Petersen is a coach on the straight and narrow and Leach is on the edge, talking about obscure topics — the yin and yang. But as disparate as they appear to be, each knows who they are.
By all indications, they amuse each other, in the way that polar opposites often do.
Mention Mike Leach’s name, and Chris Petersen almost instinctively starts giggling. Mention Petersen’s name, and Leach starts dryly wise-cracking – as is his habit on many topics – but with an undeniable tone of fondness.
“Like a lot of us, I grew up with my parents telling me, ‘Why can’t you be more like a guy like Chris Petersen?’ ’’ Leach said on Monday.
Who has the edge?
• Has a career coaching record of 117-25
• The fastest active FBS coach to reach 100 career victories, doing it in 117 games
• He is 6-3 in bowl games
• Was 92-12 in eight seasons at Boise State
• Has a career coaching record of 113-75
• Led team to bowl games in all 10 seasons at Texas Tech
• He is 6-5 in bowl games
• Has led WSU to two straight winning seasons after the program hadn’t had one since 2003
They seem fascinated by the qualities possessed by the other that elude them, at least to public perception. Those who know them will tell you that the stereotypes of Leach as the always-rumpled mad genius and Petersen as the always-cool straight arrow are far too constricting. Not necessarily inaccurate, mind you; they just don’t tell the whole story.
Asked during a recent conference call to contrast the personal styles of Petersen and Leach, Stanford coach David Shaw laughed and said, “We don’t have enough time on this call. They are very different guys. But the commonality, first and foremost, is that each knows exactly who they are. They’re both very, very smart; these are intellectual people who believe strongly in what they do and how to do it.
“That’s the similarity. You look at them and they look completely different, and they are completely different. But both of them have no misgivings about who they are, and no apologies about who they are.”
It was Leach himself, who long ago was tabbed “The Pirate” for his obsessive fascination with pirate history and culture, who came up with the perfect nickname for Petersen. During the summer, after hanging out with Petersen during Pac-12 media days and even attending the ESPY awards with his Husky cohort, Leach dubbed Petersen “The Bishop.”
The moniker apparently spread, approvingly, through the Pac-12 coaching community, and was received good-naturedly by Petersen. When I asked Leach about it this week, he was initially taken aback, not aware it had gone public. It apparently harkens back to Leach’s Mormon upbringing, where bishops hold a leadership position in the church.
“How did you get that?” he said, before elaborating: “He’s just a real clean-cut looking guy. He has a stately air. There’s several other guys in our conference of Mormon background, and we agree if there’s a bishop in the conference, it would be him.”
This week, both coaches having been getting a lot of mileage out of Petersen’s comment, in an ESPN video airing in October, that he would include Leach as one of three people he’d like to take on a long road trip. Leach selected, in typical eclectic fashion: Geronimo the Apache Warrior; Blackbeard the Pirate; and Winston Churchill. Actually, Leach fudged and chose four, starting out by saying, “God, yeah, no kidding.”
Both coaches got much merriment – and a welcome diversion from queries about game strategy, a topic they find as mutually distasteful as discussing injuries – out of elaborating on the imaginary scenario of a Leach/Petersen road trip.
“Well, we’re having a road trip. You have to have some fun, right?” Petersen said of his choice of Leach. “He’s really entertaining, there’s no doubt about it. I really like being around him because half the time, I don’t have a clue what he’s talking about, and the other half I think is really funny.”
Leach used the road-trip conceit as an opportunity to riff on the image of his somewhat stodgy would-be companion, Petersen.
“He’d do all the driving,’’ Leach mused. “Very reliable. Seems very responsible … I do think it’d be a fun road trip. He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s a fun guy to talk to.”
Why would Leach let Petersen do the driving? “One, I don’t get carsick. Two, I would be able to read and look out the window. Chris strikes me as a guy who wants to stay occupied and doesn’t mind having the wheel. I can occupy myself.
“If all of a sudden he got boring or something, I could entertain myself and wouldn’t have the responsibility of driving. I could look out the window, read a book, do Spanish on my phone. I could select the radio channels because he’d have his hands on the wheel. I could turn the button on the dial quicker than he could. I just see more benefits to that.
“Plus, he strikes me as a guy who’s really good with directions.”
Asked to comment on this mythical trip, an intrigued Shaw said, “I don’t know how it would go, but it would be great to have an open mic and preserve that long conversation for posterity.”
Cal coach Sonny Dykes, who spent several years on Leach’s staff at Texas Tech and also coached with him at Kentucky, eagerly volunteered to take the wheel.
