When did Mike Leach die?

When did Mike Leach die?

Football coach Mike Leach died on Monday, Dec. 12, 2022, at age 61.

In this Nov. 8, 2008, file photo, Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach walks back to the sidelines after a timeout in a college football game against Oklahoma State in Lubbock, Texas. Leach died on Monday, Dec. 12, 2022, at age 61.

Matt Slocum, Associated Press

Mississippi State football coach and Brigham Young University alumnus Mike Leach died on Monday, Dec. 12, 2022, at the age of 61. Bestselling sports writers Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian shadowed Leach for their book “The System” (2013).

On social media Benedict wrote of Leach, “I went looking for an interesting football coach, and I discovered a friend and a brother.” The following is from the first chapter of “The System.”

On Saturday afternoons in the fall of 1981, the roar of the crowd would echo across campus every time BYU scored a touchdown. It happened a lot that year. BYU led the nation in offense, scoring more than 500 points, thanks to the arm of two-time All-American quarterback Jim McMahon. On his way to setting 70 NCAA passing records, McMahon had put Provo, Utah, on the college football map.

Twenty-year-old Sharon Smith hardly noticed. But one evening that fall she was outside her apartment when a rugged-looking guy with wavy, shoulder-length hair approached. He introduced himself as Mike Leach, a 20-year-old junior from Cody, Wyoming. He lived in the apartment complex next door. They even used the same laundry room. Turned out they had been neighbors for months.

Smith was surprised they had never crossed paths. But Leach traveled a fair amount. He was a member of BYU’s rugby team.

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She was intrigued. Leach didn’t look like a BYU student. For one thing, his hair was too long. It should have been above his collar, according to BYU’s honor code. But Leach ignored the rule. That got him repeatedly summoned to the dean’s office. Still, Leach didn’t cut his hair. He didn’t talk like a BYU student either. His vocabulary was a little more colorful. So was his upbringing. He grew up in Wyoming with boys who spent Friday nights popping beers and getting in fistfights. Ranchers wearing sidearms would come into town for lunch at the local diner. “Gunsmoke” reruns were all the rage. Marshal Dillon was Leach’s boyhood hero.

Smith had met lots of guys at BYU. None was as authentic — or as funny — as Leach. They ended up talking until after midnight, and she accepted his invitation to go out the following night.

Their first date was a meal at an A&W restaurant in Provo. That’s when college football entered the picture. Over hot dogs and a couple cold root beers, Leach started talking about coaching. His idol was BYU’s head coach, LaVell Edwards. During Leach’s freshman year he had entered his name in a drawing and won season tickets on the 40-yard line. From that perch he began studying BYU’s offensive scheme: a controlled passing game with somebody always in motion before the snap; lots of receivers running a combination of vertical routes and crossing patterns; throwing to the backs in the flat. Edwards’ innovative system was a forerunner of the West Coast Offense ultimately popularized by Bill Walsh in the NFL. But at the college level in the early 1980s, no defensive coordinator in the country had figured out how to stop it.

To the casual fan BYU’s system looked pretty complicated. And to a certain extent, it was. But Leach had figured out that the genius of Edwards was the way he packaged his plays. He used an endless number of formations to disguise about 50 basic plays. That made it easy for the offense to memorize and difficult for defenses to recognize.

Smith had no idea what Leach was talking about. But one thing was obvious to her: the guy sitting across from her sipping root beer through a straw was no casual fan of the game. He wasn’t some armchair quarterback either. In high school Leach had started a “coaching” file, filling it with newspaper clippings from the sports pages and schematic ideas he scribbled on loose sheets of paper. By the time he got to Provo and could watch Edwards up close, he was mapping out his future. “BYU had a state-of-the-art offense,” Leach said. “The best in the country. I started studying it very closely. LaVell Edwards had a major impact on me.”


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Texas Tech coach Mike Leach helps conduct a minicamp for high school and junior high players at Jordan High School, June 29, 2005, in Sandy, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

After one date with Leach, Smith never saw anyone else. “Of all the people I dated at BYU, he was the only guy who knew exactly what he wanted to do,” Smith said. “He told me right away that he knew he was going to be a lawyer or a college football coach. I found it very attractive that he had a plan and was very confident about achieving it.”

