Grumpy, pioneering and unfiltered, Mississippi State’s Mike Leach is one of the most influential football coaches of this or any generation. His boundless curiosity and fascination with people, places and things made him famous off the field, making him a unique figure in sports.
Leach, who helped revolutionize football from high school to the NFL with the Air Raid offense, died Monday night of complications from a heart attack, the school said Tuesday. He is 61 years old.
Leach fell ill Sunday at his home near Starkville University in Mississippi. He was treated at a local hospital before being airlifted to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, about 120 miles (200 kilometers) away.
“Mike was a helpful and caring husband, father and grandfather. He was able to participate in UMMC’s organ donation as a last act of charity,” the family said in a statement from Mississippi. “We are supported and inspired by the love and prayers from family, friends, Mississippi State, hospital staff and fans around the world. Thank you for sharing the joy in the life of our beloved husband and father.”
In 21 seasons as head coach at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State, Leach went 158-107 after taking an unusual career path.
Leach, who battled pneumonia late in the season and sometimes coughed uncontrollably during press conferences, appeared to be on the mend, according to those who worked with him.
News of his critical illness has swept through college football over the past few days, leaving many who knew him stunned and hoping and praying for his recovery.
“It’s hard to put into words the impact Mike Rich had on the players he coached, the game of football and me personally,” TCU coach Sonny Dykes tweeted. “He was a unique personality and independent thinker, and a great friend. No one has had a bigger impact on my life than my dad.”
Under gray skies in Starkville, a video board at Davis Wade Stadium showed a photo of a smiling Leach and a message: “In loving memory.” Black ribbons were tied around the stadium gates , and left flowers to commemorate the coach.
“Mike’s sharp intellect and outspoken candor made him one of America’s true coaching legends,” said Mississippi State President Mark Keenum. Great sadness. I will miss Mike’s intense curiosity, his honesty and his openness to strive for excellence in all things.”
A similar eulogy emerged on video boards above the snow-covered field at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Washington.
Leach was known for his pass-happy offense, wide-ranging interests — he wrote a book on Native American leader Geronimo, was passionate about pirates, and taught a class on rebellion warfare — and Rambling, impromptu press conferences.
Interviews with Leach are as likely to turn to politics, wedding planning or imaginary mascot fights as they are to football. Before the billionaire ran for president, he counted Donald Trump as a friend and then campaigned for him in 2016.
He has traveled all over the world and admires most those who step out of their field of expertise.
“One of the things I admire most about Michael Jordan is that he got a lot of censure for playing baseball. I totally admire that,” Leach told The Associated Press last spring. “I mean, you’re going to die in 100 years anyway. You’ve mastered basketball, you’re going to try to master other things, stick your neck out, you’re not afraid to do it, and know a lot of people will do it when you do.” I look at you when I’m here. I think it’s great.”
Leach’s team has been a winner in projects where success doesn’t come easily. His quarterback, who provided a ton of passing statistics, ran a relatively simple offense called the air strike, which he didn’t invent but he certainly mastered.
Six of the 20 best passing seasons in major college football history have been for quarterbacks playing for Leach, including four of the top six.
Commanding the game from a folded sheet of paper smaller than an index card, Leach combined BJ Simmons (448.7 yards per game), Graham Harrell (438.8 yards), Connor Halliday (430.3 yards) and Anthony Passers like Gordon (429.2 yards) turned record-setters and Heisman Trophy contenders.
“You have to make choices and limit what you’re going to teach and what you’re going to do. That’s the hard part,” Leach told The Associated Press of the economic playbook for airstrikes.
Ritchie also likes to buck the authority, and he’s not shy about criticizing players he doesn’t think are tough enough.
The confluence of those traits cost Leach his first head coaching job. He went 84-43 with the Red Raiders, never had a losing season with a Big 12 school, and led an 11-2 team to No. 2 nationally in 2008 and matched the school’s winning record .
In December 2009, he was fired from Texas Tech after he was accused of abusing player Adam James — the son of former ESPN announcer and NFL player Craig James — who suffered a concussion.
He refused to apologize for the conflict and eventually sued Texas Tech for wrongful dismissal. The school is protected under state law, but Leach never stopped trying to fight the case. He also filed lawsuits against ESPN and Craig James, which were later dismissed.
After two seasons away from coaching, Leach and his wife, Sharon, are back at their home in Key West, Florida, where he bikes around town and grabs drinks at bars.
He returned to coaching in the Pac-12, but never gave up his beloved home in the Keys.
Leach landed in Washington State in 2012. After three losing seasons, the Cougars quickly looked an awful lot like his Texas Tech team. In 2018, Washington State set a school-wide record with an 11-2 record and ranked No. 7 nationally.
Leach transferred to the SEC in 2020, taking over Mississippi State. After years of questioning whether Leach’s passing offense could succeed in the nation’s most talented football conference, the Bulldogs generated SEC passing yards in his first game against defending champion LSU number records.
Leach was born March 9, 1961 in Susanville, California, and grew up in smaller Cody, Wyoming. Raised as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he attended Brigham Young University and earned a law degree from Pepperdine University.
Leach didn’t play college football — football was his sport — but seeing then-BYU coach LaVell Edwards use an innovative passing attack when most teams were still running piqued his interest in developing a game.
He started as a college coach at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo in 1987 and coached football in Finland for a year, but found his inspiration at Iowa Wesleyan. Head coach Hal Mumme invented the Air Raid while coaching high schools in Texas. At Iowa Wesleyan, where Leach served as offensive coordinator, it began to take hold and fundamentally changed the way football was played.
Mumme also recalls spending hours in the car with Leach, driving to meet recruits and learn as much as possible about the offense. Conversations range from the existence of aliens and Bigfoot to Civil War history to the best fast food burgers.
“I mean, we probably covered everything,” Mumm told The Associated Press.
Leach followed Mumme to Valdosta State and then to the SEC in Kentucky, breaking passing records along the way. He spent one season as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator in 1999 before earning his own class at Texas Tech.
Since then, air strikes have spread like wildfire and become the primary method of offense in the Big 12 conference and beyond.
Leach’s extensive coaching tree includes Dykes, USC’s Lincoln Riley, Houston’s Dana Holgorsen and Arizona Cardinals’ Kliff Kingsbury.
“Coach – you will be missed for sure, but your impact on so many will live on – thank you for every moment. You changed my life and so many others,” Riley tweeted.
Leach’s Mississippi State team finished 8-4 last season, including a 24-22 victory over Mississippi State on Thanksgiving night in what became known as the Egg Bowl. This is his last game.
Leach is survived by his wife and four children Janeen, Kimberly, Cody and Kiersten.
Associated Press sports writer Gary B. Graves in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report