Editor’s note: Mike Leach is the head football coach for Texas Tech University. This year, his players beat longtime rival University of Texas and suffered only one defeat. The team is headed to the Cotton Bowl to play the University of Mississippi on Jan. 2, 2009, the final game to be played at the historic Fair Park stadium in Dallas. The Cotton Bowl game will move to the new Dallas Cowboys stadium in Arlington in 2010. On Dec. 3, the Associated Press reported that Leach, who makes $1.75 million in his second-to-last year of a five-year contract, is negotiating a contract extension with Tech, amid reports that he met with University of Washington administrators about the head football coach job there. In a region dominated by iconic football rivals the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma, Leach and his team stand out as alternatives. “We aren’t exactly America’s team,” says Leach, who has a relaxed and mildly sarcastic manner. Leach, a speak-off-the-cuff, go-for-broke playmaker, stands as inspiration to every sports-star hopeful who took the bar exam — a rite of passage Leach avoided. He graduated in the top third of his class at Pepperdine University School of Law then, despite never having played college football himself, built a career as a football coach and earned national attention for his transformation of Texas Tech into a powerhouse and his coaching of successive superstar quarterbacks. In late November, the week before Texas Tech beat Baylor University, Texas Lawyer reporter Miriam Rozen spoke to Leach to ask him a few law-related questions that the sports pages overlook. The interview has been edited for length and style.
Texas Lawyer: When did it dawn on you that you were not going to use your law degree?
Mike Leach, head football coach, Texas Tech University: I think I use my law degree every day, and I really do, because a football game is a lot like preparing for a trial.
TL: When did you realize you were going to not pursue the law, even though you had gone to law school?
Leach: It wasn’t some earth-shattering moment. I had coached Little League baseball from the age of 15 through my sophomore year in college. I went to BYU [Brigham Young University], and I always planned to be an attorney, because I was a discusser, a talker and a debater. And I liked the idea of the law. I started law school. Then I realized life was going by pretty fast; I didn’t want to have any regrets. I was also broke and owed student loans, so I thought, “What’s the difference if I owe more?” I took out another loan to attend the U.S. Sports Academy [a training organization for coaching hopefuls] and part of that education process was an internship, where you learn the trade.
TL: Did you ever practice law?
Leach: I clerked during summers of law school at the Santa Monica Public Defender’s Office and with a solo practitioner in Los Angeles.
TL: Any other factors influence your decision to opt out of the law?
Leach: Yes, I wrote Gerry Spence a letter, saying, “Dear Gerry, You are the top of the field of what I would like to do. Do you love law, and if you had to do it over again, would you do it the same way? [Spence is a legendary trial lawyer who, like Leach, is a Wyoming native.]
TL: What did Spence answer?
Leach: He wrote, “Yes, yes, I am consumed by law.” He said that if you are not consumed by law, you shouldn’t go into the field.
TL: What about the law applies to football?
Leach: In both, you have never enough time. There is always more that you could feature, more that you could research. You have to pick out key things and the key things that are going to feature your side. Preparing for a game is very similar to trial planning. You review videos instead of books and then at the end of the week, instead of trial, there is a game.
TL: Has being trained as a lawyer helped you as a coach?
Leach: In order to be successful at law school, you have to be able to concentrate for a long period of time. That has helped me in coaching. A law degree is really a degree in problem-solving. As a head coach that is what you do all day: problem-solving. How do you approach something on the field? How do you motivate a kid to do better on the field? How do you motivate them to do better in school? There is a lot of problem-solving.
TL: Is coaching easier or harder than lawyering?
Leach: In coaching, you work every day of the week.
TL: Did you ever wonder what life would have been like had you become a practicing lawyer?
Leach: About seven years ago I talked to some of my friends from law school. They said, “I’m so jealous of you.” At the time, [before Leach began coaching at Texas Tech] my home was a two-bedroom apartment, and I was making between $33,000 and $48,000 a year. And they were talking about looking at possible condos to buy as tax shelters. I was envious of their need to look for tax shelters.
TL: Do you perform any lawyering now?
Leach: Occasionally a player gets into some kind of bind, and I have ideas but mostly I use it to get out of jury duty.
“Life After Law,” a series of profiles of law school graduates who have left the law to pursue a passion or try something new, appears periodically in Texas Lawyer.