Never mind that Leach had never played college football and his only coaching experience was as a Little League baseball coach back in Wyoming. Smith wasn’t worried. “He could analyze the game and the way coaches were coaching, and he had it in his mind that he could do it better at a young age,” she said. “Confidence is a very attractive feature.”

In June 1982, Mike and Sharon were married in St. George, Utah. After BYU, they moved to Southern California, and Mike attended law school at Pepperdine. But just before he got his law degree, he posed a practical question to Sharon: “Do you want me to come home miserable and making a lot of money or come home happy and not earning as much money?”

She told him that being happy was more important than making a lot of money.

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Leach didn’t bother taking the bar exam. Instead, he and Sharon headed to Alabama so Mike could attend the U.S. Sports Academy. After he obtained his master’s degree, they returned to California, and Mike talked his way into a part-time assistant’s position with the football team at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, then a Division II school. The fact that Leach had a law degree intrigued the head coach enough to offer him a job helping out for $3,000.

Sharon figured that was a monthly salary. But it was $3,000 for the season.

With a 1-year-old baby, the Leaches moved into campus housing. Their bed was a floor mattress. They didn’t own a television. Their motto was “Opportunity trumps money.”

After one season, the head coach at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo predicted that Leach would develop into a big-time college football coach. Over the next decade Mike and Sharon crisscrossed the country, taking coaching jobs at College of the Desert in California, Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State.

Leach even spent a year coaching football in Finland. He held every position from offensive line coach to linebacker coach to quarterback coach. He even served as sports information director and equipment manager at one school. And when all the other coaches left at the end of the day, Leach stayed behind to watch film — always alone, sometimes until dawn — night after night.


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In this Oct. 24, 2009, file photo, Texas Tech coach Mike Leach talks with his team during an NCAA college football game against Texas A&M in Lubbock, Texas.

Mike Fuentes, Associated Press

For the first 15 years of marriage, Sharon made more money doing clerical work and miscellaneous jobs than Mike made coaching. They were happy but broke. Plus, they were up to three kids with a fourth on the way. 

Then things changed in 1997. Kentucky’s head coach, Hal Mumme, hired Leach as his offensive coordinator. Suddenly Leach jumped from small schools in the middle of nowhere to the SEC, the best conference in college football. His offensive scheme — referred to as “the spread” — would be tested against Florida, Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Auburn.

Working under Mumme and drawing from the BYU offense he’d studied in the early 1980s, Leach added new wrinkles that opened up the field even more, making it easier for his quarterback to throw into open passing lanes. “I spend more time trying to make my offense easy for the quarterback to memorize than anything,” Leach said. “I want to make it as simple as possible because I want guys to trigger as quick as possible. The key isn’t finding good plays. The key is packaging.”

One of the most revolutionary aspects of Leach’s system was spacing the offensive linemen three feet apart. At first glance, it appears to give pass rushers a clear shot at the quarterback. But the result was fewer sacks and cleaner passing lanes for the quarterback. 

The SEC had never seen anything like it. In Leach’s first season as offensive coordinator, Kentucky upset Alabama and finished the year with the No. 1 offense in the country, led by quarterback Tim Couch. The following year Kentucky knocked off LSU; Couch threw for more than 4,000 yards and went on to become the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Meanwhile, Leach’s offense set six NCAA records and 41 SEC records. The Wildcats had a winning record in the toughest conference in the country.

Coaches in the SEC weren’t the only ones who noticed. Coaches from around the country — including Urban Meyer at Notre Dame, Tommy Bowden at Tulane and Mark Mangino at Kansas State — traveled to Kentucky to learn more about Leach’s system. Even a number of NFL coaches made the trek to Lexington. The interest level was so high that Leach made an instructional video on the finer points of throwing and receiving techniques. It sold thousands of copies.

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After two seasons at Kentucky, Leach accepted the position as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. He was there less than one year before he got offered the head job at Texas Tech. The opportunity had some downsides. It was 1999 and Tech was on academic probation for recruiting violations, academic fraud and unethical conduct. Eighteen scholarships were stripped from the football program between 1999 and 2001. Not only would Leach be competing against Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, but he’d be doing it with 18 fewer scholarships for his first three seasons.

