Back when he coached Washington State, Mike Leach preferred to walk to work, about a 3.5-mile trek. He was never much into driving a car. Walking (or biking or even rollerblading) felt right, and not just for the exercise, but for the randomness of life it could provide.
He’d often use the time to call recruits, or friends, or boosters, or media, or whomever else popped into his forever-revving mind. He might have a single, simple question, but one hour and 14 topics later, he’d be describing the best taco he ever ate in Del Rio, Texas. That was Mike Leach.
In the winter, when the snow would cover the ground, it wasn’t unusual for Leach to see some animal prints and decide to do some “tracking.” Maybe it was a deer, maybe a fox. He couldn’t help but wonder where the animal had gone. “I was just curious where this raccoon lived,” he once explained.
This was, perhaps, the most Mike Leach trait that Mike Leach ever displayed.
Capable of noticing something that others just zombie past yet also so endlessly curious that he would fully apply himself into discovery. Not knowing, or, more specifically, not at least trying to know, was just not possible for him, even if it meant the most famous guy in town was tromping through someone’s backyard in search of a critter.
Leach died Monday night at age 61 following a recent health incident at his home in Starkville, where he coached Mississippi State the past three seasons. He’d battled pneumonia and other ailments all season.
He leaves behind his wife, Sharon, four grown children, a Bulldogs team and a football community that loved him almost as much as he impacted it.
Leach will be fondly remembered by fans as this colorful, eccentric character, a bolt of personality in what is too often an overly serious profession.
His news conferences — just like any conversation with Leach — could flow into absurd topics from ranking which Pac-12 mascot could win a fight (“Just in terms of a beast alone, a [Colorado] Buffalo is going to be pretty hard to tangle with.”) to wedding-planning advice for the groom (“Stay out of the way.”) to the existence of Big Foot (he wanted to believe but wasn’t optimistic).
Occasionally, he’d talk about his team’s third-down conversion rate or something mundane like that.
He had a law degree from Pepperdine and too much intelligence to just be content talking football. He seemed to spend large swaths of his day discussing pirates and military history and macroeconomics and how coffee should be consumed (“Black, it should taste horrible”) and Key West and politics and the importance of gravy at Thanksgiving and, man, you just never knew.
He never did anything like anyone else. This was an innovative football mind who never really played football — he was a benchwarmer as a high school junior in little Cody, Wyoming. He was a busy coach who found time to teach a class at Washington State: “Insurgent Warfare and Football Strategies.”
During a stretch between jobs, he hosted a radio show on Sirius and decided to multitask by getting his workouts in during commercial breaks. That meant, say, hammering out a couple minutes of pushups, which left him gasping for breath as he returned to the air.
If anything, the comedy act and self-deprecation took away from his impact on football. It is not too much to say the sport — from high school to the NFL — would not be played as it is if not for Leach.
He was an architect of the Air Raid offense with his mentor, Hal Mumme. In the simplest terms, they tried to answer the age-old question: What if you just ran two-minute offense all the time?
First, it was as an assistant at small programs and big ones before Leach broke out on his own at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State.
His thinking ran counter to everything. He once described how he ideally would have 10 players stretched equidistant from each other from one sideline to the other, with just the QB sitting back and picking his target.
“It’d be unstoppable,” he declared, and while football rules prohibit the offensive line from spreading out that much, “The Spread” became mainstream because coaches watched his teams with a mix of curious horror and then awe.
Some of its principles began to dominate the NFL — tempo, empty backfields, the value of the slot receiver, quarterbacks reading coverages at the line, going for it on fourth down and so on.
Leach once spoke ambitiously about playing an entire game without calling a run, but even he never went that far.
In his 21 seasons as a head coach, his teams delivered 13 seasons of eight or more victories, a remarkable accomplishment because all three of his programs were among the least resourced in their leagues. Everyone always wondered if he and his system could win a championship, but he was too eccentric, and at times too controversial, for some schools’ tastes.
He pointed to the Super Bowl champs who ran some version of what he did as proof of concept.
Leach was an American original, a football savant, a guy who wouldn’t just run around barking motivational sayings — “Be the hammer, never the nail.” … “Swing your sword.” — but lived it himself. He never played scared. He never shied away from being entertaining. He didn’t put on airs. He’d talk to anyone, anywhere for hours.
He never seemed to consider whose sensibilities he offended, be it football or anything else.
He just did it his way.
Ask most football coaches what they would be doing for a living if they weren’t coaching football and you’ll likely be met by a confused look or some humble line about not being smart enough to do anything else.
With Leach, it was the opposite. What would he do? How about asking what wouldn’t he do?
Maybe he’d have been a lawyer or a politician or a scientist or a talk-show host or a professor or maybe he’d just be that guy wandering around in the snow trying to find out where a raccoon slept, because who wouldn’t want to know that?
In many ways, it was all the same. A mind and a man too big for a game, now gone too soon for a sport, and a fan base near and far, which adored and appreciated him for it.