American author Taylor Caldwell once wrote, “It is human nature to instinctively rebel at obscurity or ordinariness.” No matter what characteristics or motives we assign to others, all have a mix of complexities and simplicities. What the ratio of those is tends to color our perceptions of one’s obscurity or ordinariness. That gets us to the complex legacy of the late Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach.
The Passing of the Man
Leach died on December 12th as the result of a massive heart attack suffered a couple of days earlier. After the heart attack, we learned that Leach had been coaching the last several weeks of the season while battling pneumonia.
The fact that Leach would not take time off during the season while fighting the illness comes as no surprise to anyone who has covered him. Frankly, little that Leach did or said should come as a surprise to reporters or anyone else who has followed his career path. He is equal parts glib, introspective, funny, and insulting. And while he quietly liked the attention that came from not being ordinary, he also didn’t give a damn what “you” or anyone else thinks of him. He was always unapologetically himself, for better, and sometimes for worse.
Post Season Tributes
As Leach died before the bowl season started, schools across the country found ways to pay tribute to him, including schools that really had zero to do with his coaching history. There were flags with pirate skulls and crossbones. Some teams had flags or helmet stickers that simply said, “Mike.”
His old employer, Texas Tech, lined up at the start of their Texas Bowl game against Ole Miss, in a four-receiver spread formation. It was typical of something you would see in the Mike Leach Air Raid offense, but not typical of Joey McGuire’s current offense. It was an obvious tribute by a coach working for the school that once, in a humiliating fashion, shoved Leach out the door. We had indeed reached the point where the tributes came from former colleagues, former rivals, and yes, schools that had parted ways with him.
The Coaching Journey Begins
He was a graduate of BYU with a law degree from Pepperdine. His playing days at BYU ended with an ankle injury that halted his on-field career and drove him to learn to study in the film room.
After being an assistant coach at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and College of the Desert in the late 1980s, he came to be friends with Hal Mumme. The two of them charted a career path that had them together at three stops. At Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta, and Kentucky, Mumme was the head coach who brought the innovative Leach with him as his offensive coordinator.
Leach broke up the duo when he went to Oklahoma to join Bob Stoops’ staff. The Sooners’ offense had been 11th in the conference the year before. In 1989, with one year under Leach, Oklahoma had the top offense in the Big 12. The Leach innovated air-raid offense was gaining fans and copycats alike.
The Head Coach
That got him the head coaching job at Texas Tech in 2000. He spent 10 years with the Red Raiders, including winning the Big 12 South in 2008. Texas Tech, a team with Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree, finished that season 11-1, the best for any Red Raiders team. He flirted with openings at other schools like the University of Washington but stayed at Texas Tech. That is until Texas Tech pushed him out after the following season. He left as the winningest coach in school history.
After the firing in Lubbock, he went to work for the CBS College Sports Network.
In late 2011, he accepted the head coaching job at Washington State and spent eight seasons there beginning in 2011. He had mixed results in Pullman. It is one of the toughest recruiting pitches to be made in the country. But Leach was a routine high-wire act both on and off the field. His teams in Pullman were often entertaining with the likes of quarterback Gardner Minshew and the potent air raid offense. Minshew went through his one season in Pullman averaging 50 passing attempts per game. The Cougars tied for first place in the Pac-12 North in 2018 with an 11-2 record, including a win in the Alamo Bowl.
In 2020, Leach left to go back to the SEC, where he had coached for so many years with Mumme. He took the job at Mississippi State and has been in Starkville for three years, concluding with the 2022 season. The Bulldogs finished 8-4 and are scheduled to play Illinois in the ReliaQuest Bow on January 2nd. What happens with Leach between now and then is as complex as his legacy.
Speaking A Little Too Freely
Those who spoke with him both on and off the record know that his flow-of-consciousness style of speaking makes him a favorite with the media and fans while also being the reason he was disliked by some and got in trouble frequently. With interviewing Leach as part of our Pac-12 coverage, there was the truthful jest, that when it came to talking to him, just ask a question and make sure your recorder has fresh batteries and is on. There was no telling where the answers would go. That worked against him as much as it did in his favor.
In 2009, while at Texas Tech, in a routine post-game press conference, Leach made a reference to the significant others of the men on his team. “As coaches, we failed to make our coaching points and our points more compelling than their fat little girlfriends. Their fat little girlfriends have some obvious advantages. For one thing, their fat little girlfriends are telling them what they want to hear.”
It was 2009. There was outrage in random parts of the country for the handful that paid much attention to Texas Tech football. But there was no social media to cast an instantaneous shame campaign against Leach as would likely happen today. Frankly, it’s hard to remember if he ever provided so much as a basic regret for the utterance. It was soon overshadowed by what got him fired in Lubbock.
