I first learned about Mike Leach when my beloved Ole Miss Rebels beat his Texas Tech team in the 2008 Cotton Bowl. Leading up to the game, there was a lot of chatter about how great Leach’s offensive schemes were. His quarterbacks broke records every season, and that year, he’d coached lowly Texas Tech to an 11-1 record. He was always described with words like “genius” and “eccentric.” I got pretty fed up with the hype, and I was, of course, thrilled when Ole Miss dominated Tech in the bowl game.
A few years later, when Ole Miss was undergoing a coaching change, Leach’s name popped up for the job. Again, there was a lot of genius talk, and again, I got a little tired of the accolades given to a coach who, to my mind, hadn’t really accomplished all that much. Leach didn’t get the job, and I moved on.
I finally caved in and read Swing Your Sword because I heard it was co-written by Bruce Feldman, one of my favorite football writers. I didn’t expect to particularly enjoy the book, and at least part of my interest in it was a sort of morbid curiosity over the strange circumstances that surrounded Leach’s departure from Texas Tech. What I found was a thoughtful meditation on leadership and on how to lead a productive, fulfilling life.
Swing Your Sword alternates between three tracks. First, it tells Leach’s life story, focusing mostly on his coaching career. Second, it offers advice for coaches. The third part of it is less concrete, a little more free-form. Woven through the book are Leach’s rambling, free-association thoughts on everything from literature to law school to Hollywood.
Leach is a guy who has dipped his toe in many waters, but what I really loved about his book is the focus on being consumed by the things you care about. Leach became a coach after he’d already finished law school because it was what he was passionate about. He spent years scrapping by before he found success, but he stuck with what he cared about, with what consumed him.
Increasingly, there is a view in America that outcome outweighs process. There is real pressure from politicians to nix academic programs that don’t have immediate, monetary outcomes. The arts get slashed. Liberal arts tracks don’t fare much better. These programs are viewed as non-essential because they don’t always lead directly into A Career. Leach’s book never directly addresses any of this, but the core idea – that passionate pursuit outweighs instant gratification – is more necessary now than ever.
Leach is a football coach, but he just as easily could have been a poet or a painter or a historian. He embraced the thing that consumed him because he made a conscious choice not to focus on big-scale gratification. He wasn’t worried about the things he could get if he practiced law. He was worried about how to be better at the thing that consumed him. That pursuit shaped him into a better man, and when he eventually did find success, he was able to accept it humbly.
The nuts and bolts of Leach’s life story are interesting, and he has insightful thoughts on methods of coaching, but the third track the book takes is the most vital, the most alive. It is that track that reveals a man enthralled by something he cares deeply for. We’d all do well to invest our lives with that level of passion.
Pages: 272 FOA: 27,014