12-Pac: Cap'n Leach Sails West?

Mike Leach

Mike Leach's track record, presence make him an attractive candidate for Pac-12 schools that could change coaches after 2011 season, notably UCLA.

Before Johnny Depp was stumbling around as a drunk Keith Richards look-a-like, the last successful Hollywood film about pirates was "The Crimson Pirate" in 1952, starring Burt Lancaster.

"Pirates of the Caribbean," the first adventure of Captain Jack Sparrow was a $150-million gamble that paid off with more than $3.5 billion in box office grosses worldwide, countless more millions in merchandising, home video and other revenue streams and solidified the idiosyncratic Depp as a bona-fide movie star.

Since it feels like UCLA hasn't been relevant in nearly six decades watching Rick Neuheisel's teams stumble around, the Bruins would be well served to gamble on another offbeat captain.

Mike Leach.

He loves pirates and Geronimo and Jackson Pollack, graduated from law school and has been the subject of a "60 Minutes" feature. He is fascinating and unconventional.

Leach is also a football genius. His version of the Air Raid offense, developed while working under Hal Mumme as offensive coordinator at Valdosta State and Kentucky, turned Texas Tech into a high-powered attack and vaulted the Red Raiders into the national consciousness. By relying on the passing game principles of the West Coast offense, combining them with the shotgun and spreading out the field with multiple receivers, Leach made stars out of a series of unheralded quarterbacks. Wes Welker developed into the prototypical NFL slot receiver in Leach's system, Michael Crabtree into a first-round pick and two-time Biletnikoff Award winner.

Cal fans still curl up into the fetal position remembering how quarterback Sonny Cumbie shredded the Golden Bears for 520 yards in the 2004 Holiday Bowl.

And Leach did all this largely without being able to bring top-tier talent from the state of Texas to Lubbock.

Imagine what he could do with the elite recruits in Southern California at his disposal, having Matt Barkley throwing to Kenny Stills and Robert Woods, Chris Polk lined up in the backfield to run those quick hitters and screens to keep the opposition off balance.

That's not just a team capable of winning the Pac-12 every year, but a viable BCS title contender.

It's the kind of team UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero thought he was getting when he brought Neuheisel into the fold in December 2007 as head coach, the returning prodigal son with many of the same attributes as Leach, notably an offensive pedigree and way with the media.

But it hasn't worked out with Neuheisel, a 15-22 overall record and failure to crack the top half of the conference standings in any of his three seasons. The Bruins have been downright embarrassing on offense, their leader usually seen on television during games berating his quarterback.

Neuheisel hasn't been able to turn the tide against cross-town rival USC, on the field or in recruiting. Outscored by the Trojans, 84-28, in three losses, the few head-to-head wins on Signing Day have yet to deliver on Saturday.

Can Neuheisel turn it around and stay at his alma mater? It's possible, but nothing in his track record in terms of program building indicates that will be likely.

However, the pieces for an immediate and major turnaround in 2012 are there, with plenty returning on defense and most notably touted quarterback Brett Hundley.

The Pac-12 is a quarterback league, always has been and always will be. It's no coincidence that the last time UCLA was relevant on the national stage it had Cade McNown under center. It's no coincidence that the struggles of Neuheisel and his predecessor Karl Dorrell coincided with a horrendous run of play at quarterback.

Give Leach a talent like Hundley and that will be remedied immediately. Look at the seam succession from Kliff Kingsbury to B.J. Symons to Cumbie to Cody Hodges, each more prolific than the last. Think that can't be duplicated again?

The Air Raid also holds a fascination with the elite receivers Neuheisel has been unsuccessful in luring to Westwood. Four-star receiver recruits Jordan Payton and Darreus Rogers have expressed interest in SMU and Hawaii solely because of the pass-happy approach each school employs.

Leach can also capture the imagination of Los Angeles with his quirky personality. Think Phil Jackson with a sword, Pete Carroll with an eye patch. Imagine the interplay between him and prickly Los Angeles Times Page 2 columnist T.J. Simers.

Earning his J.D. from Pepperdine in nearby Malibu, Calif., Leach has a clear desire to return to the West Coast, thus his interest in the opening at Washington that eventually went to Steve Sarkisian.

Heck, cash-strapped UCLA could probably get Leach at a discount if he wants to get back into big-time coaching.

It all makes sense, unless someone beats the Bruins to the punch. Washington State and Arizona State also have coaches on the hot seat and factors that would make Leach attractive to the schools and vice versa.

The Cougars have a solid quarterback in Jeff Tuel, an emerging star in wide receiver Marquess Wilson and a history of aerial fireworks. In the same division with cash-flush and trendy Oregon, Andrew Luck-led Stanford and resurgent Washington, Washington State will need to rely on superior coaching to be relevant and Leach would certainly qualify.

Perfectly situated between California and Texas with a rapidly improving talent base at home, the Sun Devils are the unpolished gem in the Pac-12 and perhaps nationally.

Even Arizona could be in the market for a new coach, with Mike Stoops coming off five straight losses to end last season and top-10 caliber teams Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon and USC on the docket early in 2011.

Each school would be well served by bringing Leach into the fold. Sure, he left Texas Tech on bad terms, bristles with superiors and has a mouth that can get him in trouble, but should that keep him from landing another job? No way.

Gambling on Leach could pay off not at the box office, but in BCS bowls. It's a gamble worth taking, savvy?

In "12-Pac," SCPlaybook's Dan Greenspan will examine the top storylines across the conference entering the 2011 season. Follow him on Twitter at @DanGreenspan.

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