HomeSportsMississippi State coach Leach dies at age 61

Mississippi State coach Leach dies at age 61

Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach died Monday night after complications related to a heart condition, the school announced. He was 61.

Leach’s family said, in a statement released Tuesday by the school, that Leach participated in organ donation at the University of Mississippi Medical Center as “a final act of charity.”

“We are supported and uplifted by the outpouring of love and prayers from family, friends, Mississippi State University, the hospital staff, and football fans around the world,” Leach’s family said. “Thank you for sharing in the joy of our beloved husband and father’s life.”

Leach suffered what the university initially described in a news release as a “personal health issue” at his home in Starkville on Sunday, which required him to be airlifted to the UMMC in Jackson, about 125 miles from Mississippi State.

Leach, in his third season as Mississippi State’s coach, had told ESPN after the regular season concluded that he struggled with pneumonia during the season but was feeling better. He was at practice Saturday before suffering his health issue on Sunday.

News of him falling gravely ill swept through college football the past few days and left many who knew him stunned, hoping and praying for Leach’s recovery under grim circumstances.

“Coach Mike Leach cast a tremendous shadow not just over Mississippi State University, but over the entire college football landscape,” university president Mark E. Keenum said in a statement. “His innovative ‘Air Raid’ offense changed the game. Mike’s keen intellect and unvarnished candor made him one of the nation’s true coaching legends. His passing brings great sadness to our university, to the Southeastern Conference, and to all who loved college football. I will miss Mike’s profound curiosity, his honesty, and his wide-open approach to pursuing excellence in all things.

“Mike’s death also underscores the fragility and uncertainty of our lives. Three weeks ago, Mike and I were together in the locker room celebrating a hard-fought victory in Oxford. Mike Leach truly embraced life and lived in such a manner as to leave no regrets. That’s a worthy legacy. May God bless the Leach family during these days and hours. The prayers of the Bulldog family go with them.”

Leach was in his third head-coaching stint, with a 19-17 record for the Bulldogs, 8-4 this season. He was at Texas Tech from 2000 to 2009 and Washington State from 2012 to 2019. He was the AFCA national coach of the year in 2018 at Washington State.

“We are heartbroken and devastated by the passing of Mike Leach,” Mississippi State interim athletic director Bracky Brett said in a statement. “College football lost one of its most beloved figures today, but his legacy will last forever. Mike’s energetic personality, influential presence and extraordinary leadership touched millions of athletes, students, coaches, fans, family and friends for decades.

“Mike was an innovator, pioneer and visionary. He was a college football icon, a coaching legend but an even better person. We are all better for having known Mike Leach. The thoughts and prayers of Mississippi State University and the entire Bulldog family are with his wife Sharon, his children and the entire Leach family.”

Known for his prolific Air Raid offenses, Leach was 158-107 in his 21 seasons as a head coach. He was also known for his quirky personality, dry wit, and penchant for talking about history, business and politics (and, really, just about anything else) as comfortably as he did quarterbacks making the right reads and receivers running the right routes.

Four of the nine highest single-season passing yardage totals in FBS history — and seven of the top 26 — came under quarterbacks coached by Leach.

Calling plays from a folded piece of paper smaller than an index card, Leach turned passers such as B.J. Symons (448.7 yards per game), Graham Harrell (438.8), Connor Halliday (430.3) and Anthony Gordon (429.2) into record-setters and Heisman Trophy contenders.

His 158 career wins were ranked fifth among active FBS coaches this season.

Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, who played three seasons under Leach at Texas Tech and was the Red Raiders’ head coach from 2013 to 2018, said Tuesday that the sport of football “was better because of Mike Leach and is far less interesting without him.”

“There is no way I would be where I am today if not for Mike Leach and everything he taught me about the game,” Kingsbury said. “Truly one of the most innovative offensive minds in football, he was more than a coach. He was a mentor, a friend and one of the most special people I’ve ever met.”

In addition to Kingsbury and Tennessee‘s Josh Heupel, Leach’s extensive coaching tree includes USC‘s Lincoln Riley, TCU‘s Sonny Dykes and Houston‘s Dana Holgorsen.

“It’s hard to put into words the impact that Mike Leach had on the players he coached, the game of football and me personally,” Dykes said Tuesday. “He was a unique personality and independent thinker and a great friend. No one had a greater influence on my life other than my father.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban said in a statement that he is “deeply saddened” by Leach’s “unexpected passing.”

“I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Mike over the last several years,” Saban said. “I never knew quite where our conversations were going, but they always made me smile. He was an offensive innovator who always did things his way and was admired for it. His teams were well-coached and extremely challenging to defend. They played with poise and toughness, which is a credit to his leadership.”

Nicknamed the “Pirate,” Leach had an affinity for pirates and even had a life-sized statue of a singing pirate in his office when he was at Washington State. It was a gift from Hall of Fame basketball coach Bob Knight, who was the basketball coach at Texas Tech when Leach was in Lubbock as football coach.

Never one to shy away from opining on any subject, Leach once quipped, “I miss streakers,” after a fan ran onto the field and dropped his pants following a touchdown in Washington State’s 24-21 win over Stanford in 2017. And after Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016, Leach congratulated Trump via text and offered to be Trump’s “Secretary of Offense.”

Leach had countless interests. He was an avid outdoorsman and loved to travel, especially to his favorite spot in Key West, Florida. He graduated in the upper 25% of his class with a law degree from Pepperdine University and co-authored a book on Geronimo and the Apache leader’s approach to leadership.

“Every conversation with Mike made you think,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. “His humor, depth and point of view continually challenged all of us to think differently and reevaluate our perspectives.”

Leach, who grew up mostly in Cody, Wyoming, earned his undergraduate degree from BYU, where he played rugby. He didn’t play football in college but closely studied Hall of Fame BYU coach LaVell Edwards and his offense.

After receiving his law degree in 1986, Leach began his football coaching career at Cal Poly in 1987, then joined Hal Mumme’s staff at Iowa Wesleyan in 1989. Mumme, the creator of the Air Raid offense that made Leach a superstar in coaching, said Leach deserved a lot of credit for turning the scheme into a brand name. Leach worked for Mumme as offensive line coach at Iowa Wesleyan and also served as a de facto publicist, sending out news releases to national newspapers about the team’s high-flying exploits.

“When you say, ‘Air Raid,’ he was the guy who came up with the name,” Mumme told ESPN in a recent interview. “He came up with the name so that we would be able to publicize it, and it’s probably fitting since he’s been the guy who took it the furthest.”

Leach followed Mumme to Valdosta State and Kentucky, where quarterback Tim Couch blossomed and became the No. 1 pick in the 1999 NFL draft.

“We had some disagreements,” Mumme, who is retired, said Tuesday. “Like, I’m kind of the opposite on the aliens/ Bigfoot deal. And we used to have arguments over Quanah Parker and Geronimo. I’m a Quanah Parker guy. And, over Comanches and Apaches, who were the better warriors.

“… We pretty much agreed on pirates. And, we pretty much had agreement on Civil War history. We disagreed on things like Whataburger and In-N-Out Burger. I mean, we probably covered it all. We were together for 10 years and we did a lot of that.”

Leach spent the 1999 season as Oklahoma‘s offensive coordinator, dramatically improving the Sooners’ offense with quarterback Josh Heupel under coach Bob Stoops, before landing his first head-coaching job at Texas Tech in 2000.

“I am heartbroken on the passing of Coach Leach,” said Heupel, who is now the head coach at Tennessee. “In 1999, he gave a kid out of Snow College in Utah a shot at major college football. He saw something in me when no one else did. Like so many across our sport, I am grateful for Coach Leach’s impact on my life both personally and professionally. His offensive philosophy and vision were ahead of his time, and they continue to shape the game today.

“Off the field, he was one of a kind — an incredible storyteller, a man full of wisdom and someone who always cared about his former players and coaches. I enjoyed our friendship over the years.”

Leach developed record-setting offenses at Texas Tech and quarterbacks such as Kingsbury and Harrell. The Red Raiders went 11-2 in 2008 and finished in the AP Top 25 in five of Leach’s final six seasons as coach.

“Coach Leach will be forever remembered as one of the most innovative offensive minds in college football history,” Texas Tech said in a statement. “His impact on Texas Tech Football alone will live on in history as one of the greatest tenures in the history of our program. From his 84 wins to his record-setting offenses, Coach Leach quickly built a legacy here at Texas Tech that will never be forgotten.”

He coached 10 seasons at Texas Tech before being fired on Dec. 30, 2009. A former player, Adam James, the son of former ESPN announcer and NFL player Craig James, accused Leach of mistreating him after he suffered a concussion. Leach was suspended on Dec. 28, 2009, and then fired for what the university termed a “defiant act of insubordination.” He sued the university for wrongful termination, and he lost a bid for monetary damages because of a legal technicality but has continued to battle to get records pertaining to his dismissal.

Washington State had suffered through eight straight non-winning seasons when Leach arrived on the Palouse in 2012. But he led the Cougars to a bowl game in his second season and, from 2015 to 2018, won at least eight games every season, including 11 in 2018.

“Mike is a guy who’s been in the limelight for 15 or 20 years, in the Big 12, the Pac-12, the SEC,” Mumme said in a recent interview with ESPN. “So he’s the guy who everybody has looked to. He’s won football games at places you’re not supposed to win.”

Leach moved to the SEC in 2020, taking over at Mississippi State. After years of questions about whether Leach’s spread offense could be successful in the nation’s most talented football conference, the Bulldogs set an SEC record for yards passing in his very first game against defending national champion LSU.

Leach is survived by his wife, Sharon; children Janeen, Kim, Cody and Kiersten; and three grandchildren.

Keenum and Brett had placed defensive coordinator Zach Arnett in charge of the football program when Leach was hospitalized. The Bulldogs are set to face Illinois in the ReliaQuest Bowl on Jan. 2.

Brett said Mississippi State would hold a memorial for Leach on campus, but when was still be to determined. He said the school first wanted to consult with Leach’s relatives and allow them to make their own arrangements for services first.

ESPN’s Chris Low, Adam Rittenberg and Dave Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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