College football coaches tend to be graded on a steep and extremely generous curve when it comes to their personalities. How well they do or don’t do their jobs is easy enough to assess, because it creates a binary win/loss record that reflects the sum of the players they recruit and the assistants they hire and the games they do or don’t win. If they succeed at that for long enough, eventually they will be held up as a thinker of important thoughts or charismatic leader of men or an engaging conversationalist or a secret savant of some sort or other. Given enough time and enough success, the people whose job it is to do it can eventually reverse-engineer some color or character onto even the most dead-eyed hypercompetitive cypher. If you know that Nick Saban favors Little Debbie snack cakes, which you probably do, then you know how this works.
It’s for this reason, if not entirely for this reason, that Mike Leach was for some time confused for an interesting person and appealingly heterodox thinker. Leach is inarguably an interesting and appealingly heterodox football coach, and has the track record to prove as much. It’s for that reason that Leach’s personal collection of utterly off-the-rack Dad Interests—pirates, mostly, as everyone again somehow knows—and his blithe and unusual willingness to extemporize on various topics not related to football in unpredictable syntax won him a reputation as one of the most interesting men in college football. And he may indeed well be, although that is mostly a reflection of where this particular bar is—look down—and the level and breadth of investment across football media in making the idea of The Most Interesting Man In College Football seem like it means something.
Leach does not really have interesting or informed opinions on many things, but he does benefit from expectations so low that him blinking a lot before talking about the many raccoons that I have seen before, both in my youth and then also more recently really does qualify as classic folksy storytelling. (It helps, too, that his peer group is a bunch of militantly tanned weirdos in golf shirts whose only public-facing acts of personality are giving heated or evasive answers to questions about position battles and, once a year, giving a strange speech about how “these phones and apps” are making today’s kids soft.) Mike Leach has a brilliant football mind, but he’s also a wealthy 58-year-old Jimmy Buffett fan with a law degree. If you’ve met people like that, which you probably have given that this country is absolutely fucking lousy with them, you know just how interesting this all is and is not.
All of which is to say that while Mike Leach has an unusual and interesting job that he is fairly good at doing, he is also an extremely usual and not especially interesting and immediately identifiable type of older American male, and that he swims in the same luridly polluted discursive lagoon as the rest of his cohort. Last year, when Leach shared an oafishly altered video of Barack Obama as a means of Starting A Conversation Of Some Sort, it revealed a little bit about his news judgment and political inclinations—poor and kind of passively reactionary, respectively—and significantly more about the noxious shit that currently qualifies as Normal Stuff That Normal People See Online. Leach didn’t find this shit because he was wandering the darker outlands of online reaction but because this sort of garbage now routinely finds people like him. He was presumably not looking for it, but he wouldn’t have had to have been looking for anything for such stuff to have washed against him. That is the story of how the news works and mostly doesn’t work in an idiotic and uneasy moment—people like Leach, who are curious but maybe not terribly well-informed, who have instincts and suspicions but no real sense of how to figure out what’s true and what isn’t, are now finding the wildest and ugliest things in the most conventional of media spaces. You set out for a walk around the block and return home a few minutes later encrusted in medical waste and old Walgreens bags filled with some sort of foul-smelling beige paste.
This is how it went on Monday, when Leach responded to a question about a California initiative aimed at getting college athletes the financial compensation they deserve with a sneering non-sequitur about the state’s homeless population and “infrastructure.”
“The state of California has trouble keeping their streets clean right now,” Leach said. “So my thought is that they probably ought to focus on that. That’s just one man’s opinion. I’m sure I’m probably wrong. But at the rate that California’s handling their infrastructure and some of their other problems, I think we’ll see how they do with that before I really think it would be that beneficial for the legislature in California to enter into college football.”
Why would Mike Leach or anyone else answer a question about paying athletes with a monologue like this? For the same boring and immediately obvious reason that homelessness, and especially homelessness in California, has recently become a fixation for Donald Trump, which is that he saw it on TV.
The issue has been discussed on Fox News an astonishing amount over the last few months; Media Matters, which keeps tabs on these things, reported at least 50 Fox segments on the issue since May, virtually all of which tend to point out how medieval and disgusting and “third-world” it all is. This is not to say that the network’s coverage has focused solely on the luridness of the problem over ways to address it. “You only have one solution,” Jesse Watters said back in June. “You bulldoze the 50-block radius and you institutionalize everybody.”
This has had the desired effect on Trump, among many others; Leach, who was basically mouthing words that other people say on cable for hours every day, is presumably among those. The president, though, is both the network’s most important viewer and the ideal audience for this particular gambit, given that he is both an unusually lazy germaphobe and a man whose rapidly calcifying mind is frozen in 1989. After twice proposing to eliminate the Interagency Council on Homelessness during his presidency, he now rants regularly about California’s disgraceful homelessness problems with his trademark combination of umbrage and absolute bulletproof ignorance. “We’re going to be giving San Francisco, they’re in total violation, we’re going to be giving them a notice very soon,” he told reporters on Air Force One last night. “EPA is going to be putting out a notice.”
There’s not really a contradiction, for Trump, between relentlessly pushing policies that have made homelessness worse—by making it harder for people in need to access aid, by eliminating the last few tax policies that encouraged the construction of affordable housing—and complaining about how gross it all is, which is mostly because he hasn’t thought of it at all. He is concerned with “how the hell we can get these people off the streets,” but mostly because they are an eyesore—human-shaped litter that accumulates in “our best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings.” (It’s worth noting that California’s senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein, pretty much agreed with what Trump said.)
Last week, the Washington Post reported that the administration was considering the Jesse Watters Option—a population transfer of homeless people from L.A.’s Skid Row to an abandoned Federal Aviation Administration site 20 miles away. The White House’s policy paper on the issue mentions, among possible solutions, more vigorous anti-loitering policies, eliminating right-to-shelter laws (because they make being homeless too easy/appealing), and addressing “the overregulation of housing markets.” While the acting head of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors didn’t rule anything in or out, he did tell the Post that “policing may be an important tool to help them get off the street.”
Homelessness is a real problem, and the result of a confluence of difficult but generally understood social crises. Donald Trump does not understand it; because his television channel of choice tells him everything he knows, he will never understand it. This is not just because Trump has never solved a problem in his life—that’s for other people to do, he’s more of a creator—but because there’s no solution for him to find in the information he’s served. There is only a relentless anxious sense of panic and encroachment, and a motivating disgust that pushes our president—and Mike Leach, and many other people who get the most astonishingly ugly news from the most conventional places, who find themselves saying things that were once unspeakable and now just represent one side of the discourse—deeper into a cruelty he was never quite aware or informed or interested enough to choose.