Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Key West, Fla., is the southernmost point in the United States. It is the southernmost point in the contiguous 48 states. This version has been corrected.
There are palm trees in purgatory. He walks by them without paying much attention. Here, each is just another pixel on a postcard disguised as paradise. Mike Leach stops at a wooden shack for a Cuban coffee. “What was I talking about?” he asks.
Doesn’t matter. He hops topics like lily pads. The Cuban caffeine only makes matters worse. The need for a college playoff system. Unemployment. Hunting pigs. Sarah Palin. Eating fast food in Japan. The University of Maryland.
“Excuse me,” says a woman with a French accent. Leach is recognized often down here, which isn’t too surprising. Before he was ousted as Texas Tech’s head football coach, his Red Raiders teams won 84 games in 10 seasons, appeared in a bowl game each year and featured one of college football’s most exciting offenses. His star was on the rise. He was profiled on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” had a cameo on NBC’s “Friday Night Lights.” Leach was going places.
“I’m sorry, where is Ernest Hemingway’s house?” the woman asks.
“You go — it’s about 10 blocks down. If you see the lighthouse, it’s right across the street from the lighthouse,” he says. “Ten blocks. Brick wall around it.”
Well, not everyone recognizes him. This is purgatory after all. This is the place an innovative football coach escapes to between jobs. Leach left Texas Tech under a cloud of controversy. He had been a cowboy in West Texas, unique among football coaches for his quirkiness, his coaching style and his success.
Until the accusation. A player said the coach locked him in a dark closet. Leach was run out of Lubbock, branded like a steer. A man who prided himself on being an educator suddenly came to represent all that was wrong with the modern-day coach.
Now, while the courts sort out the details, he’s untouchable. School presidents are scared to hire a man who’s simultaneously battling two giants — suing not only his previous employer but also the nation’s largest sports network.
The University of Maryland tried. School administrators danced briefly with Leach in December and were on the verge of hiring him to replace Ralph Friedgen, but they got cold feet.
“I don’t have any control over it,” Leach says of his coaching prospects. “I just worry about what I can control.”
So Leach, 50, is in Key West, the southernmost spot in the contiguous United States. Waiting. Trying to keep busy. On days when the water’s warm, he swims in the ocean. He goes to his son’s baseball games. He fishes offshore every few weeks. And on weekends, he flies all over. Sometimes for fun, sometimes for football, sometimes to network. Sometimes to remind others he’s still a football coach. Other times to remind himself.
You can rollerblade in purgatory, too. You’ve got to get around somehow, right? When Leach was in Lubbock, the university paid for his family’s two cars, which he lost when the school fired him in December 2009.
They weren’t sure what to do or where to go, but the Leaches knew they needed to catch their breath. They’d bought a vacation home in Key West five months earlier and decided it was time for a vacation.
“It was like: ‘What are we going to do? Go back to Lubbock?’ ” said Sharon Leach, his wife of 29 years. “Do we stay? Once we got down here, it was kind of an obvious choice.”
They packed for eight days and haven’t left. Leach briefly returned to West Texas, shipped eight boxes to Key West and put the rest of their Lubbock lives into storage.
“You feel like you’re always on vacation because you’re living in a vacation paradise,” Sharon says. “You just have to realize that really this is a place where you’re still living your life, the kids are in school, there’s still a routine.”
For Leach, it’s perfect. The island is only four miles long and two miles wide, but it’s packed with characters. From Jimmy Buffett to Captain Tony to Sloppy Joe, he’s engulfed himself in Key West lore.
“Mike has an active mind and Key West is good at keeping it occupied,” says Hal Mumme, a veteran coach who gave Leach his first football job. “It has so many of the things he likes: rollerblade, fishing, the beach, and all the pirate lore you could want.”
His wide range of interests and unconventional style earned Leach the eccentric tag long ago. “He’s just an outside-the-box type of person,” says his friend Kyle Whittingham, the head coach at the University of Utah. Leach is also one of the few football coaches who never actually played the game. He earned a law degree from Pepperdine University and decided relatively late he’d prefer to coach.
