Head Coach Mike Leach … Pirates, Candy Corn and Fat Little Girlfriends

Lyn Scarbrough

December 15, 2022 at 2:36 pm.

Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Mike Leach walks onto the field after the game against the Ole Miss Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium (Photo: Matt Bush/USA Today Sports).

Probably a decade or more ago, I was listening to a college football coach on a sports talk radio show. The initial topic was offensive philosophy and play calling, but after several minutes of the interview … actually it was more like the coach’s soliloquy … the topic had progressed to sharks, specifically to the mating habits of sharks, if my memory is correct.

I remember thinking how funny it was that the subject matter had moved in that direction, how smooth and seamless the transition had been from one topic to the next.

But, I shouldn’t have been surprised. The coach was Mike Leach.

Leach, the locker room philosopher, gridiron king of the one-liner, and highly successful football coach died this week. On Saturday, he was at his Mississippi State team’s first practice for the Reliaquest Bowl. The next day, he suffered a massive heart attack at his home in Starkville, Miss., where he was completing his third season as the team’s head coach.

He was airlifted to University Medical Center in Jackson, but the magnitude of the heart attack and the severity of brain damage was irreversible, so the decision was made to withdraw life support.

Mike Leach was 61 years old.

His name was well known around the country, much for what he said and much for what he did, and especially for how he did it.

There are few people for whom not enough adjectives have been invented to adequately describe them. Mike Leach was one of those.

Brilliant. Quirky. Outspoken. Colorful. Unpredictable. Unusual. Charming. Funny. Thoughtful.

John Cohen, the Auburn Athletic Director who held that same position during Leach’s time in Starkville, may have best wrapped it up. “My friend Mike Leach … a pioneer, intellectual giant, provocateur and fearless warrior. A great man who impacted so many lives. You made the world a better place.”

Expressions of sadness and tribute came from people across the spectrum.

“I never knew quite where our conversations were going, but he always made me smile. He was an offensive innovator.” … Alabama head coach Nick Saban

“Thankful for every moment. You changed my life and so many others.” … USC head coach Lincoln Riley, who coached under Leach.

“One of my favorites. Coach Mike Leach needs our prayers.” … Country music icon Toby Keith after learning of the heart attack.

“A mentor, a friend, one of the most special people I’ve ever met.” … Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury, a record-setting quarterback under Leach at Texas Tech.

“Praying for Mike Leach. Most know how fond I am of him. His unique personality has been part of the fabric of the game for the last couple of decades.” … ESPN’s Rece Davis, after learning of the heart attack.

“Heartbroken. Such a loss to so many of us.” … An anonymous Mississippi State fan posting on social media, speaking for countless others around the country.

I never had the privilege to meet Mike Leach in person, but his name is high on the list of sports figures that I wish I had known. I was able to be present for several of Leach’s meetings with the media. One sticks out.

At SEC Media Days each year, head coaches stand in front of hundreds of sports journalism types, rambling on about the same things, using coach-speak, and not giving much to quote.

Then, there was Mike Leach. Where most coaches’ opening statement takes 15 minutes, his first opening statement in Birmingham in 2021 took 15 seconds … literally.

“All right, I’m not a big opening statement guy, and plus, you guys are going to ask whatever you want to know anyway,” he said. “So, let’s just go ahead and get started. Are there any questions?”

It was even shorter this year in Atlanta.

“Any questions?” The room broke up in laughter.

It was classic Mike Leach. He had opinions about almost everything and had a unique way of expressing his point of view, whatever the subject.

On pirates (he became known as “The Pirate” after using a pirate’s sword to challenge his Texas Tech team) – “Your body is your sword. Are you going to swing your sword aggressively or really out of control? … I know the pirate speech was unconventional, but you can’t let fear rule your life.”

On Texas A&M cadet students – “How come they get to pretend they’re soldiers. The thing is, they aren’t actually in the military. I ought to have Mike’s Pirate School. The freshmen, all they get is the bandana. When you’re a senior, you get the sword, and skull and crossbones. For homework, we’ll work pirate maneuvers and stuff like that.”

On candy corn – “I think candy corn is awful. You know, it’s like fruitcake. There’s a reason they serve fruitcake once a year, because it’s awful.”

On pizza – “I’m a thin-crust pizza guy. I respect people who like thick crust, but in my view, it’s mostly bread.”

