it in Lubbock, Texas. Now he's watching it develop in Pullman.

In November 2011, shortly before Leach was hired to coach the Cougars, Washington State athletic director Bill Moos flew to Key West to meet with Leach.

He had told Leach that it'd be a casual meeting. So in retrospect, he knows he shouldn't have been surprised when Leach showed up in a dress shirt and cargo shorts ... and brought his own Styrofoam cup of coffee ... and rode his bike to the hotel in which Moos was staying.

The first five minutes of the interview went as planned. They talked football.

But for the next hour the conversation swayed from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Winston Churchill to how they both spent their days as children when school was cancelled because of snow.

Moos liked when Leach talked about growing up in Cody. He too was from a small town, Edwall, Washington, and knew whatever coach he hired had to have an appreciation for places like Pullman and Cody.

"He never lived or was attracted to the bright lights of the big city," said Moos. "I didn't want to just hire somebody who would use Washington State as a stepping stone, but rather to look at Washington State as a destination."

When Moos hired Leach, the proposal for a new $61 million football facility had already been put in front of the WSU regents.

Renovations adding premium seating at Martin Stadium had just been completed, and questions remained as to whether a team that hadn't been to a bowl game in a decade would actually be able to fill it.

Within two weeks of Leach's hiring, the 21 suites were sold-out, as were the 42 loge boxes and the majority of the club seats. Requests were being sent to the athletic department for season tickets. Fifty came from Texas.

Leach ignited a fan base and a city before he even stepped on campus. He was a former national coach of the year, a New York Times bestselling author, a man whose offense guaranteed some kind of excitement in this otherwise sleepy town.

The Cougars reached a bowl last season, Leach's second in charge, but are off to a rocky start this season, with losses to Rutgers and Nevada. Even so, Moos knows the program is headed in the right direction. His confidence in Leach hasn't wavered.

In 2012, the Cougars sold out their first home game with Leach at the helm. It was the first home-opening sellout for Washington State since 1951, the same year Moos was born.

In all of Moos' years as a Washington State fan, including three years playing on the football team, the Cougars had never sold out a home opener.

Until Leach arrived.

Someone always asks Leach if he wants a ride home. He hardly ever accepts. If he does want a ride home, he'll call Sharon. But even that is getting increasingly rare.

Tonight there's a warm breeze bouncing across the Palouse that he wants to enjoy. Soon, the snow will come and he'll get mad at himself for not taking in more of these evenings. And so he kicks off his flip-flops, puts them back under his desk and laces up his Nikes.

He follows his usual path through the campus. He doesn't notice the couple kissing by the river or the fraternity boys sneaking brown bags of alcohol through campus, but he sees a constellation and it reminds him of a story from Cody.

Leach crosses the last main street of the town and starts up a hill. Up until this point, streetlights and businesses light the way, but the streetlights become unreliable here. Some flicker. Some don't turn on at all. He thinks there's a pattern to which ones are on and off on certain days, but he hasn't figured it out yet. At some point, he probably will.

A porch light illuminates one of his favorite houses in the city. Everything from the chocolate exterior and white columns to the blue potted plants are pretty neat, he thinks. He would've loved to move into a fixer-upper, though he knows he'd never have time to actually fix it up. Besides, he says, Sharon prefers new construction.

He continues up the hill past the Gladish Community Center.

"Glad-ish," Leach jokes, with emphasis on the ish. "They haven't fully committed to the idea of it yet."

He laughs at his own joke.

Up around the bend he cautions that the trail gets a bit tricky. By "tricky" he means damn near impossible.

Here, not a single streetlight illuminates the path and it becomes impossible to decipher the cement walkway from the grass beside it from the occasional street signs. Leach remarks that this night is the darkest he can remember during any of his walks home. The trek is further complicated by the fact that the path curves at a 30-degree angle toward the highway. He slipped on ice here last winter. He told Sharon he'd wear the spikes for his shoes that she bought him, but he will not use a flashlight.

Eventually he gets into a newly-built neighborhood and hikes through a few of the plots waiting to be built upon. This space exposes the dark Palouse dirt, though at this time of night, with how little light there is, the dirt looks the same as the sky.

"Let's move," he says, climbing over a tree branch and moving further into the bushes. His pace doesn't slow. His breathing hasn't changed. He just keeps on with his walk that he makes nearly every day. The city has disappeared behind him in one of the many Pullman hills. His house won't be visible for quite some time. The city fell silent hours ago and the only noise is Leach pushing the plants out of his way as he makes his way to the base of the hill.

And for just a few minutes it's Leach in a field of garbanzos, and everything seems to make perfect sense.