A storm was coming.
The cold front was visible on the horizon on March 7, 2000, as the Texas Tech football team held its first spring practice. It was 65 degrees and calm on the Red Raiders’ outdoor practice field, and players wore shorts and shoulder pads as they soaked up the sun.
Coaches thought the weather would hold off until the end of practice. It didn’t.
The wind picked up midway through the session, gusting at 40 miles per hour. Rain fell. Hail clanked off helmets.
Head coach Mike Leach blew his whistle.
Relief spread among the players, who thought the outdoor part of Leach’s first practice with the Red Raiders was over and they could go inside. Instead, Leach saw an opportunity amid the chill and the precipitation.
“The one time we might be able to play in things like this, and we need to be mentally focused on the task at hand,” Leach announced. “We’re going to stay outside.”
In half an hour, the temperature dropped more than 15 degrees. Texas Tech continued to practice.
“I’ve never been so cold in my entire life,” former Tech wide receiver Mickey Peters said.
It took only that first practice for Peters and his teammates to suspect Leach was different. The first-time collegiate head coach proved them right.
In a 10-year tenure at Texas Tech, Mike Leach went on to become the Red Raiders’ winningest coach. He won 11 games in a season, beating the No. 1 team in the country to do it.
But his time in Lubbock much resembled the inclement weather Tech practiced right through on that long-ago day. Calm skies gave way to storm clouds when Leach was fired on Dec. 30, 2009, with millions due him the next day.
Texas Tech football has never been the same.
“They still owe me for 2009, the last time they won nine games,” Leach said Dec. 11. “Maybe they’ll deliver the check, so we’ll see what happens there.”
Nearly 12 years to the day since his unceremonious exit, Leach will lead Mississippi State against the school he once called home in Tuesday’s Liberty Bowl.
And those who knew him at Texas Tech know anything can happen.
“It was always an adventure,” former Red Raiders kicker Matt Williams said. “Let’s put it that way.”
Roll with the punches
Williams, who went from a spectator to a starter after winning an in-game kicking contest, is well aware of the high points of that adventure.
But it wasn’t always fun.
After running late for one team meeting, Williams got caught in a traffic jam and missed another entirely. His punishment? Four hours straight on the stair-stepper, going until he could no longer feel his legs.
The coaching staff’s message was simple: “Don’t get stuck in traffic.”
Williams, who played under Leach in 2008 and 2009, knew his coach to set odd hours and change things up a lot. He and his friends typically went straight from class to the field house in the early afternoon, just in case there was something they would have to do.
A drill at the end of one day’s practice would lead off the next day’s workout. Meetings were called randomly and happened often; during them, Leach was known to talk at length about practically any topic. Pirates were a favorite.
“You’ve got to be able to roll with the punches with him because it may not be the same from day to day,” Williams said.
Peters started his Tech career in 1999 under Spike Dykes, but Dykes retired after the season, and Leach replaced him. The team culture changed immediately.
Williams said any teammates failing their classes received a 4 a.m. phone call summoning them to the team weight room. The late-night sessions were mandatory: If they didn’t come, they lost playing time.
“It seems like he came in as a young coach wanting discipline in his favor,” Peters said.
Early in his time in Lubbock, Leach rubbed the Red Raiders’ older players the wrong way. In his first season, the coach held grueling three-hour bowl practices, working his players hard.
“The older guys didn’t think too highly of that,” Peters said. “It’s supposed to be fun, but for us, it really wasn’t.”
Texas Tech lost to East Carolina in the Galleryfurniture.com Bowl, 40-27. Leach relented a bit the following fall, but his squad still dropped the Alamo Bowl to Iowa, 19-16.
In 2002, Leach found a mellow middle ground. A 55-15 throttling of Clemson in the Tangerine Bowl gave Tech its first nine-win season in seven years.
Leach was evolving as a head coach. The 2002 season was proof.
“The more you win, the more people are going to buy into it,” Williams said.
‘He’s just calling the plays’
Eric George was shredding the Texas A&M defense.
In most cases, that would have been cause for celebration. But for the walk-on wide receiver, there was reason for concern instead.
George was tasked with imitating Texas Tech receiver Robert Johnson on the Aggies’ scout team ahead of the 2006 rivalry matchup between the two Lone Star State foes. And surprisingly to him, he was doing well, finding holes and snagging passes. That didn’t bode well.
“I was like, ‘Oh, this is not going to be good,’” George said. “If someone who’s as slow and unathletic as me is doing it, then Robert Johnson — who’s like three inches taller and 40 pounds heavier — is just going to tear us up.”
