Coach Mike Leach caused greatness in the people who surrounded him. Note that I used the word “caused” and not “inspired.” Giving inspirational and motivational speeches was never his strong suit. In my experience, his speeches mostly elicited eye rolls and glances at wristwatches. “Is he ever going to wrap this thing up?” we asked ourselves. “We’ve heard this same B.S. 10,000 times before!”
And still, Coach Leach engendered greatness in his players and assistant coaches both on and off the field. Mike Leach, head coach at Mississippi State University — and prior to that, the winningest coach in the history of my own school, Texas Tech University — died on Monday. He was 61.
I was in Coach Leach’s first recruiting class as a head coach, and I played for him from 2000 to 2004. His practices were tough, physical, and even brutal at times, and there wasn’t much in the way of positive reinforcement or congratulation for successful outcomes. We were expected to do our job, do it right, and then do it again, and again, and again, and again. If an individual missed a single cue — even if it was one time out of 50 — the entire team would face consequences, whether it was a verbal lashing or a generous serving of “up-downs.”
As a player at Texas Tech — especially as a younger player — I couldn’t see past the difficulty of Leach’s daily grind. But as I grew older, I began to see that the dogma he monotonously and tirelessly preached to us had become integral to how I approach almost everything I do in my life, not just football. The reasons Coach Leach was consistently able to “cause” greatness became apparent, and I became deeply grateful for the person he trained me to be.
Preparation for Life
When the ball snaps in a major college football game, it is difficult to describe how fast, intense, and violent things instantly become. Leach knew that the emotional buzz of a motivational speech would last for only a few plays. When a player has been hit hard in the mouth, and when his chest burns at the end of a drive, the key is to maintain a clear, quiet, and focused mental state. Leach’s players were faster and more reflexive than others because he trained us to consistently be able to quiet our minds and just do our jobs in the face of adversity and intensity.
“Play the Next Play” was one of Leach’s primary mantras. Good or bad, whatever happened in the last play doesn’t matter. It only matters what you do next. Clear your mind and re-focus on doing your job.
“Don’t Confuse Activity with Results” was another one. Just because you showed up and got dressed for practice that day doesn’t mean you actually got anything accomplished. “Get Better Every Day” was another one.
Football (and life, for that matter) is a game of inches. It is won at the margins, by 11 men successfully stacking one good play on top of another one. It’s all about a full team’s ability to consistently execute. This remains true in my current life as a businessman and entrepreneur. Coach Leach taught me mental toughness and ingrained in me an ability to deeply focus, even when immersed in a frenzy of chaos and distraction.
The same thing goes for my personal life. I now have a wife and four young children. Being able to focus on the things that matter and remain calm and clear-headed amid chaos is critical to leading a family.
There are endless funny and quirky Leach stories being told, and he is being lauded as a transformational innovator of offensive football, which he certainly was. His signature and influence are pervasive at all levels of football, from youth seven-on-seven to the NFL. But his personality and his X’s and O’s are only part of why he was such a success. The reason there will never be another Mike Leach has everything to do with his ability to transfer his own dogmatic and relentless ability to ignore everything else and focus on the important things — and only the important things.