‘It was a truly impactful life’ Mississippi State and friends say farewell to Mike Leach

Mississippi State, the Southeastern Conference, and not a few leading figures in college football offered a formal sort of good-bye today. Then again, the legacy of mike leach will remain long wherever he was called Coach.

As University President Dr. Keenum said, “He made a difference in this world as part of God’s plan for this life here with us.”

the 2022 Bulldog team and staff, including newly-named head coach Zach Arnett, shared the floor seating with hundreds of guests including all 13 fellow SEC head coaches and many Leach peers. Mississippi State is on campus practicing this week for the January 2 Reliaquest Bowl.

The ‘us’ goes far beyond the boundaries of this campus which hosted Leach’s last coaching tenure from over three decades in college football. Leach’s sheer impact on the sport and more was reflected by the guest list in Humphrey Coliseum, the roster of recorded tributes shown, and a national viewing audience for the special ceremony.

As SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said from the stage, “We all share memories. But we also all show our true appreciation of mike leach.” Yes, including the SEC chief who had his share of calls about what one of Sankey’s football officials did not call correctly or at all. Even then, “I only had one nasty conversation with Mike, and I kind of won that one… I think,” Sankey said. All this and “I’m grateful Mike chose to be a part of the Southeastern Conference.”

The coach who brought Leach into the SEC first, Hello mom, recalled his friend on a far more personal level going back even before they arrived at Kentucky. It began at Iowa Wesleyan when the air raid offense Mumme conceived and Leach constructed became too tough for the small school’s local opponents and recruiting reach.

So one day “We looked at each other and said “road trip!”” Mumme related. Naturally Leach found a prospect to visit…in Key West. Ultimately trips to Florida resulted somehow in the launching of a Leach legend, when Mumme wanted to route through South Carolina and mentioned The Citadel.

Leach responded he didn’t care for ‘military’ type schools like those because the student-athletes were playing soldier. “He said if I’m going to play anything I’d want to play a pirate. That’s where the idea was born, right there.”

But then Leach certainly soldiered through the assistant coaching ranks, finally as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma where Bob Stoops was the new head coach in 1999. As defensive coordinator at Florida, Stoops said Leach had them “pulling their hair out” trying to defend Kentucky’s air raid. So, Stoops offered Leach this job.

A year later the Big XII’s 11th-ranked offense was first. “Very few people outside the locker room saw how competitive he could be,” Stoops said. “He was a great coach and proved it, program to program.” Lincoln Rileyan assistant along with Leach that one year and later Oklahoma head coach, attended today also and spoke as part of the growing Leach coaching tree.

“His legacy will go on. He truly did invest in other people and it’s a lesson for us all how you can change one person’s life.”

Leach’s legend blossomed at Texas Tech, then Washington State. A pair of Cougar players made this trip, including famed quarterback Gardner Minshew who was given leave by the Philadelphia Eagles.

“He was my favorite coach long before I met him. And when I met him he changed my world. He asked do you want to lead the country in passing?” The Flowood, Miss., native indeed would do that at Washington State and make his way to the NFL as well.

It fell to another Mississippi kid and now Bulldog quarterback Will Rogers to speak for the last Leach team, along with linebacker Nate Watson. “Coach Leach was the first college coach to believe in me,” related Rogers, the SEC’s passing leader for this 2022 regular season and owner of almost every Mississippi State passing record worth listing. “Coach and I had a special relationship.”

Special enough that in one particular talk during and going after the timeout, with the SEC referee signaling everyone to get on the field and get it going, Leach and Rogers still “disagreed” about what play to call. Finally, “Call something that will score,” Leach told his quarterback.

“I’m honored to have known this man. Coach, thank you for believing me and for everything you’ve done for me. Until we meet again, thanks.”

Washington State receiver Gabe Marks was the most openly emotional speaker, repeating what others had said of the infamous wee-hours phone calls and texts from night-owl Leach. “My last text from him was at 3:00am!” Marks said, then he ran through his Coach’s lessons for football and living.

“Be the best at doing your job. If you make the routine plays in life you give yourself a good chance to win. Always play the next play. And when adversity strikes you strike back. I’ll take these lessons with me all my life.”

dr Keenum recalled his first meeting with the coaching candidate, when Leach asked more questions than the man in overall charge of hiring did. Fasting far forward to Thanksgiving Night of 2022 Dr. Keenum spoke of the post-win locker room at Oxford.

“We prayed again and celebrated an outstanding and hard-fought Egg Bowl championship. Little did we know that would be Mike’s final game and his final victory.”

That was officially victory #158 of Leach’s career. However, agent and long-time friend Gary O’Hagan had a point to make on that count. He reminded how Leach was relieved of duties just days before the 2009 Texas Tech team played, and won the 2010 Alamo Bowl.

“Certainly it was Mike’s team,” O’Hagan said. “He went to San Diego to be with the team.” O’Hagan noted that the kicker who provided 11 of Tech’s points in the 41-31 win had won a student body kickoff competition Leach held for the job. “So he was the difference.” Texas Tech officially credits the win to temporary coach Ruffin McNeil.

But were it awarded to Leach, he would meet the National Football Foundation’s minimum 60% winning rate “right on the money” for membership. O’Hagan suggested, humorously, that perhaps a coach who has a win over Leach’s teams somewhere along the way might ‘donate’ it towards this Hall of Fame cause.

O’Hagan also mentioned many a conversation not involving football or business, such as the “three of four times a year” Leach would ask about believing in the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot and such. “It dawned on me mike leach wanted to believe in things, that anything was possible.”

For that matter Leach promoted the impossible for the sport. dr Keenum, chair of the College Football Playoff Board, reminded that the national championship system will expand from four to twelve teams in 2024.

“To him twelve teams wasn’t enough. He developed an elaborate plan for a 64-team playoff,” Keenum said. “He urged me to use my influence with the board. It even made sense!”

Equally so much of Leach’s reputation often came from nonsensical questions sent his way in press conferences and interviews. But then Leach’s ranges of interests were as far-spread as the distance from his raising in Cody, Wyoming to his home in Key West. As O’Hagan described him Leach shared characteristics of literary legend Gus McCrae, a ‘Lonesome Dove’ reference the coach could appreciate.

“It’s hard to look to a future without mike leach. I believe it’s comforting to recall the time we did have with Mike,” Stoops said. Even those infuriating, enlightening times when their phones would ring deeeeep into the night. In fact, Stoops suggested to all his fellows on the Leach tree, “Let’s reach out and call each other after midnight in Mike’s honor.”

As the thousands of observers and guests assembled, the Coliseum pa played from Leach’s own list with Credeence Clearwater, the Eagles, Marshall Tucker Band, Grateful Dead, and more such cuts.

Yet as lights dimmed before the program began, the final tune was predictable and perfect with Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way.’ A cliche, of course. Yet the best clichés are after all based on truth. and after all mike leach undoubtedly, unceasingly, and unreservedly did it his very own way.

And he did it well. As Marks said best, “It was a truly impactful life.”

Leave a Comment