Mike Leach's offbeat personality showed in 2 years at UK

The first time the football beat writer for the local paper (me) talked to the new wide receivers coach (Mike Leach) of the local college team, they did not talk about football.

We talked about Waffle House.

Leach claimed that Waffle House was the world's greatest restaurant for two significant reasons.

"No matter where you are, or what time of the day or night you go there," he argued, "you can always find sweet ice tea and a jukebox at a Waffle House."

Case closed.

That was 1997, when the Pepperdine law school graduate, then 36 years old, came to Lexington from Valdosta State as part of Hal Mumme's first UK staff.

A dozen years later, with his unbeaten Texas Tech Raiders ranked No. 2 in the country after wins over Texas and Oklahoma State, Mike Leach is the hottest coach in the country.

Case closed.

Did those who knew him during his two seasons at UK see it coming?

"I got to be honest," Jim Madaleno said, "no, I really didn't."

Madaleno is UK's athletics trainer for football. But before that, he was on the search committee at Valdosta State when the school hired Mumme e_SEmD and assistant Leach e_SEmD from Iowa Wesleyan. When Mumme e_SEmD and Leach e_SEmD left for Lexington, Madaleno followed shortly thereafter. He has been here since.

"Don't get me wrong, I didn't think he'd fail," Madaleno said on Tuesday. "But in this business, you've really got to be connected, I thought. And Mike didn't have any interest in that."

"Most of my memories involve him telling jokes," said Dusty Bonner, the former UK quarterback and Valdosta, Ga., native who played for the Cats when Leach was offensive coordinator. "I remember guys being circled up around him, and he was just hilarious. He was so incredibly smart and incredibly smart in football."

But Leach had interests beyond football, some would say off-the-wall interests. Or maybe on-the-wall interests. Here, his prized possession was a huge picture of Geronimo, the Native American warrior of the Chiricahua Apaches. If you went into Leach's office at Commonwealth Stadium and happened to inquire about the picture, you received a history lesson.

"He would always enjoy talking intellectually about non-football things," Madaleno said. "I know the players always liked going into his office because it wasn't about football, or Xs and Os, it was about life."

Each off-season, Leach tries to educate himself on a historical subject he knows little about. One year it was Winston Churchill. Another year it was the Civil War. He has an enduring fascination with pirates, knowledge of which he often draws upon when talking with his team. In fact, Mumme told CBS SportsLine's Dennis Dodd that when he and Leach were at Iowa Wesleyan, "We always found an excuse to go recruit in Florida so we could go down to Key West. The whole pirate thing."

"I think off-beat would be the best way to describe Mike," Madaleno said. "At Valdosta, he drove a big old Cadillac. But he used to ride a bike to practice so his wife and kids could have the car."

Leach departed UK after the 1999 Outback Bowl to be offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, then secured the head coaching job at Texas Tech the following year. The pass-happy Red Raiders have been to eight straight bowls under Leach. They could be in the biggest bowl of all, the BCS title game, come January.

"He never played college football, but the players really relate to him because he's just kind of an easy guy to get along with," Bonner said. "And he has a unique way of calling people out when they mess up, where they don't take it personally."

"Sometimes you'd be dumbfounded (with everything he knew)," Madaleno said. "Here's a football coach e_SEmD not that football coaches aren't supposed to know that e_SEmD but they're 24-7 football."

And yet Leach knows more than enough football that there is rampant speculation concerning a certain job opening at Tennessee.

Who knows if such a new challenge interests the coach who follows the beat of his own drummer.

But one thing's for sure.

Knoxville better have a Waffle House.