When Mike Leach, coach of WSU’s football team, was a boy, he was in thrall with the story of Geronimo, a warrior who led a small group of Chiricahua Apache in defending tribal lands from invasion by Mexican and American settlers. A reader from an early age, Leach discovered the story at a public library in Cody, Wyoming.
“There was this book on Geronimo, the biggest book there. My mom said, ‘Maybe we should get a smaller book, maybe a book with pictures,’” says Leach. “It had footnotes, bibliography, and everything. It’s not something that belongs with a second-grader. But like a trooper, my mom read a chapter a night and explained the tough parts. I’ve been interested in Geronimo ever since.”
Leach’s fascination with the legendary figure continued through his school years and into his career as a football coach. Even today, he draws on anecdotes from Geronimo’s story and details of the Apache lifestyle to highlight to his players the notions of discipline, leadership, and resilience.
He had a desire to write about Geronimo’s role as a leader, so after Leach published his personal memoir Swing Your Sword in 2011, his agent put him in touch with Buddy Levy, a writer of several historical biographies who was also interested in Geronimo. The two spoke on the phone about the project.
Then Leach was hired as the Washington State football coach in 2012. Soon after he arrived in Pullman, Levy stopped by. “I showed up in his office, gave him some books, and said, ‘If you like my books, I’m interested in doing a collaboration on Geronimo,’” says Levy, who teaches in the English department.
Leach hadn’t realized that Levy worked at WSU. “It’s one of the strangest coincidences,” says Leach. He enjoyed Levy’s biography of Davy Crockett, and agreed to pursue their mutual interest in Geronimo. They took about two years to write the book and published Geronimo: Leadership Strategies of an American Warrior in May 2014.
Structuring the book as an overview of his life, the writers found in Geronimo a rich source of stories from which to extract morsels of advice that conclude each chapter. Leach has shared many of these lessons with his teams over the years.
Leach says his favorite part of the book is about the training of Apache warriors. “That’s what fascinates me the most as a coach. Training was what made them better warriors than everybody else,” he says.
For example, now we have ultimate marathons where people are running 50 or 60 miles a day. “That was somewhat routine for Apaches,” he says. “You didn’t get a t-shirt. That’s just what you did from time to time, especially if you were being chased.”
Levy says he was amazed by the endurance of the Chiricahua Apache as well, not just moving across vast swaths of rugged territory, but doing it “with women and children, carrying animal bladders of water, hiding things in caves, eating and drinking from cactus.”
Leach encourages his players with these and other feats of Geronimo and the Apache, telling the players, “Everybody can work harder than they believe they can. Heck, Apaches could do it and they did it over 100 years ago.”
Geronimo’s legendary toughness appealed to both Leach and Levy. He was shot at least nine times as he defended his ancestral lands and his people against Mexican and U.S. encroachment. Both authors also admired Geronimo’s intelligence and tactical skills. The book details Geronimo’s adversaries, including the many U.S. Army generals who tried to bring him in.
“He hammered through every general they had,” says Leach. He includes Gen. George Crook, the most decorated Indian fighter in the history of the United States, who tried to get Geronimo to surrender. That failure ended Crook’s career, Leach says.
Another nemesis, John Clum, ended up as mayor of Tombstone, Arizona. He sent “a posse that included Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday to run down Geronimo. They never even saw Geronimo,” says Leach.
The authors didn’t want to demonize or idolize Geronimo, and the book doesn’t gloss over the bloody trail that Geronimo left in his raids. But, says Levy, “Leach was sympathetic toward the Chiricahua and other tribes and their plight. We wanted to tell the story from Geronimo’s perspective.”
More than just a “who did what when” approach to Geronimo’s life and the history of the Apache struggle, the book has sidebars that inform readers of the Chiricahua Apache culture, from women warriors to marriage customs and belief in the afterlife. They also include small biographies of prominent Apache figures such as Geronimo’s role models Cochise and Mangas Coloradas. “It was almost the Apache equivalent of having George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as your mentors,” says Leach.
Writing a book together wasn’t always a picnic, says Levy. It was a challenge to get Leach’s voice right. “He is a great storyteller, but his style is quite different than mine,” says Levy. “He has a very direct way of stating things.”
Leach says he enjoyed the research but it was not always “very fun to rewrite and find the perfect words.” However, he says, there is a “weird level of satisfaction to completing a book. You take such a broad subject, and it’s now assembled in an orderly fashion.”
Levy also learned from Leach. Even with several books under his belt, it was Levy’s first time collaborating on a writing project and he admired Leach’s commitment. “The guy stays up late and has very efficient use of time. He would call me and we’d go over it line by line at night.”
The authors’ commitment to telling the story of this leader and his amazing ability to lead and survive surmounted any difficulties in writing. Geronimo offered a model of persistence.
Levy was surprised by how long Geronimo lived and how he became an American icon, even as he and the Chiricahua Apache became the longest-held prisoners of war in U.S. history after Geronimo’s surrender in 1886. “Once he’s incarcerated, it was fascinating how there was a wind change in sentiment toward him in the country,” says Levy. Geronimo’s name became synonymous with ferocity and courage, something the two authors wanted to convey and explain, says Levy. “When you first hear about this renegade warrior, you don’t necessarily know he was fighting for the country he loved and for his family,” says Levy.