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RIP Coach

RIP to Mike Leach, college football's most wonderfully strange man

December 13, 2022

The stories that are coming out this morning on social media are delightful. We may as well start with this one, from ESPN's Kevin Van Valkenburg:

In just a few words, that typifies so much of what made Mike Leach, who passed away on Tuesday from complications from a heart condition at age 61, a true original. From his earliest days of national prominence at Texas Tech (which I thought was his first head coaching job, until I visited Wikipedia and discovered the delightful fact that he spent a year as head coach of the Pori Bears, a team from Finland), he had an intellectual fascination with history, especially the history of fighting. Pirates in particular interested him—in his autobiography, titled "Swing Your Sword" after his own personal mantra, he spoke of reading about 20 books on the subject. According to him, the writer Michael Lewis (who wrote an excellent feature on Leach) called him the most curious person he'd ever met. And the pirate thing became a kind of brand, even leading him to a somewhat awkward, somewhat awesome cameo on Friday Night Lights:

"You might be the luckiest man alive, and not even know it."

From those early days at Texas Tech, his Air Raid offenses in particular reflected a certain swashbuckling excitement, and every year it seemed as though his teams scored a ton of points and featured the most exciting quarterbacks and receivers in the game, from big names like Wes Welker and Michael Crabtree to Kliff Klingsbury, to names that are just footnotes now, like Graham Harrell and B.J. Symons and Jarrett Hicks. The high point came in 2008, Leach's best season ever, when the Red Raiders started out 10-0, led by Harrell and Crabtree, and beat no. 1 Texas in one of the best games of the decade, with Crabtree catching the winning 28-yard touchdown pass with a second left. Suddenly, the Red Raiders were ranked second and had a real shot at a national title if they could beat no. 8 Oklahoma State a week later. They promptly got waxed by the Cowboys, 65-21. The season ended with a Cotton Bowl loss to Ole Miss, and Leach would never rise quite that high again, though he would become the all-time winningest coach at the school.

Leach's romantic legacy had always been somewhat complicated by a strict disciplinarian streak that could become extreme, and that became a major problem during the Adam James incident, when Leach seems to have ordered James to stand in an equipment room after a concussion. The whole affair was shrouded in odd details, and complicated by the fact that James' father, Craig James, was a public (and not very well liked) figure. It all led to his firing, three years of lawsuits, and eventually a job at Washington State, where he successfully rebuilt that program and led them to an 11-2 season in 2018 and a top ten ranking. He spent his last three years at Mississippi State, leading the Bulldogs to an 8-4 record this year.

Bill Connelly of ESPN summarized the complications of Leach well, and also how people with very different beliefs handled those complications:

On the politics side, he's been known for a little bit of everything, from tweeting a doctored video of Obama to criticizing Mitt Romney, and he spoke publicly in support of Donald Trump at a rally in Washington during the 2016 campaign. For the most part, though, the contradictions of his personality were ignored—at least when they weren't blooming into controversy—and people like Connelly explain best how his creative and curious qualities were the best parts of his personality.

Hell, he even had some thoughts on golf:

Whether you think of him as a football radical, student of history, flawed disciplinarian, or plain eccentric, his death ends a weird, wild 20-year reign in the sport, and though this phrase is uttered often, in college football it will never be quite as true:

There won't be another like him.