Mike Leach – 1961-2022

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Mike Leach – 1961-2022

Mike Leach, the pirate captain of college football, died last week at the age of 61 from complications related to a heart condition.

Anyone who has watched or followed college football since the mid-’90s will be aware of the quirky coach who liked to give oddball interviews and whose second-tier teams always liked to score a lot of points. Leach served as head coach at three schools, first Texas Tech and then Washington State before Mississippi State, and recorded a solid 158-107 overall career win-loss record. Though he never won a national championship and compiled a mediocre 8-9 record in bowl games, Leach is as personally responsible for how the modern game of football is played as any one person can be — and belongs on this century’s Mount Rushmore of college football head coaches every bit as much as the Sabans and Meyers and Carrolls.

Along with coach Hal Mumme, whom Leach served under as offensive coordinator at Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State, and Kentucky, Leach designed and perfected the air raid scheme, a pass-heavy, wide-open offense utilizing a near-constant shotgun formation that heavily features four wide receivers to only one running back.

This formation is commonplace now, not just in the college game but even in the traditionally run-heavy NFL. In the ’90s and through the 2000s, however, it was a revelation, and Leach’s innovation (and quirky antics) earned him the nickname “the mad scientist.” And it is largely thanks to two men, Leach and Chip Kelly, popularizer of the up-tempo, no-huddle spread option offense, that football, even at the professional level, has turned into such a wide-open, pass-heavy affair.

Four of the nine highest single-season passing yardage totals in Division I college football history were accumulated by quarterbacks coached by Leach in his system. Nor, with all due respect, was Leach operating with first-round draft pick-level talent. Record-setting QBs included B.J. Symons, Graham Harrell, Connor Halliday, and Anthony Gordon, but several more notable names played the position under Leach, such as NFL backup Gardner Minshew and coaches Kliff Kingsbury and Josh Heupel.

Leach’s so-called coaching tree, meaning those who played and/or coached under him and went on to become coaches themselves, is a who’s who of prolific offensive minds. Kingsbury followed as head coach at Texas Tech a few years after Leach’s departure and then the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL. Heupel spent several years at UCF before installing his potent offense at the University of Tennessee in 2021. Other names included USC’s Lincoln Riley and TCU’s Sonny Dykes. And though Leach never coached at juggernauts, his smaller second-tier schools were always live to take a shot at anybody. Eighteen times Leach led his unranked team to a victory over a team ranked in the AP poll, the most of any coach in the AP poll era.

Yet even more than his innovations to the game of football, Leach is beloved for the unique personality he brought to the sport. What sets college football apart from the professional game, beyond poor defensive play, is the passion, sincerity, and craziness of college communities, fan bases, and even their states. Leach was all of this in a person, and that person just so happened to be a college football coach. “Swing your sword” was Leach’s mantra and the title of his autobiography.

A product of rural Wyoming, an Eagle Scout who played rugby for longer than he played football, a football mad scientist who graduated law school from Pepperdine before ever taking up the coach’s visor, Leach was an enigmatic melange of down-home country wisdom and technical, statistical schematics. Leach was famous for giving off-the-wall interviews, such as when speaking about his gun ownership. Leach noted that rather than any of his guns (which he kept locked up), “I do have a Viking ax by the bed if I need to whack someone. … The ax side curls down so you can grab the adversary around the neck, and you can use it to climb walls as a grappling hook.” Another legendary Leach moment came at Pac-12 media day when the pirate opined at length which of the conference’s animal mascots he believed would win in a battle royale (Colorado’s buffalo seemed the winner).

Yet when the cameras stopped rolling, Leach was no different. Barstool Sports college football analyst Brandon Walker, himself a Mississippi State fan, told a story of interviewing Leach back in April: “I’ve interviewed coaches before. … With Mike Leach, it was legitimately like talking to someone I’ve known my entire life. When we cut the interview, usually you take your mic off, you stand up, shake hands, get out of his hair, let him go to work. Mike Leach stood up, went to his desk, took out a bag of tobacco, threw it on the table in front of me, and said, ‘Don’t go anywhere. This ain’t gonna dip itself.’”

Once asked how he wanted to be remembered when he died, Leach responded, “Well, that’s their problem. … What do I care? I’m dead.” Before he passed, Leach donated one of his organs “as a final act of charity,” his family reported in their statement. The recipient will join a generation of thankful football fans.

Grant Addison is deputy editor of the Washington Examiner magazine.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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