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Spokane County official celebrates his travels with Mike Leach

Leach.Baumgartner in Cambodia
Courtesy Michael Baumgartner/Twitter
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Mike Leach and Michael Baumgartner visited Cambodia while then-Senator Baumgartner was on a trade mission to Asia.

Treasurer Michael Baumgartner and the former Washington State University football coach did some serious globetrotting during the last several years.

Tributes have been pouring in for Mike Leach, the former Washington State University football coach who passed away on Monday night.

The tributes come from people in the sporting world, but also from a traveling buddy in Spokane: former state Senator and current Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner.

Twitter screenshot of Baumgartner photos with Leach
Screenshot from Twitter
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Baumgartner began posting some of his photos with Mike Leach after the confirmation of Leach's death on Monday evening.

On his Twitter account, Baumgartner has posted pictures of himself with the coach in locales all over the world.

Michael Baumgartner: “You know, Mike and I had become good friends and thought about traveling together. In 2018, when I was still in the Washington state Senate, I was part of a trade delegation that was going to meet the prime minister of Cambodia and then stop and have some diplomatic discussions in Taiwan and asked Mike if he would like to join us. He jumped at the opportunity and we had a great time out there. He was fun to travel with. You know, Mike is very intellectually curious, but he wasn’t curious about everything. I remember when we were in, after we had met the prime minister and done some of the high level meetings, we went to Angkor Wat to see the temple complex. That’s kind of the famous thing in Cambodia. But right after that, we went to a local village and I remember Mike spent about an hour asking some of the local villagers about how they did their laundry and almost no time asking questions about the temple complex at Angkor Wat. You never quite knew what he would be interested in. So that was one of our first trips. Then, after that we went to Israel and Palestine and Istanbul and Jordan and then we went to Dubai and on safari in Tanzania and then, last year, he came with me to Panama and Colombia. We were checking out some pirate ships and pirate forts.”

Baumgartner.Leach.Panama.jpg
Courtesy of Michael Baumgartner/Twitter
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Baumgartner and Leach (third and fourth from the left) pose for a photo in Panama last year with two travel companions.

That’s how many fans remember Mike Leach, for his love of pirates, his independent streak and irreverence, and for his press conferences that often veered away from football into the strangest topics.

Michael Baumgartner: “I think a lot of people see the clips and the funniness and think that he’s kind of a goofy guy and he’s really not goofy at all. He’s kind of a hardass old cowboy from Cody, Wyoming. Both of our fathers are foresters and so we had a lot of bonding over dads and, obviously, him growing up in Cody and me growing up in eastern Washington, there’s sort of that rural inland American West kind of character. We both like conservative politics and would talk about that. But he’s just a genuine guy. Neither of us like phony people and he would kind of sniff through that and also, we kind of bonded a little bit over some anti-elitist or anti-establishment streaks. I don’t if you recall when I got involved in, there was a Samoan football player that was being unfairly treated by a student conduct board at WSU. When I was in the middle of that, helping that young man who was only a credit short of getting his degree, when he had originally gotten kicked out of school from WSU before he got put in, I announced that I was going to hire him in my Senate office so anytime WSU came in and asked for money that they were going to deal with that particular student and Mike just loved that. I think he just loved it, the anti-establishment of sticking it to the establishment. One of the things I don’t think a lot of people know about Mike is he had really interesting politics and maybe running for office someday. We would talk about that a lot. Another thing I really liked about Mike was he was interested in all people. A lot of people talk about freedom of speech. More and more in America, people only really want to talk to people who have their political point of views and that’s what they want to listen to. But Mike was one of these genuine people that it did not matter. He wanted to listen to the other side, whether it was former players or coaches. We had a kind of a well-known player, a very intellectual player he had in Gabe Marks, we both really liked and got to know. Gabe had lost his father who had been shot and killed in some gang-related violence at a young age. Mike, in some sense, it was my view, that Mike kind of became a father figure to Gabe, and I remember Gabe at one point was interested, he went on to get a master’s degree, but, at one point, he was interested in becoming a police officer in Los Angeles and so Mike and I both wrote letters of recommendation for him. Gabe’s politics were not Mike and I’s politics. He was more on the socialist Left, but Mike loved having those conversations with him and different people and that’s become awfully rare. So, just really intellectually curious and a genuine soul and not a warm and cuddly person in a lot of things, but a very genuine and very good person.”