There were other problems. Tech’s graduation rates were among the lowest in the nation. Leach held two advanced degrees and had no interest in a football culture that ignored the importance of academics. Plus, there was the unenviable task of replacing Tech’s Spike Dykes, who had won more games — 82 — than any football coach in the history of the school. In Lubbock, where football is right beside God in importance, Dykes was beloved.

Despite all this, Leach said yes. At 38, a guy who never played college football was off to Lubbock to coach the Red Raiders in the Big 12.


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Washington State head coach Mike Leach, center, speaks to his team during a game against San Jose State in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018.

Young Kwak, Associated Press

Six years later, a cup of coffee in one hand and a remote control in the other, Mike Leach was alone in his office going over game film. Play. Pause. Rewind. Play. Pause. Rewind. Next sequence.

It was after midnight when he stood up to stretch his legs. He parted the blinds on his office window that overlooked the Texas Tech practice facility. That’s when he spotted a shadow moving across the field. It was a human shadow. “Who in the hell is that?” he mumbled.

The facilities were locked, the lights off. The place was deserted. Leach wondered if it was a prowler. He headed downstairs to have a look.

Approaching the field, Leach spotted tiny orange cones. They were arranged in rows. Someone was darting in and out of them. Suddenly the figure came into focus.

“Michael?”

“Oh, hey, Coach.”

It was Tech receiver Michael Crabtree, considered the top wideout in the country.

“Michael, what are you doing?”

“I got to thinking about the corner route,” he said in between deep breaths. “If I come out of my cut like this” — Crabtree pointed his toes and jigged hard to the right — “I’ll be open every time.”

Impressed, Leach folded his arms and nodded.

“So,” Crabtree continued, “I set up some cones, and I’m out here working on it.”

Leach’s eyes went from Crabtree to the cones and back to Crabtree. The most talented wide receiver in college football was alone in the dark. There was no ball. No quarterback. No position coach to tell him what to do. It was just Crabtree in his stance, doing starts and stops, running in and out of cones.

The truth was that Crabtree worked out alone at night a lot. He lived across the street from the practice complex and would sneak in after dark.

“I always worked on my game,” Crabtree said. “Coach Leach just happened to catch me that night.”

Determined not to disrupt hard work, Leach turned and headed back inside without saying another word.

Leach and Crabtree had the kind of relationship that didn’t require much talk. When Leach arrived in Lubbock six years earlier, Tech didn’t land blue-chip recruits like Crabtree. A star quarterback at David W. Carter High School in Dallas, Crabtree was also one of the top high school basketball players in the state. Bobby Knight offered him a basketball scholarship. And Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and LSU were all over him with scholarship offers to play football. Tech’s facilities couldn’t compete with those schools’. And Leach’s budget was a fraction of his rivals’.

Still, Leach was winning with guys who had been passed over by the Longhorns and the Sooners and the Aggies. In Leach’s first six seasons, Tech had gone 49-28, appeared in six straight bowl games and finished in the top 20 in both 2004 and 2005. But the thing that really got Crabtree’s attention was Leach’s “Air Raid” offense. “They threw the ball every play,” Crabtree said. “Leach had the whole program going. I said to myself, ‘Man, if I go to Tech, it’s gonna be on.’”

Tech indeed had the most explosive offense in the country when Leach started recruiting Crabtree in 2004. That year, Tech’s football scores often looked like basketball scores. The Red Raiders put up 70 points against TCU. Then they put up 70 against Nebraska, marking the most points scored against the Cornhuskers in the program’s 114-year history. Virtually every Tech game was an offensive exhibition, and Leach’s quarterbacks were leading the nation in passing year in and year out.

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But Leach told Crabtree up front that he planned to play him at receiver, not quarterback. Crabtree had been the best athlete on his high school team, and — as is often the case for superior high school athletes — he got asked to play quarterback. But Leach saw in him all the raw materials to make a great receiver — breakaway speed, great leaping ability, big hands and fearlessness. He went as far as to tell Crabtree that he could see him playing wideout in the NFL.