“He’d be unusual in any sphere of life,” says author Michael Lewis, who profiled Leach five years ago and has remained friends. “If he was a lawyer, he’d be an unusual lawyer. But as a football coach, he’s a very unusual football coach.”
Sharon didn’t know how living in Key West full-time would suit Leach. Living here is different than visiting. She is thrilled to have her husband around, but she worried about how he’d fill that hole.
“He’s not a guy who relaxes,” she says. “When we’d take a vacation and visit the beach, you’d never find him laying on the beach.”
By now, Leach is familiar with every corner of purgatory. Not just the back roads. He knows which hotel lobbies to cut through. Which restaurant patios have a water cooler. Which stores allow you to pop in, use the facilities and exit without drawing a glare.
“You got to kind of know the deal,” he says.
He’s walked almost every inch of the island. On Duval Street, where the soundtrack has just two songs — revelry and debauchery — Leach weaves through the tourists and points out landmarks. “Need a little ink? Go here,” he says. “Need a piercing? This is your spot.”
Leach seems to be enjoying himself. He knows this period of his life is unusual for a college coach. Most coaches don’t get a break. Most don’t want one.
But this is Leach’s reality. While college coaches across the country have been immersed in spring practices, Leach’s weekends read like a bucket list. He spent a week on the movie set of “Battleship” with director Peter Berg in Los Angeles. He hunted wild pigs from a helicopter above south Texas. He spoke at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston and also to lawyers in Arkansas.
He visits France to consult for an American football team called the Flash de La Courneuve. And in the United States, he went to the Senior Bowl and the NFL scouting combine, and helped stage a new college all-star game in Phoenix. He does a daily Sirius radio show, broadcast from Key West, and provided analysis for television broadcasts of college games. He launched a Twitter account and his autobiography should hit shelves this summer.
So, is he content? Sad? Angry? Empty?
“He doesn’t show it much. Maybe it’s the atmosphere in Key West. I don’t know,” says Jerry Hughes, the longtime coach at Key West High. “But I know when he’s alone, watching a game or whatever, there’s no doubt that the thought’s going through his head: ‘I got to get back out there.’ ”
“He’s such a pleasant guy to be around,” Hughes continues. “That’s why I hate seeing what’s happened to him. I do believe it’s tearing him inside out. He wants to coach. That’s his love.”
Leach had hoped he’d only have to sit out one year. Instead, he’s about to miss a second. At Texas Tech, he was 84-43 in 10 seasons. He won five bowl games. He graduated more student-athletes than any other coach at a public university. As far as credentials go, he was eminently more qualified than others who’ve recently been hired.
Of the 22 men who took head coaching jobs since last season ended, 13 had never been at the helm of a division I team. Of the remaining nine with experience at the top level of college coaching, only four had posted career winning records.
“Mike is a creative guy, very intelligent,” says Philadelphia Eagles Coach Andy Reid. “You add that in with his passion for the passing game, for offensive football, you come up with a pretty good football coach.”
Those close to Leach agree that he’ll land a job once his court cases have reached a conclusion. But it’s not clear when that might be.
Less than a year after negotiating a five-year, $12.7 million contract extension with him, Texas Tech fired Leach on Dec. 30, 2009, for “insubordination” related to charges levied by one player, Adam James. When James, son of ESPN broadcaster Craig James, suffered a concussion, Leach had members of his staff put the player in a dark room during two practices. That’s about all the two sides agree on.
Leach says he was taking protective measures to treat a concussion suffered by a coddled player. James contends he was being cruelly punished. “I honestly feel like a prisoner, a slave,” James said in a deposition.
Last year, Leach sued Texas Tech and the James family and filed a separate suit against ESPN, the first to report his alleged infractions. The second suit has barely moved, but there’s been plenty of action surrounding the first, which seeks more than $12 million from his former employer.
