Let the cowbells ring for Mike Leach, a true original who made college football more fun

Leach died Monday at 61, three weeks before he was to lead his Mississippi State team onto the field against Illinois in the ReliaQuest Bowl. The game will go on, and his absence will be felt.

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Mike Leach before a Mississippi game in November 2022.

Mike Leach before a Mississippi game in November 2022.

Justin Ford/Getty Images

Mike Leach was no football coach.

It was his life’s work, of course, and he did it far better than most, leading 19 teams to bowl seasons and completing the 2022 regular season as the major-college ranks’ fifth-winningest active coach. But Leach couldn’t really be put into any box. He was a Bigfoot expert with a law degree, a pirate aficionado who taught college courses on insurgent warfare, an outdoorsman who passed hours at a time with his nose in a book, and an occasionally irascible man who more often was incredibly patient, especially when being interviewed, which, delightfully often, would turn into holding court.

Leach died Monday at 61, three weeks before he was to lead his Mississippi State team onto the field against Illinois in the ReliaQuest Bowl. He was with the Bulldogs at a Saturday practice. On Sunday, he suffered a massive heart attack at home in Starkville and was airlifted to a hospital in Jackson. By the following night, he was gone.

Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett will lead the Bulldogs on an interim basis. Leach’s players led the decision to play on against the Illini in Tampa.

“Today is a sad day for college football,” Illini coach Bret Bielema said in a statement. “We lost a great coach, a great person and one of the legendary personalities in our sport. Mike and I built a long friendship after first meeting at the Alamo Bowl in the early 2000s. We shared so many memories over the years. Rest in peace, Mike.”

Leach was widely enjoyed, especially by the media, for his loquacious storytelling and his extemporaneous rumination on things — Halloween candy, wedding preparations, weather patterns — having utterly nothing to do with his football teams. He didn’t play football in college and didn’t give a rip if anybody thought less of him for it. He was sharp enough to have given the “Air Raid” offense its name and prolific enough to have coached eight quarterbacks to 10 of the top 50 passing-yardage seasons in FBS history.

He also could get himself into trouble, small and big. Some of his social commentary came off as crass or insensitive, or at least politically incorrect. He was outspoken and unapologetic in his support of Donald Trump, which he pointed out more than once — correctly — was damn well up to him.

Leach was fired by Texas Tech after the 2009 season, a former player having accused him of mistreatment after a concussion. The school called Leach “defiantly insubordinate.”  Leach sued unsuccessfully for wrongful termination and was, for more than a year, tangled in this legal web, unhirable.

It was during this period that I went and found him lying low in Key West, Florida, sort of at his invitation, sort of not.

“Sure, I’ll talk to you,” he texted, “as long as you can find me.”

Everybody who covered one or more of Leach’s teams, specifically, or college football nationally, as I did at the time, has a story like this one or even better. Mine involves finding my way to a Civil War-era fort named for Zachary Taylor and, a photographer in tow, waiting — for how long? — as instructed by Leach, who could be laissez-faire about the time. Perhaps 90 minutes went by. Eventually, up a path he pedaled on his bicycle, looking surprisingly fit in cargo shorts and a T-shirt, a completely at ease dude with absolutely nowhere else to be. We spent hours talking about football and other things, some of them ridiculous, his voice bouncing off the limestone and granite when he got excited.

The bottom line was he wanted to fight for his good name and coach again. He did just that, willing Washington State back into relevance before moving on to Mississippi State and the brutally difficult SEC West. At Texas Tech, he took aim at Oklahoma and Texas. At Wazzu, it was Oregon and Stanford. At Mississippi State, it was Alabama and LSU. Be the best? Maybe not. Beat the best? Leach lived for the opportunities.

His final tweet was for Bulldogs supporters who might make the trip to the bowl game:

“Just got word that cowbells WILL be allowed at the ReliaQuest Bowl! Let’s fill Raymond James Stadium with Maroon and White! Hail State.”

The bells shall toll for him.

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