Air Apparent?

After three years of Tuna, it's time for a Leach

For enduring this hell on earth, dedicated soldiers of God are rumored to be rewarded with the splendors of heaven. Eternal life. Vanishing love handles. Endless plasma TVs. Angels with big wings and bigger breasts pouring free beer into the biggest mugs.

And for suffering this painfully unsuccessful era, devoted Cowboys fans should be similarly compensated with a utopian coach. One who doesn't believe the blueprint for winning 21st-century NFL games was perfected before the dawn of the face mask. Who isn't grumpy with his media, dismissive of his stockholders and alternatingly gloomy/glaring at his players. Who absolutely refuses to cherish controlling the clock over scoring points.

Whose name isn't Bill Parcells but Mike Leach.

Parcells will likely ascend from his bunker this week and announce he's coming back in 2006. Crappy New Year! We'll be stuck with a 64-year-old who isn't sure he wants to coach but is damn convinced he's flawless despite a three-year record of 25-24, zero playoff wins and 1,072 stubborn decisions. (His latest, greatest eff-up was, in a totally meaningless season finale last Sunday against the Rams, giving zero playing time to backup quarterbacks Tony Romo and Drew Henson.)

Said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones after Dallas' disappointing season, "He's done a great job."

No he hasn't. But Mike Leach has.

Without ego, conformity or blue-chip recruits, Leach has worked the miracle of Texas Tech playing with the big boys. He doesn't have an All-Conference quarterback but manages to lead the nation in passing. He orders receivers to run in sand and catch tennis balls and constructs a game plan of eight scribbles on a crumpled piece of paper in his back pocket. And, perhaps most impressive, he has the good folks of Lubbock convinced they're pirates.

"We're not here because of our talent. We're here because of our coach," said Tech fan Keith Boatright of Rowlett before the Cotton Bowl. "He talks about pirates and passing, and he's a little out there. But he's put us on the football map in a big way."

Leach's 18th-ranked Red Raiders lost the Cotton Bowl to Alabama on a last-second fluke field goal. On a sun-drenched day that made the old stadium feel more adequate than antiquated, Bama's speedy No. 2-ranked defense played better than Tech's frenetic No. 2-ranked offense.

Fast 13, Furious 10.

Leach's comical, candid assessment: "We've got a receiver here. They've got a defender there. Behind them is a lot of green grass. If our receiver could've whipped the defender's ass and we could get him the ball, we had the opportunity to make a lot of yards. Obviously that didn't turn out to be the case very often."

Judge Leach not on his last four quarters but his last four years.

In a mundane, mainstream world zombied by remakes and suck-ass sequels, the 44-year-old Leach is an original, waaay Off-Broadway act. A perfect blend of genius and goofball, he never played a down of football, went to college to be a lawyer and has on his coaching résumé a stint in Finland. He is, in fact, part Don Nelson (disheveled appearance and all the intensity of a guy wasting time at the mall while his wife power-shops) and part Mark Cuban (unorthodox, un-politically correct and relentless in the pursuit of perfecting his trade).

Leach is eccentric but not egotistical. He'll walk into Donald Trump's New York office unannounced but turn down invitations to traditional coaching camps. He doesn't like golf, coach-speak or traditional pep talks. The day after a loss to Texas A&M last year, he lectured his team for three hours on...pirates.

"I don't know, I guess their teamwork has always interested me," said Leach, who has also devoted off-seasons to studying Geronimo, Jackson Pollock and whales.

Like him or not, there's no denying Leach does more with less.

Some coaches born on third base act as though they've just hit a home run. And then there's Leach, who quietly takes players nobody wanted, implements a system no one understands and produces results none can argue against, competing for Big 12 championships and winning bowl games with the likes of Kliff Kingsbury, B.J. Symons, Sonny Cumbie and Cody Hodges.

While Texas wins with highly coveted recruits that evolve into NFL stars, Tech wins with junk-heap walk-ons that evolve into Sack 'n Save managers.

What Leach does is only trumped by how he does it.

His offensive line splits are three times wider than most teams. He goes for it on fourth down when the precious percentages say otherwise. He called a pass in the Cotton Bowl from his own 1-inch line. He despises hand-offs (because two players occupying the same spot on the field are easy to cover), has no use for fullbacks (sorry, Lousaka Polite) and, cover your eyes, Pop Warner, Leach's quarterback doesn't even hold the ball by the laces.

After three long years of Parcells' pessimism, always plotting game plans designed to minimize the possibility of something bad happening, wouldn't it be refreshing to have Leach call plays based on optimism? Parcells' favorite stat: Having the most running plays. Leach's only stat: Having the most points.

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