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A tribute to Mike Leach, the coach who reminded us why football is so fun

The Air Raid flew in three conferences for over three decades.

Texas v Texas Tech Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Just two Saturdays ago under the lights of Oxford, Mississippi, Mike Leach and the Mississippi State Bulldogs winced as Ole Miss found the end zone with 1:25 to go in an eight-point game. Then a moment later Jaxson Dart’s two-point conversion pass fell incomplete. The Golden Egg returned to Starkville for the first time since 2019.

In three years at Hail State, the Pirate hauled in more booty each time. All anyone talked about in the first week of 2020 SEC football was the 44-34 Bulldogs win and their 623 yards in Baton Rouge over the defending national champions: the official arrival of the Air Raid in the South. In 2021, the cowbells were clanging for a home win over 6-1 Kentucky and road wins at Kyle Field and Jordan-Hare Stadium for three top-20 victories in a winning 7-6 campaign. This past fall the Bulldogs finished third in the SEC West for their highest finish since 2014 and are ranked heading into bowl season for the first time since 2017. They scored 39 or more points in seven of their twelve games as the Air Raid finally reached cruising altitude and wrought havoc on Memphis, Arizona, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Auburn, and finally Ole Miss in a stellar 8-4 campaign that has featured no bad losses, several great wins, and a berth in Florida’s January 2nd ReliaQuest Bowl.

Sunday night Michael Charles Leach suffered a terrible heart attack and this morning we find him no longer with us. Mississippi State University and the city of Starkville has suffered a terrible loss, as has his wife Sharon and children Janeen, Kim, Cody, and Kiersten, and also every other school he left his mark on: Washington State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and several others. He gave so much over his 3+ decades of coaching, did so much, and always kept working, kept innovating, and kept winning. His career and legacy were still in the making last night: he wasn’t done yet in Starkville and was still chasing bigger and bigger seasons even after 21 seasons and 158 wins into being a head coach. He will be remembered by so many in so many ways: here are just a few ways I’ll remember college football’s Pirate:

First, he loved to pass and hated to punt, preferring to play college football like I do Tecmo Bowl. Why willingly give the ball to the enemy? And sure you can run into a giant pile of guys and try to squeeze out a handful of yards a carry like Chris Rodriguez, but ever notice that the football moves downfield a lot more quickly when thrown? Score often, win often. Sure, his teams ran and punted when they needed to like all other successful teams, but that didn’t mean they had to like it. Schools all across the FBS, and especially the Big 12, have transformed their offenses with lessons from the Air Raid as his Texas Tech, Washington State, and MSU teams have had to be caught up to before being beaten.

In 1997 and 1998, one particular quarterback benefitted from Leach’s Air Raid: Tim Couch. Few Kentucky football seasons were quite as explosive as the two years the Pirate was coordinating the offense in the Bluegrass. 38-24 season-opening win over Louisville, 49-7 win at Indiana, a 68-34 win at Louisville, 39-36 triumph in #21 LSU’s Death Valley, and the greatest prize of them all: a 40-34 overtime victory over Alabama that brought the goalposts down in Commonwealth Stadium. Not bad for two years as OC at UK, developing the school's only ever #1 draft pick and helping take down Alabama for just the second time ever.

Two Halloweens ago we got his list of favorite candies, including gummy bears, Almond Joys, and the newer Nerds Clusters, but also got his most despised sweet—candy corn. In his own words, he “completely hates candy corn.” In another interview while at Washington State he thought through a battle scenario between all Pac-12 mascots:

  • Trojan and Ute: “Are they mounted? What kind of weapons?”
  • Sun Devil: “What kind of mystical powers would he have?”
  • Wildcat: “Eh, he’s out.”
  • Bruin: “Definitely formidable.”
  • Bear: “Up there.”
  • Cardinal: “Tree’s gonna get chopped down—unless we’re gonna go with the bird and somebody might get pecked or something.”
  • Duck: “The duck might just lose interest and fly out of there, which might be good advice under the circumstances.”
  • Husky: “No chance.”
  • Beaver: “Eh well we’ll see how long the beaver can hold it’s breath.”
  • Buffalo: “As far as the beast alone, the buffalo’ll be pretty hard to tangle with.”
  • Cougar: “The coug will find a way. Clear-minded and crafty, a combination of stay out of harm’s way and attack when you get your chances or your openings.”

His biggest win at Texas Tech came when with one second remaining, Michael Crabtree dove into the end zone to topple #1 Texas 39-33 in the rivalry’s biggest upset and to take the Red Raiders to 9-0 in 2008 in a monster 11-2 season that is one of the best in program history. Washington State also got an 11-win season with him in 2018 as Gardner Minshew led the Cougars to a #7 ranking at one point in the season and victory in the Alamo Bowl for the most single-season wins in Wazzu history. Every school that had him as an assistant or head coach will remember him for big wins they scored together, but for Mississippi State, it is extremely emotional and special that his final game happened to be an upset road win for the Golden Egg over the hated Rebels. Upsets over #1 teams, 11-win seasons, victory over Alabama, an Apple Cup, a Golden Egg: he flew the Air Raid all over the place, bringing fun, highly entertaining, and most importantly winning football to schools in three different conferences across more than three decades of work. Football with Mike Leach was fun, and reminded us why we enjoy the game and why it’s so thrilling.

Thank you, Mike Leach. We’ll miss you.