The pirate sails away: Remembering Mike Leach


The death of Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach is reverberating throughout the sports world. As the architect of the revolutionary "Air Raid" offensive scheme and a successful coach in three Power Five conferences during the 21st century, Leach left an indelible legacy on college football that lives on though an expansive coaching tree.

But that legacy encompasses far more than what he accomplished on the field at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State. Leach's trailblazing offense came from a special mind that often strayed from the Xs and Os strategy that helped him amass a 158-107 career record.

Leach's uniquely wired personality made him one of the most quotable college football coaches of all-time. From rants about wildlife and aliens to discussions on the merits of marriage, he often eschewed coachspeak in favor of stand-up comedy -- even if his long-winded rants weren't intended to be funny.

Beyond the wins, losses, controversies and triumphs that mark the careers of most coaches, Leach gave us so much more.

The first time I met Mike Leach, he was in his office at Texas Tech eating lunch out of a brown paper bag. In his free hand was a remote he was using to roll game film back and forth. A snapshot of a man who could multitask.

Back then, most of us didn't know the Air Raid offense from a spreadsheet -- but a pirate was in the making. Along with it, a revolution was coming. Leach was leading it.

Leach perfected concepts honed over stops at Iowa Wesleyan, Kentucky, Texas Tech and the vast reaches of his mind to create space sideline to sideline. You load up the tackle box, and he would unleash greyhounds out on the periphery for deep shots. Go out and double team those speedsters, and he'd hand it off inside.

That was the easy part. His offensive formations took over the game. You see Leach's Air Raid today from Division III to Andy Reid's creative play calls with Patrick Mahomes. They may not know it or admit it, but they can trace all of it back to an eccentric native of small-town California, raised in small-town Wyoming who ended up among the all-time greats.

Leach died Monday night following complications from a heart condition. He was 61.

Luckily, in this modern digital age, we all had front row center seats. If it wasn't his schemes that rejuvenated fortunes at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State, it was his antics that made him something funnier, deeper, more important than the average coach.

He was more comfortable giving marriage advice than talking ball. He wrote an entire book on the battle tactics of Geronimo. Journalist Bruce Feldman popularized Leach's nickname, "The Pirate," in their fine book, "Swing Your Sword: Leading the Charge in Football and Life."

He made the offbeat his life's work whether football or fun. He could rip apart defenses or joust with administration. The latter cost him his job at Texas Tech in 2009 after alleged mistreatment of a player. Leach fought for his remaining unpaid salary for years.

"They still owe me for 2009, the last time they won nine games," Leach told the Lowndes County Dispatch last year.

His legacy will endure beyond the boundaries of the white lines. He remains Texas Tech's winningest coach, peaking in 2008 with an 11-2 season and No. 2 ranking that featured a dramatic last-second win over then-No. 1 Texas. At Washington State, he did the unthinkable winning at least nine games three times in eight seasons. In the history of the program, only Mike Price had achieved that feat with the Cougars. Leach did with a standout 11-2 campaign in 2018.

Wanting to test himself in the SEC, Leach was in the process of turning it around at Mississippi State in his third season. The Bulldogs head into their bowl game 8-4, now with heavy hearts and wondering what could have been. It was the 19th time in his 21 seasons as a head coach that Leach led his team to a bowl.

In his first game in the nation's best conference in 2020, Leach coached Stanford transfer quarterback K.J. Costello to SEC-record 623 yards passing against LSU. This season, QB Will Rogers threw more passes than anyone in the country (566) and led the SEC in passing.

To the end, the Pirate kept firing -- from the hip and from the shotgun.

In small-town Pullman, Washington, he could walk to work doing media interviews on his phone.

"Are you the coach?" a passerby could be heard asking.

Those are also words you would not hear from the average citizen of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but Nick Saban wouldn't be caught walking anywhere because of the potential for being mobbed.

Not so in The Palouse.

"This is the quickest way, and of course, I walk to school so I can get something done," Leach said. "Walking to work, getting the phone calls done. Multitask."

He was good at that.

Leach will gladly share the spotlight with those who had a hand in perfecting the spread offense -- his former coaching boss Hal Mumme, visionary Bob Stitt and Chip Kelly. It was under Mumme where Leach developed the Air Raid.

Leach was, simply put, a genius -- both athletically and culturally. The man could be rough around the edges. He was known for publicly calling out players who didn't perform to his standards. Sometimes, it was unsightly; for the most part, his players swore by him.

And his quarterbacks? One of them who never played in the NFL is USC coach Lincoln Riley, who has coached three of the last six Heisman Trophy winners. Kliff Kingsbury played as a backup but is known these days as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. Four of his quarterbacks threw for 5,000 yards. One of them, Graham Harrell, is an established college offensive coordinator.

The Leach coaching tree is now a sequoia, rooted in the Air Raid. The concepts he left behind were used by Stoops to win the national championship at Oklahoma one year after Leach left for Texas Tech. Stoops' quarterback that year, Josh Heupel, eventually became offensive coordinator and coached a Heisman winner at OU, Sam Bradford.

You saw more than glimpses of Leach's influence in Tennessee's turnaround this season under Heupel. Aside from perhaps the service academies, every program in the country uses some form of his concepts.

Leach defined a game that was already becoming more about speed than contact. He made the shootout a way of life. And in a strange way, he didn't seek the spotlight; he reacted to it.

He seemed to love coaching in out of the way burgs -- Lubbock, Pullman, Starkville.

He didn't need the bright lights, just lunch out of a brown paper bag and a remote.

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