Crabtree had never played receiver. But it didn’t take much to convince him to switch. “I didn’t want to stay in college that long,” Crabtree said. “I wanted to get on to the NFL. If I played quarterback, I’d be at Tech for five years. I figured if I played receiver at Tech, I would tear it up.”

The chance to play receiver at Tech also made it easier not to choose Texas or Oklahoma. “I didn’t want to go to Texas or OU and just be another guy,” Crabtree said. “I wanted to go somewhere to make a name for myself. With Leach at Tech, I had a chance to take it to another level.”

All he told Leach, however, was one thing: “I want to score touchdowns.” 

Leach redshirted Crabtree his first year, giving him time to learn a new position. Then Crabtree started as a freshman in 2007. That year he became the first freshman since Herschel Walker named to the AFCA Coaches’ All-America Team. He was also the first freshman to win the Biletnikoff Award, establishing him as the best receiver in the nation. Crabtree started his sophomore season as a projected Heisman candidate.

Yet Leach never gave him star treatment. Once, when Crabtree missed a couple of blocks during a scrimmage, Leach stopped play.

“Crabtree,” Leach shouted. “Are you gonna block or just get your (expletive) kicked all day?”

Crabtree didn’t say a word.

Leach purposely called another running play to Crabtree’s side. On the snap of the ball, Crabtree exploded into the cornerback, got underneath his shoulder pads, lifted him off the ground and drove him out-of-bounds. The defender’s feet still off the ground, Crabtree kept pumping his legs, taking his man past the bench. By the time Leach blew the whistle, Crabtree had driven the defender up against a fence.

“I was there to catch balls and score touchdowns, not block,” Crabtree said. “But coach was talking about my blocking. So I showed him that blocking was nothing by driving that guy all over the field.”

About the only player who worked harder than Crabtree was quarterback Graham Harrell. Leach demanded it. “The quarterback has to work harder than everyone else,” Leach said. “He has to be the first one on the field and the last one off. If he’s not willing to do that, I will find another position for him. But he won’t be a quarterback.”

Harrell came out of high school as the top quarterback in Texas. In one season he threw for 4,825 yards and 67 touchdowns. His father was his high school coach and pushed him hard. But it was nothing like his experience playing for Leach.

“He is extremely tough on his quarterbacks,” Harrell said. “There were days when I’d come off the practice field thinking I hated him. He can be extremely critical. But he did it because he expected a lot out of me.”

“There were days when I’d come off the practice field thinking I hated him. He can be extremely critical. But he did it because he expected a lot out of me.”

Leach didn’t just expect a lot from his players on the field; he demanded excellence off it. By the time Crabtree and Harrell arrived at Texas Tech, Leach’s team had the highest graduation rates at any public institution in Division I football, peaking at 79% from 2006 to 2008. He achieved this by benching players who didn’t perform academically. “I don’t want my players missing classes and doing fourth-quarter comebacks academically,” Leach said. “They are here to get a degree, and I reinforce that by holding them accountable for grades.”

He also held them accountable for what they did off the field. He came up with his own code called the Three Queen Mothers. Players who were caught stealing, hitting a woman or smoking marijuana were kicked off the team, no questions asked.

“Players who steal can’t be trusted, and trust is very important in football,” Leach explained. “Any man who hits a woman is a coward. And I don’t need cowards on my football team. Smoking dope — or any other drugs — is just selfish. It indicates that your partying is more important than your team. So any player — no matter how talented — is cut if he violates those rules.”

“I realized he just wanted to teach me. He has a great mind, and he helped me understand the game.”

From the outside looking in, playing for Leach sounds like a grind. He was a tough taskmaster who demanded excellence. “He cussed me out plenty of times, and I respected him for that,” Crabtree said. “Some guys are soft and can’t deal with it. But I realized he just wanted to teach me. He has a great mind, and he helped me understand the game.”

Leach had his own way of making football fun, too.

“College football is like a job in many respects,” said Harrell. “It’s full time. It’s demanding. But coach Leach made it feel more like a boy’s game.”

