‘He changed college football’: Recalling the quirky Mike Leach
Perhaps the highest praise for this generation’s most improbable college coaching career is that as time went on, and a new era of homogeneous football coaches emerged, explaining Mike Leach’s coaching experiences would sound like fiction.
A former rugby player with no experience playing college football? The Pepperdine Law grad who coached in Finland and then won at Lubbock, Pullman, and Starkville? A coaching tree that includes Lincoln Riley, Dave Aranda, and Dana Holgorsen? A list of former players from Kliff Kingsbury to Josh Heupel? The whole thing sounds like a Dan Jenkins fever dream.
But it was Mike Leach, the Renaissance man posing as a football coach, who died Monday night, the state of Mississippi announced. He is 61 years old.
“He was truly one of a kind,” Washington State athletic director Pat Chun said of his former coach. “There will never be another Mike Leach to walk this earth or be the sideline at a college football game.”
Experiencing college coaching Mike Leach for over three decades helps explain why he is unique. As the college football world mourns the loss of a Native American player, it’s hard to summarize the breadth of a career that spanned from Cal Poly to Valdosta State, Iowa Wesleyan to Kentucky, and College of the Desert to Oklahoma.
He touched on three major conferences – the SEC, Big 12 and the Pac-12 – and can be traced through nearly every name that has bolded in the sport over the last two decades as a colleague or rival. There are few college coaches at any level who don’t have a Mike Leach story, be it from their time as opponents, using him as inspiration or getting belly up in a bar in Key West, Florida that the coach loves.
“He changed college football,” said former Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen. “He took college football away from a very conservative offensive approach where coaches are afraid of making mistakes… I go back to the word fearless. He wasn’t afraid to take risks.”
Mike Leach is schematically brilliant, intellectually dazzling and stubborn, flawed and unconventional enough to never get the chance to coach blue bloods. He rarely shows remorse for mistakes and is shown to be almost allergic to apologies, the same traits that carved his impossible path and eventually limited him. Leach was difficult to manage, prone to self-inflicted controversy and managed to cross the line with embarrassing public moments on all of his coaching breaks, from his acrimonious exit at Texas Tech over accusations he abused a player to a concussion, which led to a wrongful termination lawsuit. , to controversies over inappropriate tweets in Washington State and Mississippi State.
It never bothered Leach that he wasn’t considered a good fit for blue-blooded addresses like Austin, Tuscaloosa or Los Angeles, as his acts of misfit were always more suited off-Broadway. Instead, he won as head coach in three of the sport’s toughest ZIP codes — Texas Tech, Washington State, and Mississippi State — and left an indelible mark on the game.
Leach’s 21 seasons as head coach saw him have a 158–107 record, a nearly 60% winning percentage at a school that has rarely, if ever, won at that pace without him. Among his many legacies may be the most adept at defying gravity at some of the sport’s toughest spots.
And he did it his own way, whether he was with Pori Bears in Finland in 1989 or was profiled by “60 Minutes” as the “Football Mad Scientist”.
“He is a unique individual,” said Chun. “Difficult. He was caring, he was a lifelong learner. He had a unique curiosity that carried him through his life. That same curiosity is why Airstrike became Airstrike. He was a world traveler, a voluminous reader. He had an insatiable desire to learn and discover. He is a person who is not only defined by football. He has expertise in it.”
Leach refined the attack branch of Air Assault and executed it with obsessive perfection, in a way that would be felt for generations. In an era when coordinators held Cheesecake Factory menu-sized play sheets courtside, Leach’s offense emphasized perfecting less than 20 plays and executing them with Swiss precision. His call sheets looked more like airline snack box menus, the weekly mockery of schemers sleeping in their offices looking to make a profit.
Back in 2009, “60 Minutes” profiled Leach’s Texas Tech team as “a powerhouse they shouldn’t be”. And that idea will be his legacy on the pitch, as his stint in Lubbock will symbolize the strength of his plans over talent. Perhaps Leach’s most famous moment on the field occurred in November 2008 when the No. 1 Red Raiders. 6 shocks Texas No. 1 in Lubbock with a last-second touchdown pass from Graham Harrell to Michael Crabtree.
Tech Leach’s tenure includes not only going 7-2 against Texas A&M but also a stab at the school’s Corps of Cadets. In a New York Times profile by writer Michael Lewis in 2005, Leach said: “I have to own Mike’s Pirate School,” he said. “Freshmen, all they get is a bandanna. When you become a senior, you get swords, skulls, and crossbones. For homework, we’ll do pirate maneuvers and stuff like that.”
At his next stop in Pullman, Washington, Leach revived the dormant Washington State program and built it until he wrote one of the most memorable seasons in school history. Washington State won 11 games in 2018, the most in school history, after Leach persuaded East Carolina transfer Gardner Minshew to come to Palouse instead of serving as a backup for Alabama. It ended with an Alamo Bowl win over Iowa State which Washington State officials remembered because Leach wanted to visit a local haunted hotel.
Leach remains defiant and unwavering. Every conversation with Leach has a wave of a small-town carnival ride. It would be jerked in a completely different direction, and by the end of his answer you would have forgotten the question because he has veered through politics, modern art, and mascot battles.
Mike Leach is one of football’s most unpredictable and entertaining personalities. This is what happens when you give him a microphone.
Leach never forgot that this reporter lived in South Boston, and every conversation revolved back to his fascination with local gangster Whitey Bulger. Leach isn’t just curious — he’s read books, searched for local updates, and hopes to visit Southie one day. Call Leach for a quote on scattered quarterbacks turning to the NFL, and you often get 43 minutes on gangsters, officials, and politics. Often, you end up browsing through eclectic material wishing there were some usable quotes, alternately amused and frustrated.
Those who were around him at his stop said Leach was devoted to philanthropy, but only when it was not made public. His insults, his disdain about marriage and mascots, and generally eccentric traits often distract him from his intelligence rather than accentuate it. But as the years wore on and Leach’s vast, far-reaching, and unique legacy was revisited, it was clear that his ability to change the sport would be the greatest of all.
“Mike is one of those people who doesn’t want to tell you what he knows about football,” Cohen said. “When he did it was eye-opening. I don’t think he gets enough credit as a football thinker. He is a brilliant football thinker.”