Longhorns Face the Horror of Leach-less Tech

In search of …

Fozzy Whittaker
Fozzy Whittaker (Photo courtesy of Matt Hempel)

The windswept Panhandle stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable parody. My guide was Joe Conrad, a scruffy Brit who nattered on in a vaguely Polish accent as we drove into the Heart of Dryness. Our goal was to find the hiding place of the mysterious Mike Leach, once the unpredictable but always quotable Texas Tech football coach.

That was before he went down hard for allegedly confining broadcaster and former SMU hotshot ball carrier Craig James’ boy in a confined space while the football team practiced. Fired. Left to rot. Whereabouts unknown.

This year, good old boy Tommy Tuberville is at the helm as the Red Raiders host the Texas Longhorns in Lubbock on Saturday. There are many questions for both teams. Texas is desperately trying to piece together a running game with Fozzy “Bear” Whittaker set to be the third starting ball carrier in three games. Garrett Gilbert looked good but not dazzling against early season sacrificial lambs Rice and Wyoming. And is the Texas D really as good as its press clippings? On the other side of the field, Tech barely beat an SMU team that is far, far removed from James’ glory days and the brooding gloom of a scandal from which it shall never recover. Worse, the boys in black yielded an average of 380 total yards in their first two games, including 433 against lowly New Mexico. But they’re still somewhat pass-happy. Taylor Potts has thrown for 652 yards and six touchdowns.

Tuberville says Tech longs for a defense as much as Mack Brown aches for a Longhorn running game. Both are works in progress, with the Red Raiders claiming nine quarterback sacks and Gilbert untouched in just as many games. Through it all, my heart beats to the drum of Leach.

“Leach – that means muddy stream in Middle English, don’t it?” Conrad offered. I resented bitterly the absurd danger of our situation. Leach was known to be unpredictable, and when Conrad veered right past Lubbock and on toward Amarillo, I knew our chances of finding the fallen leader were dimming. Paths, paths everywhere; the highways were a stamped-in network of paths spreading over the empty, flat land. I reached for the ChapStick and pondered it all.

I dozed off and awoke to Conrad pulling into a field where a row of sideways Cadillacs were imbedded in the earth head-first at a slight tilt. “Cadillac Ranch,” he said and spread his hand across the vista as if presenting one of his fusty English castles. “No time for sightseeing,” I muttered, but Conrad pointed beyond the cars and the people I took for Yankee tourists toward an immense tent. On its side was spray painted but one word: Leach.

I had so many questions welling within me. But how does one knock on a tent? Instead I called out his name. There was movement inside. A young woman dressed as a pirate emerged and smiled. “Ask him your questions from here,” she said. “His words are wise.” So I spoke into the darkness of the distance past – 2008, of the Longhorns' last trip to Lubbock, of the sure pass interception that tumbled from Blake Gideon’s hands, how it would have ended everything then and there, of the glorious ball that Michael Crabtree yanked from the sky to defeat the Horns.

From the shadows within only silence. Then, as if the turning of a switch, Leach spoke. “These lies have led to my firing. I steadfastly refuse to deal in any lies and am disappointed that I have not been afforded the opportunity for the truth to be known.”* I asked him what the truth was. Was Tuberville’s team capable of beating the Longhorns? “It's a little like breakfast; you eat ham and eggs,” he said. “As coaches and players, we’re like the ham. You see, the chicken’s involved, but the pig’s committed. We’re like the pig; they’re like the chicken. They’re involved, but everything we have rides on this.”

I shook my head and tried to soak in his ramblings. With both the Longhorns and Red Raiders scaling back their playbooks in early games lest they tip their hands, do we have any insight into who these teams really are? “It's kind of like doing surgery with a chainsaw instead of a scalpel,” Leach said. “We had pieces and parts flying everywhere. It turned out in our favor. We’ve just got to clean it up the next time around.”

I was clearly dealing with the ravings of a madman, but I couldn’t help believe he knew something. Will Texas throw more this time, especially with the breakout performance of freshman receiver Mike Davis, who had seven catches for 104 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown, against Wyoming? Will former QB John Chiles line up in the Texas backfield? “The ninja formation is still lurking around back there, and I would expect to see it sometime in the future,” he said. “I can’t tell you exactly when, because that is strictly classified.”

I wanted to know if the Longhorns had the inside scoop on Tuberville’s game plan. After all, UT defensive coordinator Will Muschamp worked for Tuberville at Auburn. Or perhaps Tech had the inside scoop since their defensive coordinator James Willis coached at Alabama against Texas in last year’s title game. “Everybody’s all surprised every time this stuff happens,” Leach said. “It surprises me everybody gets surprised, because it happens every year like this that there are surprises. The most surprising thing would be if there weren’t any surprises. So therefore, in the final analysis, none of it’s really that surprising.”

I wanted to scream at him that Texas has had no sacks, no turnovers of any sort so far, that Tech’s defense looks like a house of cards, that Gilbert’s arm is an untested cannon. That Texas played lousy in the first quarter. That Tech fans have lots and lots of tortillas to toss on the field! Instead I burst into the room to confront him and saw sitting on the floor an old-fashioned cassette tape player. No Leach. On the bed was a note scrawled on parchment paper in what resembled blood: 35-28. The final score. But who would win? I tried to find the pirate girl for answers, but she had vanished into a Panhandle dust storm. Leach’s voice came out of the tape player one last time and said: “Like everybody, you go out there and it’s first down. And you say: ‘Get 10. Get 10. Yes!’ If you get two, you say, ‘Get eight, get eight, get eight.’ Then you get another first down, and then you score some points. Defensively, you try to stop them.”

I knew then and there that an era had ended. Tuberville could not, would not follow this strange path into insanity. Then out of nowhere, Conrad produced a newspaper clipping that said Leach had just been in Dallas to do CBS color commentary for the SMU-Washington State game. The horror! The horror!

(*Editor’s note: These are all actual Mike Leach quotes.)

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fozzy whittaker, mike leach

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