“I would love to drive and have those two sit in the back and let me hang around,’’ Dykes said. “I’d drive and do the cooking and clean up and everything, just listening to them. The yin and yang. It would be a lot of fun.”
The Bishop and the Pirate. The yin and yang. In Chinese philosophy, the interaction of those disparate forces – dark and negative yin, positive and bright yang — is actually complimentary; indeed, it is deemed necessary to maintain the harmony of the universe.
The concept of harmony might seem antithetical right now, a few days before this fierce rivalry between Washington and Washington State has one of its most hotly contested iterations. Yet, these two coaches might be more of kindred spirits than meets the eye.
Listen to Dykes talk about Leach, and it could apply to Petersen as well: “The great thing about Mike is he’s authentic. He is who he is. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, because he’s managed to have success on his terms, the way he wants to do it, and ultimately, that’s true success. Do things the way you want to do them, and not worry about what anyone else says or thinks or believes.
“He’s had a great track record of doing that, and he hasn’t changed a bit. He’s always been the same. At the end of the day, I believe that’s why Mike has had the success he’s had.”
The disparity between Leach and Petersen, of course, comes in how their authenticity is manifested, and the contrast is vast, starting with their personal styles.
Leach is a fascinating figure, a coaching lifer who never played the game beyond high school, who graduated with honors from Pepperdine law school before abruptly changing professions, who loves to converse on topics ranging from painter Jackson Pollack to frontiersman Daniel Boone. The author Michael Lewis described Leach, memorably, as entering a locker room with “the quizzical air of a man who has successfully bushwhacked his way through the jungle but isn’t quite sure what country he has emerged into.”
Leach loves to expand on the minutiae of life, ranging from his favorite Halloween candy to the use of coffee to kill ants, mesmerizing reporters who are looking for offbeat angles; it’s when they pursue football angles that he often pushes back, sometimes grumpily.
“I just think he has such a unique perspective on so many things,’’ Petersen said. “On football, on life. It’s cool for the game to not have to sit up here and listen to guys like me that are probably all so similar talking about the next thing to take care of, the next part of business. You can tell he really wants to talk about a lot of stuff; the last thing maybe is football. That’s fun for a lot of people.”
Leach’s concept of offensive football, particularly with regards to spreading the field on offense via his patented “Air Raid” attack, has been close to revolutionary – and highly successful. He won consistently at Texas Tech, a place where success had been difficult to come by, and is doing the same in Pullman – but not without controversy. Leach lost his job in Lubbock over a player’s accusation of alleged mistreatment while suffering from a concussion. In 2012, his first year at Washington State, a Cougar player accused Leach and his staff of mistreatment, though he later recanted his use of the word “abuse.”
Petersen’s style is much more evenhanded than Leach, though co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said a hidden fire burns within him.
“He’s a very, very competitive individual,’’ Lake said. “I think from the outside, people may see low-key, maybe serious, disciplined – and some of those things are true. But he is an absolute competitor. … He’s not a big, gregarious personality, but he’s tough as nails.”
Petersen’s hallmark has been to try to focus on the total person and mold them his players in ways that transcend football. To use his parlance, he seeks “OKGs” (Our Kinda Guys) and immerses them in his “Built For Life” program.
“I’ve been on a lot of coaching staffs, and sometimes words just float out there and they don’t mean anything,’’ Lake said. “What Coach Petersen talks about, he’s all about. They’re not just words with him. It’s a daily battle to make sure the culture is the correct way for all of us.”
Says linebacker Keishawn Bierria, “He’s really trying to coach you up as a person and a man. He wants to make sure you’re an all-around good person, an OKG. He really sticks to that. If you’re not showing the kind of characteristics he wants, there’s consequences. He follows through on everything he says, too.”
Kicker Cameron Van Winkle said that Husky players feel empowered to seek advice on a wide variety of issues. “He’s a friend. If I have a question about life or anything, you can go up and talk to him. He’s going to always tell you the truth. He’s not going to lie to you, ever.”
The result, said wide receiver John Ross, is that Petersen “is more than just a football coach. He’s more like, you can almost say, a father figure, especially for some guys who don’t have fathers.”
The last time, perhaps, there was such a stark contrast between the Washington and Washington State coach was back in the days of Don James and Jim Walden. The strait-laced James once famously quipped during Apple Cup week that he was “a 2,000-word underdog” to the loquacious, folksy Walden.
It’s easy to imagine that those two would have had a “jolly old time,” to use Leach’s phrase, on a road trip, too. They had the same mutual respect and affection that appears to be cementing between Petersen and Leach.
And it appears that the Bishop and the Pirate, yin and yang, still have a long road ahead of them.