After eight seasons and six post-season bowl games, Leach’s attention turned to other jobs. Eventually, he accepted an offer to coach at Mississippi State in the vaunted Southeastern Conference.

Baumgartner.Leach.Miss. St.jpg
Courtesy Michael Baumgartner/Twitter
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Even though Leach moved on to coach Mississippi State's football team in early 2020, the two maintained their friendship.

Michael Baumgartner: “Obviously, as a loyal WSU fan, I wanted him to stay. He really liked Pullman and liked WSU. I think Mike, just his personality, he just wanted a new adventure. I remember when we were in Taiwan. We went to the museum in Taiwan. When Chiang Kai-Shek, the Chinese nationalists lost their civil war and went to Taiwan, they took all the best stuff from the Chinese museums over to Taiwan with them. You go to this museum in Taiwan and it’s got daggers from the Ottoman Empire that they gave the Chinese emperor, just a fantastic museum. But still, it was just a big, giant, huge museum and I remember enjoying it for about an hour or an hour-and-a-half. Mike had to see everything in the museum, even if he wasn’t enjoying it. He had this almost psychological desire, he had to just see everything. Even when we talk about traveling, I’ve been to 90-some countries, but a lot of them I’ve been to more than one time. Mike kind of thought why would you go back to the same place twice? There are all these other things to see. Really, him leaving WSU was just his sense of where he was in his coaching clock and really about having a new adventure.”

Professor Leach.jpg
Courtesy of Michael Baumgartner/Twitter
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"Professor" Mike Leach teaching his college class that compared football and military strategies.

Leach’s move to Mississippi didn’t change his friendship with Baumgartner. They continued to travel and teach a college course together. The two had combined to create a class that combined military thinking with football strategy. They taught it at WSU and later at MSU in Starkville.

Michael Baumgartner: “Before I got into politics, I was in Iraq and Afghanistan with the State Department. I was not in the military, but I used to spend a lot of time in the counterinsurgency around General David Petraeus, who was an extremely talented four-star general and I would spend a lot of time with other extreme talented generals and, of course, we were trying to suppress an insurgency. Mike was very talented, but he was not like those guys and it dawned upon me that David Petraeus was much more like Nick Saban. How do you win when you have all the advantages, when you have the star players? Mike was very much more like Ho Chi Minh or Lawrence of Arabia or Mao. How do you win when you’re the underdog? How do you create an asymmetric advantage and fight unconventionally? To me, he was very much an insurgent. He did that through his “Air Raid,” how he specialized, how he gave more control to his quarterbacks and how he stretched the field and just thought unconventionally. Truly a unique individual and a great friend. We would text almost every day, almost never about football, usually about politics or travel. The most recent interaction I had with him, we were talking about this year either going to Brazil or Uzbekistan, but Mike didn’t like the desert. He would tell me, ‘why do we keep going to the desert?’ So I think he was a fan of trying to figure out a trip to Brazil.”

Baumgartner.Leach.courthouse.jpg
Courtesy of Michael Baumgartner/Twitter
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Baumgartner and Leach in front of the Spokane County Courthouse, which houses the county treasurer's office.

On Sunday, after the news broke about Leach’s medical emergency, Baumgartner was trying to figure out what was going on.

Michael Baumgartner: “Well, it was awful. And then, of course, the close friends I have with Mike, we didn’t know what was going on. You read that original release and what does this actually mean. When I got really worried I texted his wife and his son and I didn’t hear back and that’s when I knew it was something really bad. And then, of course, all these stories come out and we’ve all had friends that have died and death’s always kind of a surreal thing, I guess, unless you’re a priest or a doctor, to have it kind of play out in public and not know what’s going on and have all this stuff on Twitter, it’s certainly been an emotional rollercoaster.”

Michael Baumgartner is the Spokane County treasurer and friend of Mike Leach. You can see the pictures of him and Leach on his Twitter feed.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.