Mississippi State University head football coach Mike Leach passed away Monday night at the age of 61, just a day after he was rushed to the hospital for an apparent heart attack that left the legendary coach in critical condition.
Reports came out after Leach was hospitalized that he was “largely if not totally” unresponsive after being airlifted to University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, and that he was transitioned to comfort care on Monday.
Really is hard to believe these things are being referenced. Life is fragile and this sort of news is the worst.
“Mike was a giving and attentive husband, father and grandfather. He was able to participate in organ donation at UMMC as a final act of charity. We are supported and uplifted by the outpouring of love and prayers from family, friends, Mississippi State University, the hospital staff, and football fans around the world. Thank you for sharing in the joy of our beloved husband and father’s life.”
One of the most colorful characters in college football, Leach was one of only five current college coaches who didn’t play college football himself, being sidelined by an ankle injury from ever taking the field after being recruited by BYU.
But despite not being able to play, Leach managed to remain close to the BYU football program under coach LaVell Edwards and his pass-oriented offense with quarterbacks like Jim McMahon and Steve Young.
After graduating from BYU, Leach went on to get his law degree from Pepperdine before entering back into the college football world as an offensive line coach at Cal Poly.
In 1989, Leach joined the staff at Iowa Wesleyan University as offensive coordinator under coach Hal Mumme, where he developed his famous “air raid” offense that would change the college football landscape.
Leach would follow Mumme to Valdosta State and Kentucky, where his air raid offense gained attention for their incredible offensive production. He then joined the staff at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops for a year before landing his first head coaching job at Texas Tech University in 2000.
At Texas Tech, Leach would lead the Red Raiders to their first postseason win in 7 years during the 2002 season, while his team would lead the country in offensive passing yards four years in a row.
His high-flying offense was known for putting up points on opponents in bunches, and for their incredible come-from-behind victories: In 2004, the Red Raiders beat TCU 70-35 after being down 21-0 midway through the second quarter. And the team also beat Nebraska 70-10 that same season, before handing Texas A&M their worst loss in the in-state rivalry series the next year with a 56-17 victory.
Leach had his best season at Texas Tech in 2008 when the Red Raiders finished the regular season with an 11-1 record and Leach was named the AP Big 12 Coach of the Year. The team would miss out on the BCS though, because of a three-way tie with Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12 rankings and a rule that prohibited more than two teams from the same conference from receiving BCS bids. The Red Raiders would ultimately fall to Ole Miss in the Cotton Bowl in what would turn out to be Leach’s final full season at Texas Tech.
In 2009, Leach would surpass his predecessor Spike Dykes as the all-time winningest coach in Texas Tech football history, but would ultimately be suspended and terminated after 10 straight winning seasons in a controversial move by the school due to allegations of inappropriate treatment of a player.
After sitting out the 2010 season and joining CBS College Sports as a color commentator, Leach would one again find himself on the sidelines the next year after being hired as the head coach at Washington State University.
Leach would quickly receive a contract extension in 2012 after leading the Cougars to their best season since 2006, and the next year would have Washington State bowl-eligible for the first time in 10 years.
In 2018, Leach recruited transfer quarterback Gardiner Minshew to Washington State, and led the team to their best season in school history with a 10-2 record, along with a win in the Alamo Bowl to cap off an 11-win season.
A tough 2019 for the Cougars ended with Leach taking his talents to Mississippi State to be the head coach of the Bulldogs, where he started the season with a win over the defending national champions, #6-ranked LSU. Despite the early season success, the team finished a disappointing 3-7 in a regular season shortened by the COVID pandemic. But due to the pandemic, the NCAA waived bowl eligibility requirements and the Bulldogs were invited to the Armed Forces Bowl where they knocked off #24 Tulsa.
This year, the Bulldogs gave Leach his first win over in-state rival Ole Miss in the last game of the season, when Mississippi State pulled off the win in the annual Egg Bowl to finish the season 8-4 and earn an invite to the ReliaQuest Bowl.
But despite all of his success on the field, it’s his colorful personality off the field that most will remember about Leach. Known for his love of pirates and collector of pirate paraphernalia, Leach released an autobiography in 2010 called Swing Your Sword: Leading the Charge In Football and In Life. And he even made a cameo in the NBC TV show Friday Night Lights in which he tells coach Eric Taylor to “swing your sword” and “find your inner pirate.”
