There are many in the college football community who knew and loved Mississippi State Head Coach Mike Leach – players and coaches who, in the wake of his passing Monday night, will remember him for his brilliance; for his contributions to the game and to their lives.
That’s what coaches do. They change the lives of the people they meet.
I met Coach Leach years ago, when I was still coaching high school football.
As a coaching staff we would often spend the offseason attending clinics around the country, and of course the big annual convention held by the American Football Coaches Association.
That was the big one.
It was a late night and the convention lobby was packed. “Working the lobby” — was a famous saying in these circles and the lobby was being worked at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas.
Now, there were a lot of suits walking around— often an indicator of a coach in pursuit of their next interview on the “coaching carousel” of college sports.
But Coach Leach wasn’t in a suit. He was wearing a black Texas Tech hoodie, sweat pants, and sneakers. The coach’s uniform.
I saw him from across the room. He had just wrapped a conversation and I pounced.
“Hey. How ya doing?”
We talked for a few minutes about the chaos of it all and of course where the night may lead. And, then I asked. Because I had to ask.
“So, Coach. What’s the most important coaching lesson you can share with a young coach?”
He paused. He really paused. But, he wasn’t thinking hard. Then he said, “Well, I tell all my coaches — you’re either coaching it or allowing it to happen.”
I nodded. He patted me on the shoulder. And we agreed to see each other around.
Now this was before iPhones — but, damn right did I grab the first sheet of paper and a pen from the bartender to write that down the minute he walked away. It’s stuck with me ever since.
I never had a one on one conversation with Coach again, but would see him at conventions, root for his work, enjoy watching one of his whacky interviews, and would read his books.
He was a pirate enthusiast or expert or both. He had a famous talk one day where he challenged his players to, “Swing Your Sword.” It was his way of encouraging his players to give it their all and to play their game. I enjoyed listening to these pirate rants. And it was this rant that was the foundation of his book by the same name — “Swing Your Sword: Leading the Charge in Football and Life.”
Of course I’ve read it. Today, I grabbed the book off my shelf and read through it again. Here are my highlights…
My Top 7 Highlights from Swing Your Sword by Coach Mike Leach:
- Ego and confidence are wrapped together. They’re not interchangeable, but they draw from each other. Ego is what drives you and makes it important for you to be successful. It’s also the little voice telling you that being behind somebody else is unacceptable.
- Do what consumes you
- Don’t mail it in
- We have too many “non-tryers” these days they’re afraid of how things may look. Instead of experiencing the journey, they’re worried about how they will be perceived.
- I try to choose players who might elicit the best response from the team, or that those guys by speaking to the team may perform better themselves.
- Calling plays in a football game is more like boxing. You’re trying to anticipate what they’re going to throw at you, but you have to remain focused on your own abilities if you are going to counter-punch effectively. The most important thing isn’t what they’re doing, but recognizing what they’re doing. They can only run so many things. Is it Man or Zone? Are they gonna blitz or drop? Just recognize it and play fundamental football.
- You are either coaching it or allowing it to happen.
Of course that last one is in there.
Coaching high school football was a privilege. It was a special honor to make an impact on young men that came to practice every day to play a game and in the process learned life skills guiding them to this day.
When people talk about Coach Mike Leach they often use a lot of different words. Innovative. Funny. Weird. Sharp. And, my favorite one — Unconventional.
We need more “unconventional” coaches.