Mississippi State head football coach Mike Leach talks with Mississippi State's Will Rogers (2). Mississippi State played Louisiana Tech in an SEC college football game on Saturday, September 4, 2021 at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville. Photo by Keith Warren

Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach, who died last night at the age of 61, was nothing if not authentic. There was only one of him. He was unique. He was special.

I wish I had known him better. But here’s what I do know: Leach was remarkably bright, intellectually curious, and an innovative person who just happened to coach football. He would have been successful at whatever he chose to do. He just happened to choose football. His life story reads like something out of Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

Rick Cleveland

Start with this: He never really played football, but he changed the way the sport is played at every level. He and Hal Mumme devised the Air Raid offense at a little NAIA school called Iowa Wesleyan. Now, nearly everybody uses some version — or at least some of the principles — of that spread-the-field, no-huddle offense.

I loved the way Leach put in his book — “Swing Your Sword” —when he was writing about what he and Mumme were doing at Iowa Wesleyan: “We were changing the geometry of the game.”

They were. Nearly everybody else was lining up their offensive linemen shoulder to shoulder, Leach and Mumme were splitting their linemen at least a yard apart. Nearly every other team was huddling between downs, as teams had done since the sport was invented. Iowa Wesleyan skipped the huddle all together. Everybody else was running the ball most of the time and passing occasionally. Leach and Mumme threw it on almost every play, often using crossing patterns that had the defense running into one another like The Three Stooges. Most coaches called plays from the sidelines and the quarterback, if he wanted to remain the quarterback, ran those plays as ordered. Iowa Wesleyan gave the quarterback the freedom to change the play at the line of scrimmage. 

PODCAST: Mike Leach, remembered.

Iowa Wesleyan was 0-10 the year before the arrival of Mumme and Leach. They were 7-4 in their first season and then won 17 over the next two years. As Leach put it, “I was the offensive line coach, the offensive coordinator, the recruiting coordinator, the equipment manager, the video coordinator and the sport information director. I also taught two classes.”

His salary was $12,000 a year. Keep in mind, he could have been a lawyer making many times that. Also keep in mind, when Leach died, he was making $5.5 million a year to coach at Mississippi State.

Mumme and Leach won at Iowa Wesleyan, then Valdosta State, then Kentucky. Leach then went to Oklahoma for one year before becoming a head coach at Texas Tech. His head coaching career consisted of three stops: Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State — places where you are the underdog competing against the likes of Texas, Oklahoma, Southern Cal, Washington, Alabama and LSU. Despite that, his teams won 158 games and lost 107 and went to bowl games in 18 of his 22 years.

It’s funny: I can remember, years ago, many discussions about whether Leach’s offense would translate in the Southeastern Conference where teams primarily ran the ball and won with ball control and defense. Hell, by the time Leach finally came to the SEC nearly everybody in the league, including Alabama, was running some version of his offense.

No, Leach has not, to use the hackneyed phrase, “set the world on fire” during this three seasons at Mississippi State. But his Bulldogs surely were trending in the right direction, from 4-7 in year one, to 7-6 in 2021, to 8-4 this season. He was getting there.

Leach’s arrival at Mississippi State coincided with the pandemic, the biggest reason why I didn’t get to know him better than I did. It’s difficult to really get to know someone in zoom meetings. Indeed, the most time I ever spent with him was in 2011, when he was on a book tour between his stints as Texas Tech and Washington State. We met at Lemuria and drank several cups of coffee over three hours outside at Broad Street Baking Company and Cafe. Funny thing: He was a football coach, and I was a sports writer and we talked about football for maybe five minutes total. Another funny thing: It was Houston Nutt’s last season at Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt had just blasted the Rebels 30-7. Many folks were mentioning Leach as Nutt’s possible replacement. We could see passers-by putting two and two together and whispering.

I remember talking to Leach about going from Pepperdine law school (where he accumulated $45,000 debt from student loans) to a $3,000 a year coaching job.

“I was going to give it two or three years then get back to being a lawyer and make some money,”  he said, chuckling. “I got hooked.”

We can all be thankful he did. He has made football far more fun. The outpouring of respect and admiration these past few days speaks volumes. 

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.