Mike Leach was working on about four hours of sleep when he answered his cellphone on the afternoon of December 30, 2006.
“Got back to Lubbock around 4 a.m.,” he told me in that familiar monotone. You know, the one that seldom revealed emotion and often sounded like he was unspooling the setup for a great joke.
Hours earlier in Arizona, his Texas Tech Red Raiders had staged one of the greatest comebacks fans had ever seen, rallying from a 31-point deficit midway through the third quarter to beat Minnesota 44–41 in the Insight Bowl. The Tech coach had broken down and cried on live television after the game as he attempted to describe the pride he felt for his team. Inside the locker room, Leach told his players they had been part of something they would never forget: the largest comeback in Division I-A bowl history.
And when he answered my call in Lubbock that afternoon in 2006, he knew precisely what I, a columnist at the Houston Chronicle, wanted. I was looking for grand statements about the power of working together and never giving up, and of a bunch of players and coaches believing in one another when victory simply did not seem possible.
He was not going to give me that. He was going to give me plenty of great quotes, but he was not going to give me what I wanted. Mike Leach did not play that game.
Mike Leach, the head football coach at Mississippi State University and former head coach of the Texas Tech Red Raiders, was 61 when he died Monday night, one day after he suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. His death stunned the college football world he had energized and entertained for two decades. The coach I called almost sixteen years ago after the Insight Bowl is the man I hope to remember in years ahead. He was mostly a joy to be around and was willing to pontificate on everything, including, but not limited to:
• Halloween candy: “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.”
• Weddings: “In the end, you’ll wish you eloped.”
• Pet raccoons: “They hit raccoon teenage years, and it’s time for them to head off into the sunset.”
• Parenting: “Kids can sniff out a fake a mile away.”
• Pine cone wars: “If a pine cone war breaks out, you don’t really have any choice but to engage in it. I mean, there’s no neutral countries in pine cone wars.”
If you’re wondering what a pine cone war is, don’t sweat it. No one else understood it.
Leach once filled in for a Lubbock television weatherman. He had a cameo on the beloved TV drama Friday Night Lights. He had thoughts on Ernest Hemingway, dinosaurs, coffee, pizza. His endless curiosity and far-reaching imagination was crucial to his charm—just like it was essential to Leach becoming one of the most influential minds in football history.
Social media has been filled with Leach stories since he was hospitalized on Sunday. Someone found an old quote from USC head coach Lincoln Riley, who recalled listening in on one side of one of Leach’s phone conversations. After ninety minutes or so of talking, Leach hung up, and Riley, who was a backup quarterback under Leach at Texas Tech and began his coaching career in Lubbock, asked: “Hey, coach, who was that on the phone?”
Leach replied: “Oh, they had the wrong number.”
ESPN’s Rece Davis wrote on Twitter: “His unique personality has been part of [the] fabric of the game for the last couple of decades.”
Here’s what else to know about Mike Leach: He changed football forever with his pass-happy, air-raid offense that scored points in bunches. “From high school to the NFL, every football game you watch today has Mike Leach’s fingerprints on it,” wrote former Texas Tech quarterback BJ Symons. TCU’s Sonny Dykes, Houston’s Dana Holgerson, and Baylor’s Dave Aranda all coached under Leach at Texas Tech. Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury, Louisiana Tech head coach Sonny Cumbie, and the aforementioned Riley all played for the Red Raiders during the Leach era.
“I reached out to Coach Mike Leach in 2006 with a crazy request: Let me shadow you for 3 days,” shared Daron K. Roberts, a former NFL and college football coach and founding director of the Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation at the University of Texas. “3 days turned into one week. . . . I owe my journey in the football coaching profession to this man.”
Leach’s teams were 158–107 in his 21 years as a head coach. During his ten seasons at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders were 84–43, and Leach’s success completely transformed the program’s trajectory in terms of expectations, attendance, and facilities. He had winning records at both Washington State and Mississippi State. Leach had a messy departure from Texas Tech in the wake of a player discipline issue, but on Monday, the scoreboard at AT&T Jones Stadium was lit with a tribute to him.
As a coach, Leach could be a pain. “I’m not going to answer any of your big-picture questions,” he told me once when I pursued a certain line of questioning after a game. “We just played a game.” He saw the world a certain way, and if you happened to disagree, he might spend a couple of hours attempting to convince you otherwise.
Another time, he invited me to his office, pointed toward a giant television screen, and began explaining that people like me who were sometimes critical of Mack Brown’s program at Texas didn’t know football from horseshoes. He broke down a handful of defensive adjustments the Longhorns had made in a game against Texas Tech, and Leach said every single one of them caused him, one of game’s great offensive minds, headaches. In about the nicest way possible, he put me in my place.
Back in 2006, after the Insight Bowl comeback, I asked how he was celebrating the win. “Watched A Christmas Story,” he told me. “Hadn’t seen it in a few years. Great movie. Have you seen it?”
Wait, what? You experience one of your life’s greatest professional triumphs, and you celebrate by watching the movie that cable channels play on loop for 24 hours between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day? “Yeah,” Leach said. “I got as far as the part where the kid’s tongue got stuck to the flagpole before my allergy medicine and herbal sleeping pill kicked in, and I dozed off.”
I asked if the historic victory had the potential to change Texas Tech football in some larger way. You know, big-picture stuff. “Oh, absolutely,” he said. “I think this is a game we can draw on forever. We’re always committed to playing sixty minutes. That’s our legacy. I reminded our players of that. I asked them, ‘What’s your legacy going to be? We don’t need anyone out there who doesn’t believe. We don’t need any super plays. We need everyone doing their jobs. Just do your job over and over.’ ”
Leach, who graduated from Pepperdine University School of Law in 1986, had a plan for his life that didn’t include legal briefs. One day, as he recalled once to me, he walked into the house and told his wife, Sharon, that he wanted to be a football coach. His first gig was a graduate assistant’s position that paid almost nothing. From there, he worked his way up the coaching ladder, moving from school to school with fellow air-raid originator Hal Mumme until Bob Stoops invited Leach to be his first offensive coordinator when he took over at Oklahoma, in 1999.
Some thought that the pirate stories Leach loved to tell—Swing Your Sword was the name of his autobiography—were part of an act. Over time, maybe they became something like that. But early on, he saw pirates as a metaphor for the players on a football team working together, disciplining one another, and accomplishing their goals.
He was beloved at Texas Tech, but at times, even Red Raider fans didn’t know what to make of a football coach whose wardrobe leaned toward Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops. But through all the years, as he won some and lost some, as his coaching tree extended throughout the sport, Leach never lost that sense of childlike amazement at the beauty of his profession.
“I think the magic of football and team sports is that it’s not getting one person on the same page,” he told me in 2006. “You have to get a whole group collectively on the same page. There are instances when you can bring it all together and it works perfectly. You want to make those times last as long as you can.”
For the players and coaches he shared the field with, and the fans who cheered for Leach’s teams, those times will last forever.