One way Leach accomplished this was with his dry sense of humor and a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush. “There is foul language everywhere, especially in football,” Harrell said. “But Leach is more colorful than anyone. That was another reason the guys loved being around him. Sometimes he’d put words together I’d never even heard. But his language never offended us. We all laughed. That’s just Coach.”

Leach’s reputation for using four-letter words was so notorious that it even reached the attention of Harrell’s mother. “Graham, do you talk like that?” she asked her son at one point. He laughed. “Mom,” he replied. “No one really talks like that but Coach.”


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In this Sept. 19, 2009, file photo, Texas Tech coach Mike Leach looks on during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Texas in Austin, Texas.

Eric Gay, Associated Press

By the 2008 season, Leach had become a cult hero in Lubbock. His quarterbacks had won six national passing titles in eight years, and he had the most prolific offense in the nation. Harrell and Crabtree were the best quarterback-receiver tandem in college football. And only two teams in the Big 12 had a better cumulative record since Leach joined the conference. Needless to say, every home game at Tech’s stadium was sold out.

Word of Leach’s success went well beyond Lubbock. The author of “Moneyball,” Michael Lewis, had profiled him in The New York Times Magazine. And national sportswriters had dubbed him “The Mad Scientist of Football.”

No one doubted that Leach was a first-rate college coach. The only question that remained was whether his unorthodox system was capable of contending for a national title.

The turning point came on Nov. 1, 2008. That night, the No. 1-ranked Texas Longhorns came to Lubbock undefeated. Tech was ranked No. 7 and also undefeated. The two programs were bitter rivals. “I deeply hope we beat their (expletive) today,” Texas Tech’s basketball coach Bobby Knight said hours beforehand on ESPN’s “College GameDay.” ABC showcased the game in its prime-time Saturday night slot, and announcer Brent Musburger opened the broadcast by saying it was the biggest game in Texas Tech history.

A record crowd — 56,333 fans in black and red, carrying swords and wearing eye patches and bandannas — was on its feet throughout. Texas trailed the entire way until late in the fourth quarter.

With 1:29 remaining in the game, the Longhorns scored a touchdown to go up 33-32.

Harrell was on the Tech sideline, looking up at the clock. He had led 10 scoring drives in 1:30 or less that season. But this felt different. The stakes had never been so high. The audience had never been so big. The chance to beat the best team in college football was in the balance. Tech had only one timeout left.

“Hey,” one of his teammates yelled. “Leach wants to talk to you.”

Harrell hustled over to Leach, prepared to hear something profound.

The tension in the stadium was palpable. But Leach was relaxed and showed no emotion. He didn’t even raise his voice.

“Now listen to me,” he said. “Just make routine plays.”

“I got ya.”

“Everybody needs to get out-of-bounds. But don’t be afraid to throw over the middle. Late in the game the middle is exposed.”

Harrell nodded.

“Now come here,” Leach said, his voice getting even quieter.

Harrell took a step closer.

“Listen to me. There’s gonna be guys out there that don’t believe we can march down and score. You need to get these guys going and make them believe we can score.”

“No doubt,” Harrell said, bouncing up and down on his toes. “No doubt.”

“You make ’em believe. Huddle ’em up. Make sure everyone believes.”

“We’re ready to go.”

“All right. Now let’s go out there and shove it up their (expletive) and score a touchdown.”

Harrell grinned. “All right, Coach.” He trotted onto the field.

So much for profound. Harrell had heard that same late-game speech so many times he could recite it, right down to the last sentence. Even Leach’s tone was the same. “He was really good about staying even keel no matter the situation,” Harrell said. “It helped me to see him so calm. He doesn’t have a football background. So football was never an emotional game to him. It was always analytical. With coach Leach, when the offense gets the ball, you are supposed to score. That’s it.”

“He doesn’t have a football background. So football was never an emotional game to him. It was always analytical.”

Over the next minute and 21 seconds, Harrell completed his first four passes — one over the middle and three toward the sidelines. He drove his team all the way to the Texas 26-yard line before throwing an incomplete pass that stopped the clock with eight seconds remaining.