On fat little girlfriends (in no way did Mike Leach try to be politically correct), started after a loss to Texas A&M when his players didn’t respond – “We failed to make our coaching points be more compelling than their fat little girlfriends. Now, their fat little girlfriends have some obvious advantages. For one thing, they are telling them what they want to hear, which is how great you are and how easy it’s going to be.”

On eloping – “I’ve told all my kids, ‘I’ll give you $10,000 extra if you elope.’ So far, they haven’t done it, but I would.”

On wedding planning – “Stay out of their way.”

On Bigfoot – “We found bones of dinosaurs and everything else, but we haven’t found bones that I’ve heard of, of Bigfoot. It would be fun if there’s Bigfoot. But my guess would be there’s not.”

On weather – “My favorite weather is when it rains mud.”

On Viking axes (Leach was a gun owner) – “There’s this notion of ‘If you come in my house, I’ll shoot ya’. I do have a Viking axe by the bed if I need to whack someone.”

On fighting during games – “If you get into a fight, don’t take your helmet off.”

On the Chicago Cubs – “There’s some teams – the Cubs are one of them – where there’s just too many fans.”

On dancing – “I don’t dance. I walk in place, if I’m forced out there. I don’t look like Elaine from Seinfeld, but all I’m go to do is tread water in place and make it go away.”

On disco – “What a dark time for our country.”

With Mike Leach gone, it’s a darker time for college football.

Leach was a world traveler. He earned a law degree from Pepperdine. He had a Master’s Degree from the United States Sports Academy. He authored books on Geronimo and American Native warriors and insurgent warfare. He was knowledgeable about so many things, and could have successfully followed so many paths in life. But he wanted to be a football coach.

I’ve often thought that he was so well known for his traits, that it was lost on most people just how good he was at his chosen career.

Few had a more impressive coaching resume, especially when you consider he never played college football. In his playing days, his game was rugby.

In 21 head coaching seasons, Leach’s teams won 158 and lost 107, an average of almost eight wins per year. Heading into the 2022 season, he was fourth nationally among active Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) head coaches in wins, second among current Southeastern Conference head coaches. He was named National Coach of the Year for the 2008 and 2018 seasons.

His teams won the Big 12 South Division title and the Pac-12 North Division title. He was twice named Pac-12 Coach of the Year, and was Big 12 Coach of the Year in 2008. Of his 21 teams, 18 played in postseason bowl games.

That record was built at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State – that’s Lubbock, Texas, Pullman, Wash., and Starkville, Miss., not exactly towns with national championship pedigree or conference banners adorning the stadiums. He succeeded where there weren’t great traditions or great expectations.

But everywhere that he went, to places that a lot of coaches wouldn’t want to go, Coach Leach made a difference.

As Texas Tech’s all-time winningest coach, all of his 10 Red Raider teams had winning records and every one played in the postseason.

Kent Partridge is athletic director at the University of West Alabama. He served as Sports Information Director at Auburn and handled those duties for the Birmingham Thunderbolts of the XFL. He was the SID in Lubbock when Leach was hired at Texas Tech.

“Mike came to Lubbock to interview without a suit or a pair of dress shoes. That endeared him to me from the beginning,” Partridge recalled this week. “When the deal was done, Red Raider athletics made its first investment in arguably the most productive time in the history of its football program. Somebody went to the mall and bought Mike a suit and shoes for his introductory press conference. To this day, I believe that same suit, wrapped around those same dress shoes, later traveled to Big 12 Media Days in an unchecked gym bag. But the next morning, the suit looked pristine.

“I believe that Mike would have rather been sharing a country fried steak and dripping gravy on his suit than conducting a presser, but it’s amazing how when talk of football, pirates and spaghetti Westerns was finished, everyone in the room believed that they not only knew him, but would eventually be his friend.”

“He never met a stranger,” Partridge continued. “But more importantly, Mike Leach didn’t allow his job to define him or who he was. How refreshing that is in this college athletics world of ‘what’s in it for me and me alone.’ Mike knew who he was and embraced it.”

Leach carried that same approach to Washington State. Six of his eight teams went to bowl games, including an 11-2 season and two nine-win years. In the four seasons before Leach, the Cougs won four Pac-12 games … in the four seasons combined. Losses were games by huge margins.

