Mike Leach sounded awful. It was Nov. 29, a Tuesday afternoon, and he could hardly speak without it being followed by a harsh, hacking cough. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, as I was too busy enjoying the fact that a major college football coach was treating me like a human being, not someone from whom he needed a buffer.
“Call anytime,” Leach had texted me earlier.
We didn’t have a preexisting relationship. We’d chatted a few times over the years for different stories, all of them fairly routine, just like this one — I wanted his opinion on the one-year turnaround his former pupil, Lincoln Riley, had pulled off at USC.
Once we were talking, it quickly became clear Leach wasn’t that invested in the topic. But he seemed pretty pleased to have random company on the other end of the line.
Not long into the call, someone brought to Leach’s attention that a tornado warning had gone into effect in Starkville, Miss. This piqued Leach’s curiosity, and soon I was riding along on his ear as he walked through Mississippi State’s football facility, looking for a view of the coming storm.
It was a little after 5 local time, and he was now debating whether he should jet home or stay on campus to remain safe from the theoretical twister.
“Maybe I’ll hang around here and do some Cameos,” Leach said, referring to his side gig sending videos to fans who were often requesting his incomparable wisdom on the navigation of marriage and mother-in-laws.
Our interview was going well for him because the tornado diversion was freeing him from having to answer my mundane questions about Riley, and he could instead steer us into a real conversation.
“So, where are you from?” Leach asked.
I told him I was from Shreveport, La., which felt good because I knew Leach would actually know where that was — not always a given.
“The Pirate” has gotten around, and we know that because a man who chose to coach college football in outposts like Lubbock, Texas, and Pullman, Wash., and Starkville, also got his law degree in Malibu at Pepperdine back when his ship was headed somewhere way less interesting.
Today, with the official announcement that Leach died following complications from a heart condition at the tragically young age of 61, the college football world will mourn the loss of a “national treasure,” but those of us who love the sport should also give thanks that Leach deviated from the law and embraced the lawlessness of Hal Mumme’s “Air Raid” offense instead.
Leach’s impact on the sport the last 25 years is truly immeasurable. The concepts churned in that little passing game incubator on the windswept plains of West Texas changed the way we consider the game of football altogether. No, Leach didn’t invent the forward pass, and, yes, plenty of teams were winning by tossing it around in the 1980s and certainly the 1990s, but Leach was the first to spread the ball from boundary to boundary so fearlessly it became an established talent equalizer.
At Texas Tech, Leach’s Red Raider teams went after Big 12 blue-bloods Texas and Oklahoma, scheming the opposing blue-chippers into space and blowing past them. They weren’t trying to pull upsets by running clock; Leach wanted more plays for his offense.
Leach’s development of the coaches underneath him was beyond compare. As we talked that Tuesday, he explained the Tech culture that he believed Riley brought with him to USC.
“They’re open-minded, always trying to look for a better way,” Leach said. “Everyone’s got a voice. Some places, the staff doesn’t have much of a voice. Our staff, whoever’s the lowest guy at the table, you still listen to what he says in case he’s right. With that said, if your idea is not accepted, we don’t have time for somebody to be a big baby. Your idea is going to be held up to scrutiny. Once a course is set, it’s all hands on deck, you know?”
At Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State, Leach set the course so that his programs did not become rudderless as a byproduct of their openness. He taught a long list of protégés how to do the same — Riley, Kliff Kingsbury, Sonny Dykes, Dana Holgorsen, Dave Aranda, Josh Heupel, to name only a handful.
So many of the top quarterbacks in college football and the NFL have a connection to Leach’s tree. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, for instance, was coached by Kingsbury at Texas Tech. Kingsbury now coaches Kyler Murray, who was developed by Riley at Oklahoma. Heck, this year’s Heisman Trophy winner, USC’s Caleb Williams, and runner-up, TCU’s Max Duggan, were tutored by Riley and Dykes, respectively.
Leach, through the guys he groomed, has his handprints on just about everything, it seems. But while Riley’s mantle is going to run out of room by the time he’s 40, his mentor has never coached a conference championship team or a Heisman winner in all this time, largely due to the places he chose to port his ship.
Leach could have strived to end up at schools with loftier expectations, but he didn’t need the headache — and, if we’re being honest, many of them didn’t desire his … quirks. After being forced out at Texas Tech due to player mistreatment allegations, he landed even further off the map in the Palouse. When he wanted to try his ways where “it just means more” in the SEC, Starkville was a natural hideout between voyages to Key West.
Now, it must be said, in locales off the beaten path, Leach had full control to do things his way and that didn’t always sit well with others. The man did not like being told what to do, a point he drove home throughout the pandemic, as federal, state, conference and school protocols were thrust upon him.
I asked Leach how often he saw Riley, and he instinctively railed against COVID-19.
“Not as much as you’d like, because I’ll tell you what’s happened, we celebrated COVID for 2 1/2 years, and regardless of which side of the coin you’re on, we can all agree the thing was completely mishandled,” Leach said. “So we’re still suffering from poor judgment and governmental overreach, so as a result everyone is kind of locked down and screwing around on a computer. You’re not seeing anybody there.”
I asked him whether he had ever thought of running for office. I have to think the guy could win.
“I hate both parties,” he said, before telling me why there should be term limits to get people out of there more easily.
The conversation, refreshingly aimless, just kept going. After a while, I wondered what it would take for him to end it. An incoming tornado, apparently, wasn’t enough.
Marveling at the turn my afternoon took, I asked Leach why he’s so tolerant of folks like me compared with his peers.
“I like hearing your stories,” he said.
He didn’t mean stories, like this column I wanted to write on Riley. He meant stories, like how a kid from Shreveport ended up in Santa Monica.
Mike Leach was simply amused by the chance to share Mike Leach with someone new, and, 55 minutes after he answered my call, we said goodbye.
In hindsight, the whole thing was crazy. I can’t stop thinking about that nasty cough. I have since read that Leach told ESPN after the season he had been struggling with pneumonia. The experience could not have been easy on his body.
Today, I am sad. But I am also grateful that I lucked into seeing this side of a legendary coach, comedian and thinker, a man who definitely made me feel like I could call anytime.