Tech had a decision to make: attempt a long-distance field goal, or run one more play in hopes of getting closer for the kicker. But if Harrell completed a pass and the receiver didn’t get out-of-bounds before time ran out, Texas wins.

Harrell ran toward Leach. “Wanna take a shot?” he shouted.

Leach was calm. “Just run four vertical.”

It was Leach’s favorite play — all four receivers running vertical routes. It gave Harrell options. If a receiver got past his man, he’d throw into the end zone. If the defense played back, he’d throw underneath, enabling the receiver to catch and quickly get out-of-bounds to set up the field goal.

Harrell relayed the plan in the huddle.

“Man, there ain’t no way we can let the game come down to the kicker,” Crabtree said.

Harrell agreed.

“Just throw me the (expletive) ball,” Crabtree said.

Harrell was sure Texas would double-team Crabtree, forcing him to throw to a different receiver. But when they broke the huddle, Texas was in man-to-man coverage. Harrell and Crabtree thought the same thing: If the defender overplays, throw the back-shoulder pass.

On the snap, Crabtree ran full speed straight at the defender, who backed off to protect against a throw to the end zone. Crabtree dug his toe into the turf at the 8-yard line and cut toward the sideline. The ball had already left Harrell’s hand. Crabtree hauled it in and stopped on a dime.

Two defenders ran past him, one of them trying to push Crabtree out-of-bounds. Tightroping the sideline, Crabtree kept his balance and scampered into the end zone. One second remained on the clock.

Fans stormed the field. Crabtree and Harrell were mobbed in the end zone. The goalposts came down. Cannons blasted. The band broke into the fight song. Texas Tech had knocked off the No. 1 team in the nation.

Amid the chaos, Leach showed no emotion. He didn’t even crack a smile. “There was a lot of drama and excitement, don’t get me wrong,” Leach said. “But this was pretty routine. If Crabtree was even with his man, throw it over the top. If they overplay him, throw the ball to his (expletive), away from coverage, and he comes back and catches it. We practiced that all year. It’s a safe play. They executed it perfectly.”


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In this photo taken on Nov. 21, 2009, Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach hoists finger guns up to the crowd as he leaves the field following their 41-13 victory over Oklahoma in an NCAA college football game in Lubbock, Texas.

Geoffrey McAllister, Associated Press

That night, Leach stayed up until 5 a.m. talking with friends about the victory. By the time he woke up later Sunday afternoon, Texas Tech was ranked No. 2 in the nation. The victory transcended the sports page. Scott Pelley brought a CBS News camera crew to Lubbock and profiled Leach on “60 Minutes.” Actor Matthew McConaughey, a University of Texas alumnus, started hanging out with Leach and his wife. Film director Peter Berg gave Leach a cameo role in “Friday Night Lights.” Mike and Sharon even accepted an invitation to take a private tour of the White House and meet with President George W. Bush at the end of the season. Harrell went with them.

Leach’s only regret was that his days coaching Crabtree and Harrell were numbered. A few weeks after knocking off Texas, his two star players started their final regular-season game as Red Raiders. It was at home against Baylor on Nov. 29. Both got injured early. Crabtree ended up on crutches and did not return. Harrell’s injury happened on a sack in the first quarter. When he got up and dusted himself off, he knew he was in trouble. Two fingers on his left hand were dangling. He knew they were broken.

Facing third-and-long, Harrell looked to the sideline. Leach called a running play, requiring Harrell to take the snap from under center.

Harrell turned his head from side to side and crossed his hands, indicating he didn’t like the call.

Leach signaled timeout, and Harrell jogged to the sideline.

“What’s wrong?” Leach said.

“My hand is messed up. I broke my fingers. I don’t think I can take a snap under center.”

The team trainer stepped in.

Harrell held out his hand.

“Your fingers are dislocated,” the trainer said.

“Bro, I’m telling you. They are broken.”

The trainer took a closer look.

“Don’t mess with them,” Harrell said.

The trainer yanked on both limp fingers, trying to set them.

“Dude!” Harrell shouted. “They’re broken.”

After being set, both fingers promptly went limp again.

