In his autobiography, the new Washington State football coach reveals the origins of the "Swing Your Sword" motto used to great effect by his teams at Texas Tech.
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from new Washington State coach Mike Leach’s autobiography, “Swing Your Sword: Leading the Charge in Football and Life,” published in July.
The title of Swing Your Sword emerged as the mantra of our program in the wake of a 2003 loss at Missouri. Their quarterback, Brad Smith, ran for almost 300 yards on us. Our team was really struggling. We had an overly aggressive offense and a timid defense, and it got to the point where they were starting to point fingers at one another. We were 5-3. We had just lost back-to-back games. The next day, I showed up at our team meeting with a sword. The blade was about 3 feet long, and really glistened when the light hit it.
I’m pretty sure the players had no clue what was about to happen.
I’d thought a lot about what I was going to say before I entered the room. I jotted down a bunch of ideas on a scrap of paper, the same as I normally did before meetings. It’s important for a team to be exposed to more than just football, and as I worked at it the pirates and the metaphor of the sword just sounded right.
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I took that sword and laid it across the podium. The players were mesmerized, wondering what was going to happen after such a brutal loss. I’ve read about 20 books on pirates (the best is probably “Under the Black Flag”). I told them how England had the best pirates because they were the most adept at seafaring, and about how pirates came from all nationalities. You had all of these people who were tired of living in Europe, so they banded together. One may have been an Arawak Indian. One may have been an escaped African slave. Another guy might’ve come from the Orient. One or two guys could’ve come from England, dishonorably discharged from the Navy. In polite society back then there really wasn’t diversity, but on pirate ships there was. All you had to be was a capable hand. Captains were voted into leadership. How is it that they were they so progressive in these ways? I imagine societal mores can go out the window pretty quickly when you’re fighting for your life.
There are a lot of misconceptions about pirates. Pirates varied from the soldier/sailor type hired by the Queen Elizabeth I of England to help wage war against Spain, to ruthless outlaws with no direction but their own. Some pirates were actually pretty organized businessmen. Bartholomew Roberts, for example, didn’t drink. He had a whole fleet of ships. He was a really efficient planner and organizer. Another pirate, Henry Morgan, eventually became the Governor of Jamaica. At some points in time it was illegal to be a pirate, but at other points it wasn’t. Sir Francis Drake was paid by the Elizabeth I to plunder and pillage the Spanish and bring as many riches back to England as his fleet could carry. If you were an Englishman during the sixteenth century, you pretty much had a green light to do anything you wanted to the Spanish.
I told the team how pirates had a workman’s comp deal, where if you lost your leg, you got a certain amount of additional treasure. Then, I told the team how similar football teams are to pirate crews, guys of all kinds of ethnicities coming from all corners of society, serving a gamut of roles onboard. I explained how the pirates viewed their swords the same way football players should view their bodies.
“They took great pride in their swords, sharpening them just like players do their bodies by lifting the weights and doing all of the drills we do,” I said.
The players said nothing.
I swung this long sword through the air in front of them.
“Your body is your sword. Are you going to swing your sword aggressively, but really out of control like you’re out there playing street ball?” I said as I began to haphazardly flail the sword around. “If you’re frantic, without being clear-minded, you put yourself into a vulnerable position. Are you going to duck your head and swing it timidly? Or are you going to have great technique and swing it without any hesitation?”
Some of ’em nodded their heads. Some laughed watching me flail around with the sword. Some couldn’t wait till I stopped talking just so they could come up and touch the sword. But the point was made. We were pirates, and the next time we went into battle, our swords would be ready. “Swing Your Sword” became a battle cry for us.
We won our next two games, then lost on a last-minute touchdown pass at No. 6 Texas. We finished the season beating Navy 38-14 in the Houston Bowl. I know the pirates speech was unconventional, but you can’t be insecure or let fear rule your life.
Football is obsessive. The game can lurk in the back of your mind and seem all-consuming, but it doesn’t hurt to freshen it up a bit. I try to make a point of knowing a little bit about everything. The author Michael Lewis once said to me — and I hadn’t given it much thought till he pointed it out — that I’m the most curious person he’s ever met. I try to absorb as much as I can because there’s so much out there besides football.
Of all the subjects I’ve studied over the years, the one people talk to me about the most is pirates. It’s crazy how big this thing became. I think every kid is interested in pirates. After that “Swing Your Sword” speech, the players passed it on and spoke about it to reporters. Michael Lewis wrote about it in The New York Times Magazine and started a legend around it. The pirate thing became fun for the fans. People started sending pirate stuff from all over the place. Pretty soon, pirate flags began popping up all over our stadium. I think it helped add personality to our program. There are those who think it was my idea to become the “Pirate Team.” It was really our fans’ doing as much as anyone’s, and the players liked the connection — a shared identity can be a powerful rallying call for any team.
“The players really got into the whole pirate thing. We were the ‘Pirate Team.’ I’ll never forget that day Coach Leach came into the meeting with that sword and started explaining how pirates lived. It was wild, but it made so much sense as he got into it. We took three things from that speech: Don’t hesitate. Be Smart. And be violent on the field. We were a young team and that pirate thing gave us an identity. We needed an attention-getter. We needed something to rally behind. That was it.
“Whenever people find out I played at Texas Tech, they ask how the pirate thing came about. When I explain it, they go, ‘You know that actually makes a lot of sense.’ But I know they think it sounds crazy at first.”
Antonio Huffman, Texas Tech cornerback, 2003-05