The Court of Appeals for the 7th District ultimately ruled Leach doesn’t have the right to sue Texas Tech. The school’s attorneys argued that as a state entity, Texas Tech enjoys “sovereign immunity,” which means it can only be sued with permission from the state legislature. Leach filed an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court in March. He’s alleging the university is hiding behind an antiquated law, using James’s accusations as an excuse to escape an expensive contract.
Leach visited Austin recently and chatted with Craig Eiland, an attorney who represents the 23rd District in the Texas House of Representatives. He’d hired a lobbyist to convince the state legislature that it should allow him to sue Texas Tech — not an easy proposition considering Leach seeks more than $12 million and the state is grappling with a $27 billion budget shortfall. Eiland listened and proposed a bill that would allow Leach to sue, but it never made it out of committee. The state’s attorney general is looking into the matter.
“I don’t care who wins,” Eiland says. “What I care about is making sure the state has a process it follows so that people can continue to consider contracting with the state. If we don’t, then none of our football, basketball, baseball coaches have a contract. If it’s not enforceable, you don’t have a contract.”
Even if a court does hear Leach’s case, the opposition isn’t too worried.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and nobody can predict what 12 people are going to do,” says Dicky Grigg, Texas Tech’s attorney, “but yeah, I’m very confident in our case.”
Grigg said no schools have contacted Texas Tech to discuss details of the case, including Maryland, the lone program to seriously consider hiring Leach.
Maryland flew Leach to College Park in late December, then shocked its fans by instead hiring Randy Edsall, who compiled a 74-70 record in 12 seasons at Connecticut.
Asked about the Terps’ job, Leach is measured. “I think it’s a great opportunity,” he says. “I think it’s a sleeping giant, a team that could win the ACC. I don’t have huge regrets that things didn’t work out.
“I could’ve provided a lot of things that they needed — filling the stadium, selling tickets, graduating players, keeping them out of trouble and winning a lot of football games. No question about that. But they needed to go with the guy they wanted.”
Reid spotted it last fall when Leach visited the Eagles, and Whittingham noticed it this spring when he watched the Utes practice in Salt Lake City. It was visible in Leach’s eyes and audible in his voice.
“He’s certainly not bored and he’s staying busy,” Whittingham says. “But coaching is in his blood, so ultimately, that’s what he needs to be doing.”
If Hemingway was a man without a country, Leach is merely a coach without a team. Lewis, the author, says Leach “isn’t good at being idle. It’s not his natural state. He doesn’t know about what he’s missing. It’s sort of like, he can try to distract himself enough, but he doesn’t know how much he misses it.”
Leach is convinced he’s a better leader now than he ever was at Texas Tech. A coach can spend so much time focusing on a player’s foot or hip, he doesn’t always appreciate the bigger picture.
“I remember back in law school, it was such a scramble to get your grades, go to class, read all the stuff. But I think I knew more about law two years after I got out than I did the day I finished,” Leach says. “It all sort of assembled itself.”
Leach takes off his flip-flops as he walks barefoot through the sand, making his way to a seat at Louie’s Backyard, where Buffett used to belt songs into the night. He orders a tea and watches the jet skis zip around the sailboats.
“He might look like he’s having fun on the outside, but all head coaches have egos,” says Hughes, his friend. “It’s not a bad thing. I know he has an ego and that he wants to get back into coaching and prove to people that they made a mistake.”
As the sun sets, the silver water blends seamlessly into a metallic sky. Leach loves it here. But he knows while paradise might be permanent, purgatory is not.
This little island has a way of attracting colorful characters, and Leach meets new ones every day.
“Some people get screwy,” he says. “Just from my unofficial interviews, they’ll get down here and they’ll feel they’re cut off and out of it — to the point where it’s almost kind of traumatic. All of a sudden, they go, ‘I got to get out of here. I’m trapped.’ And they can’t wait to get back.”
The sun sinks into the ocean. As Leach walks home, all across the island, beer taps are flowing and Duval Street starts to feel like carnival. Some days, purgatory can feel like heaven; other days like hell. But it’s neither.
For Leach, it’s just a waiting room with palm trees.