Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo

'He saw something in me when no one else did': World reacts to death of Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach

By Michael Katz

Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach, 61, died Monday night following complications from a medical issue he suffered Sunday.

Leach spent three seasons leading the Bulldogs and was one of college football’s most innovative minds for the last two decades, which included head coaching stops at Texas Tech, Washington State and Starkville. He was also one of the sport’s most beloved characters.

Reactions from all across the country began to pour in following the news of Leach’s death.

“I was in 1st grade when Graham (Harrell) threw the ball to (Michael) Crabtree against Texas,” Bulldogs quarterback Will Rogers wrote on Twitter, referencing a 2008 game where Leach’s Red Raiders upset top-ranked Texas. “Thank you for giving me a chance as a 17 year old. From Wazzu, to Mississippi State I will never forget everything you taught me and the relationship we had. I will see you again someday coach. #RIP”

Kliff Kingsbury — now head coach of the Arizona Cardinals — was Leach’s first quarterback at Texas Tech from 2000-2002. He released a statement through the Cardinals Tuesday morning.

“There is no way I would be where I am today if not for Mike Leach and everything he taught me about the game. 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. My heart goes out to Sharon, the Leach family and everyone who had the privilege of knowing and loving him. Our sport was better because of Mike Leach and is far less interesting without him.”

Josh Heupel, the head coach at Tennessee, was the quarterback at Oklahoma when Leach served as the offensive coordinator in 1999. He shared his thoughts on the loss of his mentor.

“I am heartbroken on the passing of Coach Leach. In 1999, he gave a kid out of Snow College in Utah a shot at major college football,” Heupel said in a statement. “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. My deepest condolences go out to Coach Leach’s family, his wife Sharon, his kids and grandkids and the entire Mississippi State football program.”

Bob Stoops was Oklahoma’s head coach when Leach was in Norman, Oklahoma. Prior to Leach and Stoops’ arrival, Oklahoma averaged 16.7 points per game in 1998. With Leach and the Air Raid, the Sooners were sixth in the FBS with just under 36 points per game in 1999.

“RIP Mike my friend, you’ll always be cherished by Sooner Nation! Love and peace to Sharon and your children,” Stoops said on Twitter.

Leach was known for his personality, his outgoing nature and his unique outlook on nearly everything. He would give his tips on marriage when asked, offered his Netflix recommendations, had thoughts on candy — he famously hated candy corn — and offered a perspective few college football coaches openly give.

"Of the Leach stories, the best are those that highlight his inquisitive nature. Example: He once tracked a raccoon thru snow," Sports Illustrated's Ross Dellenger tweeted. "Always a walker, Leach strolled thru a neighborhood, saw tracks in snow & followed them for a half-mile.Why? 'I was curious where the sucker lived.'”

ESPN’s Molly McGrath was the sideline reporter in 2017 when Washington State upset a top-10 USC squad in Pullman, Washington. She recounted the night following the Cougars’ win, where she, Leach and his wife Sharon grabbed a drink.

“In 2017, Wazzu beat a ranked USC team and we went out for celebratory post game drinks with Mike Leach after. He drank out of a tiki mug that appeared from nowhere, and his beautiful wife Sharon told me all about his passion for painting…” McGrath tweeted. “She said he painted abstract pieces that he would hang throughout the house, and before company came over she would take them down and hide them because they were 'kind of dark and violent.' A hilarious story but also proof that he was passionately curious and one of a kind. I bet she cherishes his artwork today.”

Chris Vannini from the Athletic wrote on Twitter, “Curiosity was Mike Leach's defining characteristic. He's one of the few coaches who didn't play college football. He went to law school. He wrote a book on Geronimo while coaching. He wanted a 64-team playoff. He wanted to double referee salaries. He thought about everything.”

Reaction from around the state of Mississippi came in as well.

“Mike Leach’s passing and the outpouring of sorrow, love, and support for him and his family reflects just how beloved he was as Mississippi State’s head coach and among football fans all over the country,” Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith said in a statement. “We’ll miss his influential leadership, unforgettable personality, and character defined by sportsmanship. My prayers go out to his family, loved ones, and the Mississippi State community during this time of mourning."

Ole Miss athletics director Keith Carter sent his condolences as well.

“On behalf of the entire Ole Miss family, we are heartbroken by the tragic passing of Coach Leach,” Carter said in a statement. “We join the rest of the college football community, the SEC family and the entire state of Mississippi in sharing our condolences with the Leach family and all of the student-athletes, coaches and others that were touched by his spirit. Please join us in keeping them in your thoughts and prayers.”

Ole Miss head football coach Lane Kiffin shared a statement on social media as well, detailing his “tremendous respect and admiration” over the years for Leach. Leach’s last game was a 24-22 Egg Bowl victory over Ole Miss on Thanksgiving.

“I truly loved Coach Leach and every minute I shared with him. I have been able to work with several of his former players and coaches, and they have told so many amazing stories about the impact he had on their lives,” Kiffin said in the statement. “Going back to our years together in the Pac-12, I have always felt tremendous respect and admiration for Coach, his unique personality and his innovative mind, and I can’t imagine college football without him. I’m grateful to be part of his final win, hug him and watch him walk off like the winner that he is. I know God is welcoming The Pirate home now.”