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Michael Lewis Created a Monster

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Mark Schlabach does his thing with Mike Leach for the Worldwide Leader, and it is, not surprisingly, pirates galore.


Not that there's anything wrong with that (well, except the Margaritaville bit. Yar).
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I like Schlabach, as far as severely space-limited mainstream columnists go, and he does a fine job here. (the most interesting quote has nothing to do with pirates, or personally commissioned Van Gogh ripoffs: "If you're getting to the office at 6 a.m. and getting home at midnight, well, then you're wasting a lot of time," Leach said. "That's just a failure to manage your time. What are you doing in the middle of the day? Are you having a siesta?" I can relate to this.) He's no Michael Lewis, but that's not a criticism - ESPN.com is not The New York Times Magazine. Consider this official notice, though: everybody's favorite eccentric cap'n is about to be quirkin' it up all over the damn place. I get the feeling following Texas Tech this fall is going to feel like those handful of Seinfeld episodes around Season Three where the studio audience goes crazy with applause every time Kramer skidded into the scene. That is, for Leach devotees who've celebrated the scurvy dog since Lewis' legendary profile came out in 2005 - the real fans, man - kind of awkward.

There's one other great coaching profile out there in the last couple years, the much harder to find LAist anti-profile of Pete Carroll by Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer, the one that painted him as a manic obsessive who never sleeps, visits South Central ganglands at all hours of the night and who, when challenged, possesses the water retention of a camel (the direct story link to that one has been down for ages). If it weren't for moments of genuine, sublime weirdness from both of them, like this, or this, I might think the right author with enough access could pass Joe Paterno as Willie Nelson.

The genius of this approach is that coaches are so overwhelmingly coach-like in the public mind that the concept of a Renaissance man in the profession - which includes Paterno, who once wrote in one of his books he'd rather his players spend the offseason reading than lifting weights -distracts from the reason people really pay attention to them, which is that they are winners. The tipping point for the oncoming Leach love is the apparent growing Red Raiders bandwagon for the upcoming season, which, after hitting new levels in the Schlabach piece, might soon border on hysterical:

Can't you imagine Leach standing on the field at Dolphin Stadium in Miami on the night of Jan. 8, holding a Waterford crystal trophy high above his head, smiling at the rest of the college football world with an eat-you-know-what grin?
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In a couple short looks at Tech I'm writing for the most literate, long lasting, hair-growing, minty fresh sports annuals on the market, I note that the program is on its longest sustained stretch of success in its history under Leach: since 2000, the Raiders have reeled off eight straight winning seasons, six straight eight-win seasons, beaten Oklahoma twice in three years, beaten Texas A&M six out of seven, just won its first New Year's Day game since 1953 and finished in the final AP poll three times in the last four years. On those merits, less than a decade in, there's argument to be made for Leach as the best coach Tech's ever employed; he's certainly on the track, all the moreso because, after shunning UCLA in December, it doesn't seem like a stopover job anymore. These kinds of pieces, complete with that bit of over-optimistic mythical championship buzz, make it feel like Leach's baby, or Frankenstein, or whatever.

It also seems a little crazy. Tech is a consistent winner for the first time in a long time, yes, but it's also finished third place or worse in its division every year but one, 2005, when it was the most distant possible second to the Vince Young Experience. The unprecedented murmurs only mean it's Breakthrough Time, that precipice where the slope gets a little steeper and, without at least a division title on the horizon, a bridge to the next hill, the boulder is suddenly a little heavier, in danger of rolling back in the opposite direction - can't put it all together, can't win the big one, etc. This is the first Leach team to face any kind of expectations of that sort, or of any sort, really, coming into the year - none of his previous outfits have been ranked entering the season, but Buckeye Commentary has a roundup of the early top 25 polls, and four of five (all but The Sporting News) have the Raiders in the top twelve - and on paper, it deserves them. The offense is, you know, the Texas Tech offense, only better, with probably the best pass-catch combo (Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree) not only in Leach's tenure, but probably anywhere to be found in the country for the coming year. The defense got itself a new coordinator after allowing 45 to Oklahoma State, improved somewhat and has ten starters back; you'll be reading everywhere (Schlabach included) that that side, too, will be the best Leach has had. Though, of course, the competition there is significantly less than on offense.

So that's the thing about being a beloved character - everybody knows you, they applaud and dig the catchphrases, but they expect the best, too. If the early polls are right, Tech will match the 1973 team for the highest finish in school history. Two of that group think the Raiders will finish ahead of Texas, which has not happened once since the formation of the Big 12. That - winning or at least legitimately competing for the South division - is the next peak to plunder. These visions of crystal balls, they be tempting, but fanciful. The cannons don't reach that far yet.