Shawn O’Neal is Director of Student Involvement at the University of Idaho, just over the state line from Spokane and Pullman, home of Washington State. A Wazzu journalism graduate, he also serves as college basketball editor and associate college football editor for Lindy’s Sports. He was there for all of Leach’s Pac-12 seasons.

“We’ve always been the state’s second school,” O’Neal said this week. “But, we’ve always been brash and prideful, even when we don’t have much reason. Leach was perfect to bring that back. When he came in and wasn’t successful right away, he wasn’t nice about it, and we appreciated that. We were tired of being a joke and he wasn’t OK with us being a joke.”

The Cougars didn’t stay a joke for long. By his fourth season, Wazzu was a contender. The team won 37 games in a four-season span, playing in a bowl each year, with an 11-2 mark in 2018.

“He was never boring,” O’Neal continued. “The four-year fun from 2014-2018 was a lot of fun. The 2018 year with Gardner Minshew was the high point. Game Day showed up at the height of his era, as was the win over Oregon that day. That team ranked as high as No. 7 and finished No. 10.

“By the time he moved on, I don’t think there were any Coug fans with hard feelings against him. The guy was fun, coming after a long period when Wazzu football was pure misery and embarrassment.”

Leach brought success with him to Starkville. His three teams qualified for bowl games. His teams played opponents 15 times that were in the Top 25. State won seven of those. They beat every other SEC West team except Alabama, including Texas A&M and Auburn twice each.

Dr. Craig Aarhus, who as an undergraduate was drum major for the Auburn University band, now serves as Associate Director of Bands at Mississippi State. The Famous Maroon Band performed before, during and after Bulldog football games.

“Coach Leach was a big supporter of the Maroon Band and visited with us during band camp (in the fall),” Aarhus recalled this week. “When he came to see us this year, he spoke and took questions from the band for over 30 minutes. One of the question topics was about belts. We learned a lot about how coach’s wardrobe is chosen on game day and that he absolutely was not going to break in a new belt. It was a fun conversation. Just having him come by made our students feel important. After his visit, he tweeted that we were “working just as hard” as his guys during camp.”

Like Aarhus, as a senior Kazarian Shumpert is a drum major (for the MSU band).

“We know he was funny. We know he was incredibly smart,” Shumpert said. “He was never afraid to say what was on his mind whether it was coffee, marriage or candy corn. He imparted wisdom at every opportunity, whether or not it made sense at the time.

“It was a pleasure to watch a man who was not from here become so engrained in the culture here. He went to the Neshoba County Fair and ate the corn dogs. He danced with the players. When the band asked him what kept him going, he said, ‘Coffee and Copenhagen.’ That’s about as Southern as you can get. He may not have been from here, but he sure did belong here.”

Shumpert is right. Mike Leach did belong “here,” no matter where “here” happened to be.

A lot of coaches have had good records and have made an impact, but Leach wasn’t just “one-of-many.” He was one-of-one. He was a one-and-only.

Working with Kentucky head coach Hal Mumme, Leach was instrumental in developing the Air Raid offense, which changed the landscape of college football. He remained a strong proponent wherever he coached.

It’s hard to overstate Mike Leach’s impact on the field in terms of won-loss record and effect on the game itself, and off the field in influence on people through words and deeds.

It seems unjust that Leach may never be adequately recognized for his impact.

The College Football Hall of Fame has a restriction that no coach can be inducted without winning a minimum of 60 percent of his games. Leach had a 59.6 percent winning mark … missing the threshold by .4 of a percent.

Consider the programs where he coached. You have to wonder what record other coaches might have had … Dabo, Meyer, Saban, others … if limited to those programs. How many more games would Leach have won in Starkville?

Ironically, Mississippi State will face Illinois on January 2 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, home of the Buccaneers, where a gigantic pirate ship with cannons dominates one end of the stadium. How fitting it would be for Mike Leach to be walking that sideline.

Several years ago, sportscaster Jeremy Schaap talked with Leach for an ESPN profile. He asked the coach how he would want to be remembered in obituaries after his death. His response was classic Leach.

“Well, that’s their problem,” he said with a grin. “They’re the ones writing the obituary. I mean, what do I care? I’m dead.”

Mike Leach is gone, but won’t be forgotten. Those obituaries will remember him well.

It’s likely that we’ll never have another Mike Leach. He did make the world a better place.