Mike Leach got his start in coaching by working with Little Leaguers in Cody.
Without his summer baseball tutoring, the man leading Washington State’s football team into a bowl game Saturday said he might never have become a coach at all.
Little League, Babe Ruth League, that’s where Leach learned the fundamentals and started his coaching files, doing teenaged summer jobs when he was at Cody High in the late 1970s.
When Leach’s coaching stops are listed no one mentions him tutoring 10 year olds trying to field ground balls. The focus is more on his becoming offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, his head coaching at Texas Tech and his Cougar resurrection this season.
Baseball, much like Cody, has receded in his rear-view mirror, except for fond memories.
Although Leach said he has not visited Cody for five years, he sounded a bit homesick during a recent conversation, reminiscing about Old Trail Town, Buffalo Bill Cody and his varsity days for the Broncs.
Leach, 54, graduated from Cody High in 1979 as a member of a state championship football team. He was a track man who ran everything from the 100 to the 880 (all events being measured in yards back then), and a long jumper and pole vaulter.
“I could do a lot of things sort of well,” Leach said of his track and field days.
Leach said he wasn’t particularly good in football, though his sophomore year the Broncs won a 41-40 triple-overtime state championship game over Laramie, and he also competed in wrestling and swimming.
“Cody’s a great place,” Leach said.
Leach was born in Susanville, Calif., and through family moves lived in Virginia, Fort Collins, Colo., and in Saratoga and Sheridan before spending sixth grade through high school in Cody. He went to college at Brigham Young.
“The biggest thing about Wyoming is you knew you were in a special place,” Leach said. “You realize it more when you leave the state.”
If Leach does not think of his younger self as an especially good football player, he has definitely matured into a good football coach with a lifetime win-loss record of 33 games over .500 and 10 bowl appearances.
This year’s might be the most unlikely.
Leach was named the Pac-12 coach of the year for leading the Cougars to an 8-4 regular season record. Pre-season prognosticators surveyed the roster in Pullman, Wash., and didn’t see much good coming out of it.
“They felt we were going to win two games,” Leach said. “We have a chance to win nine. We were double-digit underdogs a lot.”
One of Washington State’s victims this season was Wyoming. But the Cougars also up-ended Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA. They came within two points of 11-2 Stanford, a top-10 team.
“We’re a team of freshmen and sophomores,” Leach said. “We’re probably the youngest team in America. We had stage fright early. As we settled down we got better and better and better.”
Washington State meets Miami in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday. The Hurricanes, also 8-4, have won four of their last five.
In this era of constantly shuffling names and places for bowls, WSU is playing in a stable game with considerable history and tradition. The Sun Bowl goes back to 1935 in the same city.
“The Sun Bowl is easy,” Leach said. “I know where the Sun Bowl is.”
He knows where Cody is too, and has a lot of respect for people and athletes from Wyoming because of his background and because it is a state where not everything comes easy.
“Some of the toughest people in the world live in Wyoming,” Leach said. “The world did not stop in Cody, Wyoming when it was below zero. Ranchers go to work every day. I think that rubs off on people’s work ethic. People who operate in tougher weather are tough people.”
Leach said he doesn’t get back to town often enough, but he always has a good time when he does. The Silver Dollar beckons and so do voices from the past.
“Every time I’m there, I see friends,” he said.