When I heard the news that college football coach Mike Leach passed away from complications of a heart attack at the age of 61, I was immediately saddened and devastated to see the sports world lose such a unique character and football mind that had more to give.
The “Air-Raid guru’s” death is very personal to me as I attended Washington State University from 2014-18, the height of Leach’s run as a Coug. I was fortunate to go to school at a time when our football program was thriving and consistently winning close to 10 games a year. Before his arrival, WSU football had been in turmoil since Mike Price left after the 2002 season.
Over the years, Leach became known for his high-powered passing offenses, which he developed as an offensive coordinator with head coach Hal Mumme at Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State and Kentucky in the 1990s.
After getting his first head coaching gig at Texas Tech in 2000, Leach began to solidify himself as one of the hot new coaches in college football, largely in part to his exciting brand of offense. Notable players during his Red Raiders stint included QB’s Kliff Kingsbury (now head coach of Arizona Cardinals) and Graham Harrel, along with standout wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who Seahawk fans are very familiar with during his time as a 49er.
One of Leach’s most memorable games as a coach was when No. 7 ranked Tech upset the No. 1 ranked Texas on a last-second touchdown catch by Crabtree. They ended the year with an 11-1 record, the best in school history.
After a near-decade run in Lubbock, Leach’s next head coaching stop brought him to Pullman, a place that is similar to Lubbock in terms of being a college town and away from city life. He became coach of WSU in 2012 and finished his first season 3-9, although he did beat rival University of Washington, his lone Apple Cup win, which is ironic because that was one the worst teams he coached there.
In 2013, Leach led the Cougs to its first bowl game in a decade, finishing 6-6. But the next year the team took a step back, finishing 3-9 again. Many wondered if he was the right man for the job.
Things were about to change for the better in 2015. Despite an opening loss to FCS school Portland State, WSU finished 9-4, which was the school’s best record since 2003. The year was highlighted by the emergence of walk-on QB Luke Falk, who ended up having a great college career.
The 2016 season started off similarly, losing the first two games before rattling off eight straight wins. They ended that season 8-5 and the following season 9-4.
Perhaps Leach’s most memorable season as a Coug was 2018, when transfer QB Gardner Minshew entered the fold. His unique and easy-going personality seemed to gel well with Leach. The team ended up going 11-2, breaking a school record for most wins in a season.
After Minshew was gone, it was inevitable Leach was looking for another opportunity, particularly in the SEC. In 2020, he made the move to Mississippi State to become the team’s head coach. He coached there until his passing.
One of a kind
Before I attended WSU, I had an idea of what coach Leach was like as I saw him interviewed for years at Tech. He was always so matter-of-fact and to the point. I was beyond excited to get the chance to cover an incredible football mind and an entertaining character who was never afraid to voice his opinion.
As a new sports reporter at the Daily Evergreen newspaper, WSU’s student publication, I walked into my first Leach press conference on a Tuesday and realized I was the first one in the room. I hadn’t realized that Leach routinely showed up a half hour late, something all the veteran reporters knew.
So if his presser was scheduled for 11, it really meant 11: 30. I sat there anxiosuly twiddling my thumbs until the room filled with media and camera equipment. Once Leach arrived, the question and answer session would always start with football but would turn into something random, like discussing which Pac-12 mascots would win in a fight and what were some of his favorite Tom Petty songs. Reporters, like myself, ate up content like this.
Leach was always known for his fascination of quirky things like pirates, which earned him the nickname ‘The Pirate.” He would often utter the words “swing your sword” and “find your inner pirate,” which Leach is most known for saying in a cameo of Friday Night Lights to fictional coach Eric Taylor.
He was the kind of polarizing figure that you either loved or hated him. I’m not going to lie, there were times when he would rub me the wrong way on certain things but he always stayed true to himself and never waivered when hit with criticism. He was who he was, and he understood that better than anyone. Keep “swinging your sword” Coach!