OKTIBBEHA COUNTY, Mississippi — Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach died Monday night after complications related to a heart condition, the school announced. He was 61.
Leach’s family said, in a statement released Tuesday by the school, that Leach participated in organ donation at the University of Mississippi Medical Center as “a final act of charity.”
“We are supported and uplifted by the outpouring of love and prayers from family, friends, Mississippi State University, the hospital staff, and football fans around the world,” Leach’s family said. “Thank you for sharing in the joy of our beloved husband and father’s life.”
Leach suffered what the university initially described, in a news release, as a “personal health issue” at his home in Starkville on Sunday, which required him to be airlifted to the UMMC in Jackson, about 125 miles from Mississippi State.
Leach, in his third season as Mississippi State’s coach, had told ESPN after the regular season concluded that he struggled with pneumonia during the season but was feeling better.
“Coach Mike Leach cast a tremendous shadow not just over Mississippi State University, but over the entire college football landscape,” university President Mark E. Keenum said in a statement. “His innovative ‘Air Raid’ offense changed the game. Mike’s keen intellect and unvarnished candor made him one of the nation’s true coaching legends. His passing brings great sadness to our university, to the Southeastern Conference, and to all who loved college football. I will miss Mike’s profound curiosity, his honesty, and his wide-open approach to pursuing excellence in all things.”
“Mike’s death also underscores the fragility and uncertainty of our lives. Three weeks ago, Mike and I were together in the locker room celebrating a hard-fought victory in Oxford. Mike Leach truly embraced life and lived in such a manner as to leave no regrets. That’s a worthy legacy. May God bless the Leach family during these days and hours. The prayers of the Bulldog family go with them.”
Leach was in his third head-coaching stint, with a 19-17 record for the Bulldogs, 8-4 this season. He was at Texas Tech from 2000 to ’09 and Washington State from 2012 to ’19. He was the AFCA national coach of the year in 2018 at Washington State.
Known for his prolific Air Raid offenses, Leach was 158-107 in his 21 seasons as a head coach. He was also known for his quirky personality, dry wit and penchant for talking about history, business and politics (and, really, just about anything else) as comfortably as he did quarterbacks making the right reads and receivers running the right routes.
Nicknamed the “Pirate,” Leach had an affinity for pirates and even had a life-sized statue of a singing pirate in his office when he was at Washington State. It was a gift from Hall of Fame basketball coach Bob Knight, who was the basketball coach at Texas Tech when Leach was in Lubbock as football coach.
Never one to shy away from opining on any subject, Leach once quipped, “I miss streakers,” after a fan ran onto the field and dropped his pants following a touchdown in Washington State’s 24-21 win over Stanford in 2017. And after Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016, Leach congratulated Trump via text and offered to be Trump’s “Secretary of Offense.”
Leach had countless interests. He was an avid outdoorsman and loved to travel, especially to his favorite spot in Key West, Florida. He graduated in the upper 25% of his class with a law degree from Pepperdine University and coauthored a book on Geronimo and the Apache leader’s approach to leadership. After growing up mostly in Cody, Wyoming, Leach earned his undergraduate degree from BYU, where he played rugby. He didn’t play football in college but closely studied Hall of Fame BYU coach LaVell Edwards and his offense.
After receiving his law degree in 1986, Leach began his football coaching career at Cal Poly in 1987, then joined Hal Mumme’s staff at Iowa Wesleyan in 1989. Mumme, the creator of the Air Raid offense that made Leach a superstar in coaching, said Leach deserved a lot of credit for turning the scheme into a brand name. Leach worked for Mumme as offensive line coach at Iowa Wesleyan and also served as a de facto publicist, sending out news releases to national newspapers about the team’s high-flying exploits.
“When you say, ‘Air Raid,’ he was the guy who came up with the name,” Mumme told ESPN in a recent interview. “He came up with the name so that we would be able to publicize it, and it’s probably fitting since he’s been the guy who took it the furthest.”
Leach followed Mumme to Valdosta State and Kentucky, where quarterback Tim Couch blossomed and became the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 NFL draft. Leach spent the 1999 season as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator, dramatically improving the Sooners’ offense under coach Bob Stoops, before landing his first head-coaching job at Texas Tech in 2000.
Leach developed record-setting offenses at Texas Tech and quarterbacks such as Kliff Kingsbury and Graham Harrell. The Red Raiders went 11-2 in 2008 and finished in the AP Top 25 in five of Leach’s final six seasons as coach.
He coached 10 seasons at Texas Tech before being fired on Dec. 30, 2009. A former player, Adam James, accused Leach of mistreating him after he suffered a concussion. Leach was suspended on Dec. 28, 2009, and then fired for what the university termed a “defiant act of insubordination.” He sued the university for wrongful termination, and he lost a bid for monetary damages because of a legal technicality but has continued to battle to get records pertaining to his dismissal.
Washington State had suffered through eight straight non-winning seasons when Leach arrived on the Palouse in 2012. But he led the Cougars to a bowl game in his second season and, from 2015-18, won at least eight games every season, including 11 in 2018.
“Mike is a guy who’s been in the limelight for 15 or 20 years, in the Big 12, the Pac-12, the SEC,” Mumme said in a recent interview with ESPN. “So he’s the guy who everybody has looked to. He’s won football games at places you’re not supposed to win.”
Leach is survived by his wife, Sharon; children Janeen, Kim, Cody and Kiersten; and three grandchildren.
Mississippi State president Mark Keenum and athletic director Bracky Brett had placed defensive coordinator Zach Arnett in charge of the football program when Leach was hospitalized. The Bulldogs are set to face Illinois in the ReliaQuest Bowl on Jan. 2. Leach was at practice Saturday before suffering his health issue on Sunday.
ESPN’s Chris Low, Adam Rittenberg, Dave Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2022 ESPN Internet Ventures. All rights reserved.