“They’re broken,” the trainer said.

“I just told you that,” Harrell said.

Leach scowled at the trainer. “What are you doing?”

The referee jogged to the sideline. “C’mon, guys,” he hollered. “It’s time to play.”

Leach looked at Harrell. “What do you want to do?”

“I’ll play. Just don’t call anything under center.”

He trotted back on the field. A few plays later he threw a touchdown pass. For the rest of the second quarter Leach called nothing but pass plays out of the shotgun. At halftime, the medical staff took Harrell to the X-ray room. The technician, an older woman, smiled and handed him a candy. Harrell was her favorite player.

But after X-raying his hand, she started crying.

“Are they that bad?” Harrell said.

“You’re not gonna like what you see.”

“Then don’t show them to me.”

She handed the images to the trainer. Harrell had broken his hand in nine places. His ring finger and pinkie were shattered. After consulting with the rest of the medical staff, the trainer led Harrell back to the locker room.

The team was ready to head out for the second half. Harrell and the trainer huddled with Leach.

“We looked at the X-rays,” the trainer told Leach. “He probably shouldn’t play.”

“Well, what do you want to do, Graham?” Leach said.

“I can play.”

Leach looked at the trainer. “Will playing make it worse?”

“Well, his fingers are shattered,” the trainer said. “It can’t get much worse.”

“Tape ’em together and let him play,” Leach said.

Harrell played the entire second half with his left hand wrapped in black tape. He completed 41 of 50 passes, throwing for 309 yards and two touchdowns, while leading Tech to a come-from-behind victory in the final minutes.

“It was the most courageous effort I’ve ever seen,” Leach said.

The following day Harrell underwent four hours of surgery. Seventeen pins were permanently inserted in his fingers.

“Leach made you tough,” Harrell said. “And he made the game fun for me. Football is a kids’ game, and he made it feel that way. I loved playing for him. All of us did.”


Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach watches from the sideline at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Nov. 11, 2017.

Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach watches from the sideline as Utah and Washington State play a college football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Nov. 11, 2017.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The 2008 football season was the best one in the history of Texas Tech. The Red Raiders won 11 games and finished in the top 10. Harrell won a slew of awards and was runner-up for the Heisman. After just two college seasons, Crabtree led the nation in receiving and entered the NFL draft, where he was selected 10th overall by the 49ers. And the nation’s college football coaches elected Leach as Coach of the Year.

The Leaches’ financial situation had changed, too. At the end of 2008, Leach had just one year remaining on his contract at Tech. Nine coaches in the Big 12 had higher annual salaries. Leach’s agents had spent months trying to negotiate a contract extension that would have made Leach one of the highest-paid coaches in the conference. But the two sides were far apart, and the tenor of the negotiations got so ugly that Tech’s athletic director, Gerald Myers, shut down the discussions altogether. 

That was before Tech upset Texas. After that game, Leach’s name was floated to become the new head coach at Auburn. And Leach interviewed at the University of Washington, prompting the university’s president at the time, Mark Emmert, to say publicly that the Huskies were well on their way to finding the right coach to take over the program.

The prospect of Leach leaving Lubbock for Seattle or anywhere else didn’t sit well with the fan base at Tech. But the fact that Leach had interviewed elsewhere irked Myers. Shortly after the season ended, Tech’s chancellor, Kent Hance, interceded and brokered a deal with Leach’s agents that resulted in a five-year contract extension with a base salary of $12.7 million and bonus incentives of up to $800,000 per season based on performance.

Hance boasted that Leach’s new contract did not contain a buyout provision. “I know he’s not leaving,” Hance said.

For Sharon Leach, the days of sleeping on a floor mattress and living off $3,000 a season were ancient history. The kid who told her on their first date at BYU that he wanted to be a football coach had delivered.

Adapted from “The System” (2013). Jeff Benedict is the bestselling author of 17 nonfiction books, including the No. 1 New York Times bestseller “Tiger Woods” and “The Dynasty,” the definitive inside story of the New England Patriots under Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. His upcoming biography on LeBron James will be published in April 2023. His website is www.jeffbenedict.com.

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