Leach also gave some of the all-time great interview quotes in college football, like his 2-minute response to a question about which Pac 12 mascot would win in a battle:
“Well first of all, what kind of mythical powers does a Sun Devil have? We’ve got to consider that…
The Trojan, does he have a horse or is he on foot? Does he have a bow and arrow or just his sword?
The Bruin, definitely formidable…
The tree, I mentioned that tree’s going to get chopped down, unless we’re going to go with a bird and somebody might get pecked or something, I don’t know.
And then the Duck, the Duck might lose interest and just fly away and get out of there, which may be good advice under the circumstances…
The Beaver, well, we’ll see how long that beaver can hold its breath…
If that Ute’s got a rifle there’s some definitely problems.
And you’d have to get one of those Harry Potter activists to read up on how you kill a Sun Devil because there’s a lot of outside stuff there.”
And there was also his advice to a reporter ahead of their wedding:
“The best wisdom that I can possible give on that subject…you have to stay out of the way…
When it comes to marriages, the women lose their mind. Your fiance’s going to lose her mind. Your mother in law’s going to lose her mind. Your mom is going to lose her mind…
And they’re going to barrage you with constant questions.
“What should we wear?” Which of course my answer was “I don’t care.”
“What color should the invitations be?” “I don’t care.”
“What should we have for dessert?” “I don’t care.”
“Should we seat this this way or that that way? “I don’t care.”
But see, “I don’t care” is not satisfactory at all. And you’re going to get caught in a catch-22, and I’m certain that you already have, and that catch-22 is, “Well I want you to be a part of this too.”
“So what color invitations? Umm, alright the blue ones.” “Well I kind of like the tan ones.” “Ok the tan ones then.”
“Oh you’re just saying that because you want this over with, you’re not even thinking about it,” which is of course true…
So you need to work late, go in the back room and read a lot of books…
And in the end you’ll wish you eloped. But nevertheless you need to find excuses that they’ll buy to be as far out of harm’s way as you possibly can.”
As it turns out, Leach’s biggest piece of advice when it came to getting married was to elope, as he gave the same advice to a sideline reporter earlier this year:
Oh, and he hated candy corn and wasn’t afraid to tell you about it:
If it seems like Leach wasn’t afraid to have a conversation with anybody about anything, that’s because he wasn’t. This week an article resurfaced from 2007 in which Lincoln Riley told a story about Leach talking for 90 minutes to a complete stranger who had the wrong number and accidentally dialed up Leach:
“He picked it up and said, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ And then he listened for a second and asked, ‘Where ya calling from?’
He kept talking on the phone and I eventually sort of tuned out. Now, a short phone conversation for Coach Leach is an hour.
So he was talking about this and that, and I was kind of hunkered down working on my own stuff. At some point, the call got dropped. They must have lost reception. Coach said, “Can you hear me? Are you there?”
Then he closed his old-school flip phone, swung it back open and redialed. He said, ‘Hey, sorry I lost you.’ And then they resumed their conversation for another 30 minutes or so before Coach finally hung up.
After he was done, we started talking and I said, ‘Hey Coach, who was that on the phone?’
And he said, ‘Oh, they had the wrong number.’”
A legend on and off the field.
But behind all of these stories was an old-school, tough coach who expected the best from his teams and managed to bring out the best in his players.
Ever fiery, a video from late this season also showed Leach taking down all of the players’ chairs on the sideline so they would be forced to stand and cheer on their teammates.
“We were more interested in sitting in those chairs instead of cheering on our teammates. We had everything but playing cards out there.” – Mike Leach pic.twitter.com/8aPaPYR0Ar
And he would often complain about players being more interested in their “fat little girlfriends” than they are in playing football.
And as most old-school guys are, Leach was worried about the decline in social skills as everybody became more interested in their cell phones than actually having a conversation with other people:
Leach leaves behind his wife Sharon, along with four children and three grandchildren.
As I was reading Twitter this week after Leach was hospitalized, I came across a video from an ESPN feature on Leach in which he was asked about how he wanted to be remembered when his obituary was written, and he gave the most Mike Leach answer possible:
“Well that’s their problem. They’re the one writing the obituary. I mean what do I care? I’m dead.”
Jeremy Schaap: "When people write the Mike Leach obituary, how do you want to be remembered?" Mike Leach: "Well that's their problem … what do I care, I'm dead."
Well there will be plenty of obituaries written for Leach in the days and weeks to come.
But there’s no doubt how he’ll be remembered: As a legend both on and off the field, as one of the most innovative and impactful college football coaches of all time, and one of the most colorful characters the sport has ever seen.
Swing your sword, Coach. We’ll miss you down here.