Last Fall, Leach told ESPN of his “handling” of an officiating crew member at a stadium he would not name. “There was one team and the guy had done it for years. And it took me a year or two to figure it out, but it was one of the chain guys — you know, the first-down chain. And he wasn’t even holding one of ’em or doing the thing. He’s just an extra guy standing with them with an outfit on and he’d just constantly get in your way. The whole game, he’s in your way … He never said a word. He just mean-mugs you and doesn’t say anything,”
The coach eventually reach a breaking point and handled it in a way that was pure Mike Leach. “Listen, you get in my way, I’ll knock your ass right out there on the field. You’re getting too close. You better get way the f*ck away,” Leach claims to have told the sideline crew member. Despite Leach’s request that the crew member not work any more Mississippi State games, the person was repeatedly assigned to do just that. Leach told ESPN that he told the person, “‘If I have a bad time with you, I’ll kick you out myself. I’ll stop this game right here in the middle of this stadium in front of everybody.’” It was Leach being Leach
The Legal Battles In Lubbock
On December 28, 2009, Leach was suspended indefinitely by Texas Tech. The charge was alleged inappropriate treatment of Texas Tech football player Adam James. Two weeks before the suspension James had suffered a concussion. He was examined the next day and told not to practice that afternoon due to the concussion. According to the James family, Leach ordered him to stand in the equipment shed near the Red Raiders’ practice facility. Leach denied he made any such demand. According to local media accounts, school officials claim they gave Leach an ultimatum to apologize to James in writing by December 28 or be suspended. The events gained national attention as James is the son of former SMU legend, and then-ESPN studio analyst Craig James.
Leach was suspended but sought an injunction that would have allowed him to coach in the 2010 Alamo Bowl. However, on December 30, Texas Tech fired Leach outright, calling his refusal to apologize to James, “A defiant act of insubordination.” The timing of the firing cost Leach an $800,000 bonus he would have been due that week. He sued Texas Tech for wrongful termination with the case being dismissed at multiple judicial levels along the way before finally being tossed out by the state supreme court. The voracity of the original allegations remained in question. But you can’t unring a bell, and they became part of his legacy.
Tragedy In Pullman
The events, along with Leach’s own verbosity, made him a lightning rod for future jobs. In his first season in Pullman in 2012, more allegations of player abuse came to the surface when star wide receiver Marquess Wilson quit the team citing “physical, emotional, and verbal abuse” by the coaching staff. WSU did an internal investigation and determined that the claims made against Leach were without merit. Wilson later waivered on some of his clams.
In June of 2018, Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski committed suicide. At the conference media days four weeks later, most of the players were wearing rubber wrist bracelets that said Hilinksi Strong. Most of the conference’s coaches were also wearing them and said they had addressed it with their own players and discussed the ability to come forward and seek help. Eleven coaches wore the wrist bracelet. Hilinski’s coach, Mike Leach, was the only one who did not. When asked about whether he was getting his players access to grief counseling, he said he was not because he did not want the story to linger in their heads, and that he was trying to help them move on. Some characterized the comments as a lack of empathy for his players. His handling of it drew criticism both in and out of Pullman.
The Hilinski family was among the thousands who took to social media to express their respects when Leach passed last month.
Again With The “Girlfriend”
And then a little more than a month ago, we were back to the “fat girlfriend” storyline. His Bulldogs had just beaten Auburn 38-33. At his Sunday press conference, Leach was asked about his team’s performance. “I’ll get in trouble for this, I am certain,” he said. “But instead of playing hard and getting a first down and getting a play, you want to sit behind a shade tree, eat a fish sandwich and drink a lemonade with your fat little girlfriend.”
Because this is what has come to be known as part of who Leach is, social media made little of it. Leach spoke the words needing to clear his throat constantly in a sign that he was not physically well. And for anyone seeking to paint Leach as the stereotype football caveman with these comments, he was married to the same woman for 25 years and has three daughters and a son, (along with four grandchildren).
Of course, being married and having daughters does not remove Leach from the criticisms that come with what he said and did. But it does appropriately paint the picture of who Leach was. He is going to say whatever pops up into his head in his flow-of-consciousness style. It is never premeditated, and he doesn’t give a damn what you think of it.
Time With The Media
It is common at conference media days for coaches to give an opening statement before taking questions from reporters. Les Miles used to spend 15 minutes talking about his family’s summer vacation in order to leave little time for media queries. While it seemed folksy and charming at the time, it was calculated and manipulative.
Leach has no desire to be that cunning. He never, and we mean never, gives opening statements at these events. He has proclaimed that he would rather address whatever the questions are. Of course, where that goes is anybody’s guess.
At a Pac-12 Media Day, when he was at Washington State, we asked Leach if it was hard to keep his players focused while they spent so much time on social media. He mimicked people typing fast on their phones. He then proclaimed to miss the old days of playing in the quarries and throwing rocks at each other. Leach was born in Susanville, CA but grew up in Cody Wyoming. We located four quarries in the city, with no verification he ever played in them.
But this is who he is. Leach had a long-standing fascination with the history of pirates. He made a cameo appearance in the television show Friday Night Lights, talking to the Coach Taylor character about just that. He liked answering questions that involve ranking Halloween candy, or which school mascots could take on the others in a fight. This season he gave wedding advice to a TV sideline reporter, suggesting she and her fiancé should elope instead of having a ceremony. He has always been generous with his time when it comes to the media.
Leach will go down as one of the most innovative offense coaches in college football. Those who backed him did so vociferously. He is well known to go out of his way with kind words for local merchants and employees, learning their names along the way. He will also be remembered for letting his glibness and free-flowing train of thought be entertaining, charming, and cringe-worthy.
No person can be just one thing. And Mike Leach was never going to allow any of his personal elements to be mired in obscurity or ordinariness.