He wasn’t like any other football coach, ever. And that’s what made him so great.
Longtime college football and current Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach passed away Dec. 12 after what has been reported to be complications from a heart condition. It’s been said he had a massive heart attack Sunday night.
It doesn’t really matter what it was, honestly. A family has lost their father, husband, and granddad. A program has lost their leader. And selfishly, we as a college football fandom, have lost a gem.
In an era where so many coaches are either buttoned up to the point of extreme stiffness, or busting out incredibly awkward dance moves after wins in an attempt to score cool points with players, Leach was a different breed.
Most coaches build their game plans and schemes based on previous football strategies. Leach built his by studying famous generals and their warfare tactics. He was just likely to study Blackbeard as Bear Bryant, and his obsession with pirates became his trademark. But instead of it becoming a point of oddity, it became a moniker: The Pirate. He was incredibly well-studied and such a unique character. Eccentric, sure. But fun. It was hard not to root for him and his teams.
There were no pretensions with Mike Leach; what he got asked, he answered. Bluntly, truthfully, and he never seemed to mind the oddball question. In fact, he embraced them. What other coach can you think of, before a major contest or after a huge win, would answer a question about candy corn, coffee or weddings?
None. Because none of them have time for frivolous things like that.
Yet Coach Leach seemed to revel in getting asked those questions, and as a former journalist, I can’t tell you how many times I expected to hear him say “That’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard,” while watching. But each time, he answered it without so much as a smirk. And his answers were almost always the things of legend. The press conference at Washington State where he got asked who would win in a PAC-12 mascot fight? His answer was incredibly well thought out–and with a stroke of genius that the marketing and communications office could only dream of–ended with an PR move for the ages for the Cougars, because of course it did.
And it’s easy to talk about the off the field persona, but let’s make it clear now: The guy could coach. The Air Raid was his baby, and the idea of slinging the ball 60 times a game makes a pass-first and loads of offense fan like this writer drool. All of this, mind you, created in the late 80s/early 90s when college football was about big pads, big hits, and three yards and a cloud of dust.
And it worked. It worked at places like BYU, Valdosta State, Texas Tech, Washington State, and eventually Mississippi State. It changed the way college football operates today schematically; it’s the reason so many schools have gone to airing it out–because, against all odds, it works.
But what else would you expect from a coach that didn’t play college football, somewhat resembled Vince Gill, played rugby collegiately and had a law degree? Did he have his flaws? Sure, absolutely he did. His dismissal from Texas Tech was a source of great controversy, and he had a few tweets that got him in borderline hot water a couple of times (you can search these on your own, we aren’t linking them here out of respect). But then again, what is a true character without a few rough edges?
I feel for the Leach family, and I feel for Mississippi State. This union had all the makings of a great sports movie; a perennial doormat gives a coach with a strong reputation a shot at the biggest conference in the land–and they were turning the corner. A huge upset of in-state rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl looked to be a launching pad for next season. Instead, it serves as the last win of a great coach’s career.
Of all the videos and tributes circulating over the last few days, there’s one that sticks out to me. Coach Leach actually appeared in an episode of the TV series Friday Night Lights when he was at Texas Tech as a “local loon.” In the scene, at a gas station under the sprawling dusk sky of nowhere Texas, Leach recognizes Dillon High coach Kyle Taylor, and gives him a bit of a pep talk about needing to “find your inner pirate.” It was pure Mike Leach, but his last line allowed a glimpse behind the zaniness into some incredible insight:
“You might be the luckiest man alive, and don’t even know it.”
I have to think that Mike Leach knew he was pretty lucky. And we were pretty lucky to have him on our TVs each Saturday.
So from a complete stranger, thanks for everything, Coach. Rest easy.
Your friends and fans,
The Message Pitch