KEY WEST, Fla. — 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.
"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.
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"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. The former Kentucky assistant under Hal Mumme 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 said of his coaching prospects. "I just worry about what I can control."
So Leach, 50, is in Key West, the southernmost spot in the 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 said. "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 4 miles long and 2 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," said Mumme, the 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," said his friend Kyle Whittingham, the head coach at Utah. Leach is also one of the few football coaches who never actually played the game. He earned a law degree from Pepperdine and decided relatively late he'd prefer to coach.
"He'd be unusual in any sphere of life," said author Michael Lewis, who profiled Leach five years ago and has remained friends with him. "If he was a lawyer, he'd be an unusual lawyer. But as a football coach, he's a very unusual football coach."
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 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston.
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. 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," said 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.' "
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 players 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.
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 what 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.
Leach is convinced he's a better leader now than he ever was at Texas Tech.
"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 said. "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 might look like he's having fun on the outside, but all head coaches have egos," said 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."