Mike Leach, as we’ve learned by now, is a man of eclectic interests, but also one of nearly obsessive passions. When the Washington State football coach wraps his mind around a topic that particularly fascinates him, he doesn’t let go.
One of those, famously (and bordering on stereotypically), is pirates. But Leach’s latest subject d’jour takes us off the high seas and into the violent Indian Wars of the Southwest. Specifically, Leach has latched onto Geronimo, the Apache warrior who long eluded the United States military.
In Geronimo, Leach sees a leader worth studying, and emulating. He and Buddy Levy, an English professor at Washington State, have authored “Geronimo: Leadership Strategies of an American Warrior” (Gallery Books).
It is an exhaustive examination of Geronimo’s life that includes, Leach says archly, “all the interesting stuff and none of the boring stuff.”
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And from Geronimo’s travails, which included the massacre of his wife, mother and three children, Leach has extracted lessons on matters such as discipline, fortitude, independence, passion, honor and the like.
“Our thing was to try to figure out what allowed the Apaches to accomplish all they did, what binding force,’’ Leach said. “They are a fascinating group that hung in there longer than any other tribe during the Indian Wars.”
Their idea was that Geronimo’s guiding principles can be applied to business, life, and maybe even football. For instance, do you think Leach might have had a particular team in mind when he wrote on page 74 about the rivalry of Geronimo and his longtime pursuer, Brigadier General George Crook, “What makes great rivals is when you are fully invested in defeating the other, and this includes a healthy dose of familiarity and respect.”
Leach began a lifelong fascination with Indians while growing up in Colorado and Wyoming. He has a distinct memory as a second-grader of checking out a book on Geronimo from a library in Golden, Colo., and hanging on every word as his mom read it to him.
“Since then, I’ve watched and read everything I could on Geronimo,’’ he said. “I thought I knew a lot, and it’s fair to say I did, but working on this book I learned a ton.”
Leach and Levy shared a literary agent, who tried to connect the two on a book project when Leach was between jobs. That never happened, but when Leach was hired by Washington State, one of his first visitors was Levy, and the Geronimo tome was hatched.
Levy, who had written a book on Davy Crockett that Leach admired, said Leach “surprised him again and again” with the breadth of his knowledge. The two plotted out much of the book during marathon conversations at the Café Moro coffee shop in Pullman during the Cougars’ offseason.
“When you’re in Leach’s world, you’ve got to be prepared to log some time,’’ Levy said. “He sort of has his own clock. When we met, I recorded our conversations. I let him go pretty far afield from Geronimo whenever he wanted. I just wanted to get a sense of how his mind worked.”
Unlike many celebrity authors, Leach actually rolled up his sleeves and put in the work.
“It was truly collaboration,’’ Levy said. “A lot of people assume when your co-author is a big-name guy, the other guy is doing most of the work. Leach was fully engaged and fully involved in the entire process.”
In Geronimo, they chose a subject who spent much of his life avenging the wrongs perpetrated on his people, and himself. In its obituary of Geronimo after his death in 1909, The New York Times wrote that “he gained a reputation for cruelty and cunning never surpassed by that of any other American Indian chief.”
But sensibilities have changed over the years, and Geronimo — at one time pursued by nearly a quarter of the army’s forces — is now regarded, as Lynch and Levy write, “a living example of greatness.” They add, “He possessed great integrity and commitment because of his pride in being an Apache.”
Yet the authors recognize that the full story of Geronimo is complex.
“He had killed people in cold blood, killed settlers. It’s complicated to revere a character in history that has done things we’d consider illegal, and murder,’’ Levy said. “But like Mike says, you can’t pull people out of their time. You have to look at what’s going on in their world.’’
That’s what Leach and his partner have done, admirably, in their book. And at some point next fall, Leach’s Cougar players will no doubt be regaled with some of the lessons of Geronimo’s life.
“I’m occasionally asked if I use and share what I learn when I’m coaching football,’’ Leach said. “I think anything you know or are conscious of, you do use it in your profession. Sometimes, it’s subconscious.”
Leach hopes the book has a “Lonesome Dove” quality, and said he believes it will appeal to even people who don’t have a specific interest in Geronimo. Yet.
“It has a journey, and one incredible thing after another happens to him,’’ Leach said. “And then we sliced and diced a lesson now and then.”
Said Levy: “Leach is known as a football coach, and there’s very little football in the book. But I think good readers figure out it can be about football. It’s really a reflection of how Mike Leach thinks about offense and defense, and responding to adversity.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry