Mike Leach’s innovation, inspiration reaches far

Published: Dec. 14, 2022 at 10:32 AM CST
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - He drew the intrigue of those who know what four verticals means. And those who eat or reject candy corn.

Mike Leach’s coaching tree is large, his influence on how the game is played significant. Also, in an age of “going viral”, his commentary was expected to be, well, unexpected any time someone with a camera neared. And this is from someone who regularly during his time in Lubbock said he didn’t use computers. And even banned players from tweeting in the infancy of the platform.

Leach graduated from high school in Cody, Wyoming. He played rugby, not football, at Brigham Young University, then earned a law degree from Pepperdine University.

Coaching stops included being on the staff at Cal Poly, Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State and Kentucky. He even served as head coach of the Pori Bears in Finland. Leach was offensive coordinator on Bob Stoop’s inaugural staff at Oklahoma.

In fact, Leach was on the visiting sideline of Jones Stadium for Kliff Kingsbury’s first start. The Red Raiders came from behind to defeat Oklahoma in Spike Dykes’ final game. Not long after, Texas Tech hired Leach to lead the Red Raiders into a new century. It turned out to also be a new era of football.

The Air Raid offense was a rarity, especially in a Big 12 that featured many power running teams at the time. Leach and his mentor Hal Mumme crafted the wide-open offense at multiple schools, including Kentucky. Mumme told the SEC Network Tuesday he and Leach were like brothers.

During his decade at Tech, the Red Raiders qualified for a bowl game each year. He also delivered advice on just about anything and everything.

“Sure, you get a bit of a haul during Thanksgiving and Halloween. You get to fire some stuff off during Fourth of July, but Christmas is better,” Leach once told us during a media availability.

During spring drills in 2007, with some future football stars on the roster, Leach made sure every player knew everyone must give it his all.

“There isn’t anybody here not fighting for a job. And if they aren’t, I’m either gonna ….reassign em or cut em,” Leach said.

“We’re gonna do a better job using the bench for those who don’t compete as hard as they might this year.”

Fans remember exhilarating wins over tough opponents, as well as some disappointing losses mixed in. Leach had particular success against Texas A&M. As a head coach at Tech and Mississippi State he went 9-4 against the Aggies.

In 2006 at Kyle Field, after converting 4th down at midfield with a minute left, Graham Harrell completed a 37-yard pass to Robert Johnson for the go-ahead touchdown with 25 seconds remaining. On the post-game interview with ESPN, Leach said he was “glad to get outta here with a win. This is a tough place to do it.

“You know, once in a while, a pirate can beat a soldier.”

At that point, his fascination with pirates made for fun conversation among Red Raider fans. The ‘Pirate’ moniker soon expanded, as the team’s prominence rose. 60 Minutes profiled Leach, as “The Mad Scientist of Football” in 2008, reported by Scott Pelley, who attended Tech. The Goin’ Band was introduced by Leach on video for its pirate performance that same year.

Leach won nine games in a season at Tech three times. And went 11-2 in 2008, the season the Red Raiders knocked off top-ranked Texas. Graham Harrell to Michael Crabtree with seconds remaining in that game remains top on many Red Raider fans’ lists of best sports memories.

In 2009, Leach became the winningest coach in Tech program history, a mark he still holds. After the game he credited his predecessor.

“Got the opportunity to see Coach [Spike] Dykes in the locker room. One of greatest coaches of all time, in my opinion. And who really was instrumental in building this program. And being a part of his legacy is a real honor for me.”

Later that season, following a win over Baylor in Arlington, in what turned out to be Leach’s final game with the team, Leach told his players they were unnecessarily riding high because of the previous team’s accomplishments.

“Cause we wanna tell everyone, yeah, one time I was 11-2.” Paraphrasing, Leach said that doesn’t matter any more. After video of the speech was released and posted to YouTube, it went viral.

Late in 2009, while the team was preparing for the Alamo Bowl, Tech suspended Leach. Administrators said Leach mistreated player Adam James after James suffered a concussion. Leach’s attorney rejected those claims. When the coach refused to apologize, Tech fired Leach. This created a lasting rift in the fanbase.

Leach later sued the university, a battle that dragged on for years. As a state entity, Tech used sovereign immunity to dismiss most claims. In the years since, Leach repeated his belief the university owed him money.

His next stop took him to Pullman in 2012. At his introductory news conference Leach said, “people ask me ‘why Washington State?’. And once I get past, in the back of my mind thinking, ‘well that’s a stupid question’.” He again demonstrated how to “swing your sword” at the event. Leach led the Cougars to a 55-47 record, including 11-2 in 2018.

In 2020 Leach landed in the SEC. In three seasons at Mississippi State he logged a 19-17 record. One of his former quarterbacks, Sonny Cumbie, as interim coach of Tech, led the Red Raiders to a win over the Bulldogs in the 2021 Liberty Bowl.

Ahead of this season, he was asked about the use of spread and Air Raid offenses: “All around the league now, and, with rare exception, the whole NFL. But football’s always been about execution. And there’s not a lot of Roadrunner-Wile E Coyote and you walk away laughing like Muttley after the rock fell on the guy.”

Coaching Tree

On Monday Night Football this week it was Kingsbury on the sidelines, leading the Arizona Cardinals. The list of men who either played for, served as a grad assistant or coached under Leach is long. And this is only head coaches:

Dave Aranda - Baylor head coach

Neal Brown - West Virginia head coach

Sonny Cumbie - Louisiana Tech head coach

Sonny Dykes - TCU head coach, in College Football Playoff, QB Max Duggan was Heisman finalist this year

Josh Heupel - Tennessee head coach, QB Hendon Hooker finished fifth in Heisman voting this year

Dana Holgorsen - Houston head coach

Kliff Kingsbury - Arizona Cardinals head coach

Eric Morris - North Texas new head coach, announced Tuesday

Lincoln Riley - USC head coach, QB Caleb Williams won Heisman this year

Ken Wilson - Nevada head coach