Chicago native Michael Leach understood the magnitude of the moment last month when his friend and former boss, Lovie Smith, became head coach of the Houston Texans.
Smith’s hiring in February as the Texans coach came just after former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed a lawsuit accusing the NFL of racial discrimination in its hiring practices. The Texans elevated Smith, who was the team’s associate head coach and defensive coordinator last season under coach David Culley. Culley, who is Black, was fired after one season.
Smith’s hire looks good to Leach, now a special assistant to President Joe Biden and the White House’s first chief diversity and inclusion director.
Leach comes into politics directly from the NFL headquarters, and he is the White House’s point person for NFL issues.
Leach has a higher calling — and it’s not someone sitting in an Oval Office.
“I don’t call it coincidence,” Leach said of the Smith hire. “I call it God’s providence, so I’m hoping he can turn Houston around.”
Shortly before the hire, Leach said, he and Smith “had been texting about helping to groom” a Smith mentee. Two weeks later, Leach said, “I look up and I see his name in the headlines.
“I’m incredibly proud of him. He’s the one that gave me my first big shot.”
Leach graduated from the University of Illinois, where he was a manager on the football team under then-coach Ron Zook. As a sophomore, he worked on the Illini Union Board, where he learned about event planning, diversity and recognizing talent.
One of his brothers told him that he could combine his interests in sports and administration, so he earned a bachelor’s degree in sports administration.
For graduate school, Leach escaped the Chicago winters to earn a master’s degree in sports administration from St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Florida. He completed a one-year graduate assistantship with the Dolphins, where he worked in football operations and media relations.
“That led to a miracle of an opportunity to be hired as the assistant head coach for the Chicago Bears, serving under Lovie Smith,” Leach said. “I guess that time in Chicago was the incubator that led me to work in the DEIA space — diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.”
During the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, Smith said Leach knows how to find success at every stage of his career.
“Michael has always been very sharp and very bright,” said Smith, who previously was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the University of Illinois. “You can tell the minute you meet him that he has something special.
“He made a wonderful impression on all of us from the moment we first interviewed him to his last day working with us. I’m not surprised he has continued to find success in different avenues in life.”
Leach’s primary job these days is helping Biden create a White House staff and federal workforce that reflects the diversity of the nation. His position, “the first of its kind in the White House,” is also one of the administration’s major accomplishments, he said, along with “strengthening the talent pipeline” and providing “implicit bias training for hiring managers across the office, reducing the impact that bias can play.”
Leach began fine-tuning his personal philosophy in college and it started to shape his career trajectory.
“My career path has been a bit nuanced,” Leach said. “But at every juncture has been, No. 1, my faith in God, and No. 2, always having a willingness to serve people in whatever God called me to.
“One of the best ways to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Leach related an adage often spoken by people in his profession. “Diversity is about having a seat at the table,” he said, “whereas inclusion is about having a voice at that same table … a voice that is both heard and valued. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.”
Before joining the Bears, Leach didn’t have that voice. He had worked in diversity and inclusion before, but not as a primary job and usually as a volunteer.
Under Smith, Leach handled football operations and administrative functions, and supervised the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship program.
After three years, Leach, whose goal was to be a team president, and ultimately, NFL commissioner, moved on to work at the NFL headquarters in New York. He worked in labor operations and labor relations for the NFL management council, the multibargaining unit arm for the league. He was involved in duties including contracts and salary caps.
He was also a member of the NFL diversity council and co-chair of the NFL’s Black Engagement Network.
“Michael was a tremendously positive influence in our office who was able to build relationships in a cross-organizational fashion,” said Michael Signora, NFL senior vice president of football and international communications. “His intelligence, attention to detail and warm personality were quickly apparent, and there is no limit to what he can accomplish.”
In 2019, Leach was contacted by a former co-worker of his wife’s, who had worked on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The Biden campaign was looking to fill a key role.
Leach became chief people, diversity and inclusion officer for the Biden for President campaign.
“I left a good idea for a God idea,” Leach said. Leach’s position was upgraded in January 2021, as Biden became president.
“And here we are now, you know,” Leach said, “and I could not be more thrilled.”
Leach knows one of his biggest challenges will be working to facilitate the hiring of more coaches of color in the NFL, a number that currently stands at five: Smith in Houston, Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh, Mike McDaniel in Miami, Ron Rivera in Washington and Robert Saleh of the New York Jets.
“They’ve reached yet another inflection point,” Leach said of the NFL and its owners. “Leaders can focus too much on changing policy, but not enough on changing lives.
“And obviously, with the Rooney Rule, they’ve adopted policies with great intentions, and they’ve set goals. But the resulting outcomes in those specific areas doesn’t necessarily match their original intent.
“If there is one thing I’ve learned in life, working with great leaders and great organizations, is this,” Leach added. “You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.”
Leach said that from what he has read, the NFL is doing deep diagnostic work on its systems.
“I’m sure they have their hands full and are working hard at it,” Leach said. “Focus on improving the system, the day-to-day, and the outcomes will take care of themselves.”
On a personal level, Leach found more than his career passion at the University of Illinois. He also met Brittany, his wife of nearly 10 years. The two are expecting twins this summer.
If Leach sounds a bit preachy, it’s because that’s in his blood, too. He was on the leadership team for Trinity Church Harlem while working in New York City and occasionally preached sermons and taught classes there.
Ultimately, Leach says, his overall goal is to “build a workforce and culture” that lasts beyond his tenure, where people are “seen, heard and valued” and where “diversity and inclusion becomes the norm and not the exception.”
“Sustainability,” he said, “is key.”