By Billy Watkins
In his final game, the 265th as a head football coach, Michael Charles Leach delivered the most cherished piece of sports hardware in this state to the Mississippi State fans.
He wanted that Egg Bowl trophy. You know he did after falling short on his first two tries.
For all his quirks and unusual press conferences, Leach was a competitor. You could tell it as he talked with reporters about his teams. If he thought a player or a position group had more to give, he pushed them with his comments. Some cringed listening to it. I applauded. In this day of people getting their feelings hurt so easily, Leach unapologetically said what needed saying. These are grown men we are talking about, old enough to go to real war, not the football kind.
All he wanted was their best effort, at practice and in games. Is that really too much for a coach to ask? And shouldn’t all coaches demand that?
He demanded it of himself.
At the Egg Bowl press conference following the Bulldogs’ 24-22 victory over Ole Miss on Thanksgiving night in Oxford, Leach was asked a final question: What did the win mean to him?
“I think in my case or anybody else’s, you just do the best you can,” he said. “Your best is always enough. That’s all you’ve got.”
He didn’t mean “always enough” to win. He meant “always enough” to be the best you could be.
Like most, I’m in shock over Leach’s death Monday night. Everyone knew he had a terrible cough for weeks, and he revealed to ESPN that he had battled pneumonia during the season. I do not know if that contributed directly to his passing, but it makes you wonder. He was 61 and in a profession that pays well — reportedly $5.5 million a year in his case — but demands so much. His off-season escape was a home in Key West, Fla.
My eldest son said after the Egg Bowl, “Dad, Coach Leach didn’t look well.”
Then came the news Sunday that he had been transported to University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson following a “medical emergency” at his home in Starkville.
Reports soon made it clear that Leach probably wouldn’t survive. I started to write this column a couple of times over the past two days, but it didn’t seem right to be praying for a miracle and writing about a tragic outcome at the same time. So I waited.
Somehow, my daughter in Texas found out Tuesday morning before me. She texted: “OMG. Coach Leach died.”
My daughter could not tell you one team in this year’s college playoffs, which is to say she doesn’t keep close tabs on college football. But she was aware of Mike Leach and how important he is to the coaching landscape in this country.
My heart hurts for his wife, Sharon, and their four children.
Everybody knows he loved pirates. How fitting it would’ve been for him to coach the Bulldogs in the ReliaQuest Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Jan. 2. Home of the NFL’s Buccaneers, it has a giant pirate ship located at one end of the stadium. Something tells me Leach would’ve found a way up to it.
Where most people’s interests are confined to a few things, Leach’s were more like an octopus’ tentacles, widespread and pointing every which way.
He didn’t believe in Big Foot. We’ve found dinosaur bones but no Big Foot bones, he reasoned. He did believe it’s naive to think we are alone in the universe.
For the rest of my days, I will watch his postgame press conference following this year’s loss at Alabama. When asked what the plans were for the following bye week, he said the focus would be on reminding the players to use their hands. Then he went on an adventure of explaining how the Bulldogs didn’t use their hands against the Crimson Tide, hadn’t used them much all season, and that history teaches us if beings fail to use a certain part of their body, that part disappears. He didn’t want people decades from now driving through Starkville and seeing all these folks with no hands. I laugh out loud every time I watch it.
His facial expressions helped make him a dynamic speaker. Sometimes he looked confused, though we know he certainly wasn’t. If someone mentioned something off the wall, such as a college course he helped teach one year — “Leadership Lessons in Insurgent Warfare and Football Strategies” — his eyes would grow wide and joyous. But he could make you laugh just with a dead pan look. No doubt he could’ve been a standup comedian had he chosen that route.
Born in Susanville, Calif. and raised in Cody, Wyoming, Leach didn’t play college football because an ankle injury lingered from his high school days. But he figured another way to rough it up while an undergraduate at BYU. He played rugby.
It certainly fits that one of his first coaching jobs was with the College of the Desert Roadrunners in California. Have you ever heard of anyone else who coached there? Me, neither.
He earned a law degree from Pepperdine University and finished in the top one-third of his class. But he wanted to coach football.
He would change the game.
Leach and fellow coach Hal Mumme loved tinkering with plays and different ways of attacking defenses. They decided to take offensive football out of the middle of the field — where the teams with the biggest and strongest players usually mauled the other — and spread it sideline to sideline. Throw the ball 70, 80 percent of the time. And it would work even better, they figured, if the offense didn’t huddle. Make those large athletes on the opposing team play at fast-break speed. Watch them melt in the second half.
This was in the late 1980s and early ’90s at Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State, well ahead of its time. It is football as we know it today, even in the NFL. The Air Raid.
And it always amazed me that Leach could fit all those plays on a piece of paper smaller than an envelope. That was his in-game play sheet.
In 21 seasons as a head coach, he won more than he lost in 18 of them. One of those losing seasons was his first in Starkville, the COVID year. That should hardly count.
He was 84-33 in 10 seasons at Texas Tech, 55-47 at Washington State and 19-17 at MSU. But he improved from seven wins in 2021 to eight in 2022 with the bowl game still to play.
And one of the things I will always remember was Leach and Kiffin meeting at midfield after this year’s Egg Bowl. They shook hands, but Leach also gave him three firm pats on the shoulder, the kind you might give your buddy after beating him in a round of golf.
Leach did so much to defuse the hatred between State and Ole Miss. And Kiffin deserves credit, too. They genuinely liked each other, had been friends for years. They made it what it should be — a rivalry game that means a lot but without the nastiness that had smothered the series in years preceding Leach and Kiffin.
Some things are meant to be.
I’ve heard that all my life, but I learned it to be true while coaching a 7th grade football team in the early 1990s.
It came down to us and another school in the season’s final game for the league championship.
They had a running back I had seen play. He was really good. Strong. Fast. But we had contained him for three-and-a-half quarters. We scored in the final minutes to go ahead. They took the ball and drove it down our throat, handing it to the running back on just about every play.
I was puzzled. Nobody had done that to us all year. We had good players. And we were laying the wood to him. But, suddenly, he would always get an extra three or four yards. And in the final seconds, they handed it to him at the 3-yard line. We hit him behind the line, at the line and a yard from the end zone. But he wouldn’t go down. And as he crossed the goal line, he landed on his back and remained there for several seconds, his arms pointing toward the night sky as if to say, “We did it.”
His coach told me afterward, “You have no idea how much this game meant to him. He had talked about winning the championship all year. He just wasn’t going to be denied.”
That young man died in a car accident just a few years later. When I heard it, that last drive made sense to me. He wanted it so badly. He had put the work in. And it was his time, his night.
I think about the Egg Bowl, how State secured the victory by spoiling a two-point conversion attempt that would have possibly sent the game to overtime.
If you watch the play — a shovel pass — it was open. But the QB was just a split second late pitching the ball. That pinch of time allowed defensive lineman Randy Charlton to deflect the ball and save the game.
I’ll always believe it was meant for Mike Leach to win that game, to put his fingerprints on the Egg Bowl trophy, to give his players and fans an entire year of joy and bragging rights.
To win the last game he ever coached.