Sure enough, Johnson did. The wideout caught three touchdown passes, including the game-winner with 26 seconds left, in a 31-27 Texas Tech win.
“No game against them was over until it was over,” said George, who now works alongside Leach as Mississippi State’s executive senior associate athletic director and chief financial officer. “They always found a way to march down the field.”
Leach never won fewer than seven games during his time in Lubbock. He won eight or more in every season after his first two and won nine games six times. His 11 wins in 2008 tied a program record, and he held a 7-3 mark against the rival Aggies.
The winning inspired a rabid football culture at Texas Tech.
Williams recalled seeing fans wrapped half a mile around Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock, waiting to get in for the Red Raiders’ historic win over No. 1 Texas in 2008. The former kicker said Leach fed into the football-crazy culture at the school, once buying pizza for students camping out for tickets.
As “quirky” as Leach could be, the Air Raid offense he still employs is a remarkably simple scheme. With a play sheet the size of an index card, Leach’s teams put up huge offensive numbers year after year.
George said it felt like Leach created a new quarterback to pass for 5,000 yards every year, and he’s not far off. Kliff Kingsbury hit the mark in 2002, B.J. Symons set a record in 2003 with 5,833 passing yards, and Graham Harrell had 5,705 yards in 2007 before going over 5,000 again the next year.
“It’s not something where he’s got one of these big menus,” George said of Leach. “He’s just calling the plays, and it works.”
The players who had held out at first grew to love Leach. Peters said winning changed his opinion of Leach, noting that his coach had his back on several internal issues. One-on-one conversations with Leach about discipline and why it was being enacted solidified things.
“You saw what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go, and you just realized that anything that was tough love was for the betterment of you,” Peters said.
‘The Curse of Leach’
But in late 2009, Tech decided Leach’s “tough love” had gone too far.
Leach reportedly directed wide receiver Adam James, who had suffered a concussion, to stand for hours in a darkened space in the team facility. Tech instructed Leach to apologize to James, but he did not, and the school suspended Leach on Dec. 28, 2009.
Two days later, Tech fired Leach — a day before the school was set to pay him $2.5 million.
Leach filed a lawsuit against Tech alleging wrongful termination and breach of contract, among other allegations, but his claims were eventually dismissed.
That doesn’t mean he’s forgotten.
“I’ve talked to him several times in the past six or seven months, and that’s one thing he’ll still bring up: ‘Hey, why don’t you tell your board of regents friend to pay me what they owe me?’” Peters said.
While the animosity between Leach and those who fired him still stands, there’s evidence of a détente — on the Red Raiders’ side, at least. Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt, who took over in Lubbock in 2011, praised Leach’s accomplishments during a Liberty Bowl press conference on Dec. 5.
“Coach Leach is the all-time winningest football coach at Texas Tech, and that’s special,” Hocutt said. “He is a great coach who I have a tremendous amount of respect for. Things happened at Texas Tech a long time ago.”
That success the Red Raiders once enjoyed is fleeting. Tech hasn’t won more than eight games since Leach was let go. It hasn’t even hit that mark since 2013, the last year it won a bowl game.
“We call it ‘The Curse of Leach,’” Peters said.
After two years away from the sidelines, Leach took over at Washington State, posting four winning seasons in eight years and leading the Cougars to 11 wins in 2018.
George said Leach’s ability to put together strong rosters at relatively small power-conference schools is notable. Tech always fell behind A&M and Texas in money and prestige; Washington State trailed teams like USC, Oregon and in-state rival Washington.
“You can’t help but have respect for what he’s done,” George said. “It wasn’t just a good couple of years at Tech and that was it. To recruit kids to Lubbock, Texas, is tough. To recruit kids to Pullman, Washington, is really tough.”
Realistically, recruiting to Starkville, Mississippi, is difficult, too. The Bulldogs traditionally haven’t had the firepower other SEC West teams — Alabama, Auburn, A&M and LSU — enjoy.
But Leach has beaten the latter three teams in his first two seasons at Mississippi State. He won a bowl game in 2020 and has his sights set on another, regardless of the opponent.
“No matter who we play, there’s a high level of urgency to try to win the game,” Leach said. “There’s no real room for an extra degree of stuff.”
Those words don’t mean Leach wouldn’t like to try to run up the score on his old team. Peters said that’s in his nature against anyone. Facing the Red Raiders is only fuel on the fire.
And given everything that happened more than a decade ago out in West Texas, how could Leach not be motivated to play Texas Tech for the first time?
“Great school,” Leach said. “I’ve got great memories there.”
Tuesday night’s result might just show if the good ones outweigh the bad.
If not, there might be another storm coming.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.