Oklahoma football family mourns loss of former Sooner offensive coordinator Mike Leach

Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach had served as a college football head coach for 21 seasons.Syndication The Oklahoman
Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach had served as a college football head coach for 21 seasons.Syndication The Oklahoman /

The Oklahoma football family as well as the college football world today is mourning the loss of one of the game’s truly unique personalities and coaching icons.

Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach died Monday following complications from a heart condition, the university announced. He was 61 years old. He suffered what was reported to be a massive heart attack on Sunday at his home in Starksville, Mississippi, and was immediately transferred to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

Leach’s career as a college coach spanned 36 years, the last 23 years of which have been as a head coach at three different Power Five programs. He will be best remembered in the college football universe as one of the creators of the explosive passing offense known as the “Air Raid,” which he developed along with head coach Hal Mumme while at Iowa Wesleyan College and Valdosta State University in the early 1990s.

When Bob Stoops was hired as Oklahoma head coach in 1999, he brought in Leach as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from Kentucky, where he had been performing the same duties the previous two seasons.

Leach stayed at Oklahoma just one season before receiving his first head-coaching assignment at Texas Tech. Before he left OU, however, he helped set in place the offensive foundation for the Sooners’ 2000 national championship season.

After a 10-season stint at Texas Tech, where Leach’s Air Raid offense became one of the most explosive in all of college football and where he became the all-time winningest coach in Red Raider football history with an 84-43 record, he was fired. He was dismissed amid allegations of inappropriate treatment of player Adam James, the son of former SMU and New England Patriots running back Craig James. Leach’s firing was highly controversial and drew heavy media and legal attention.

Leach moved on and was appointed head coach at Washington State in 2012, He had one 11-win season, two with nine wins and one eight-win campaign in eight seasons in Pullman, Washington. In 2020, he was named head coach at Mississippi State with the chance to take his talents and Air Raid offense to the SEC, the conference widely recognized as creme de la creme of college football.

A BYU graduate, Leach earned a law degree at Pepperdine University. He enjoyed law school, but after graduating he said he realized he wasn’t consumed by the law. So he decided to take a stab at his dream job, which was coaching football. The rest is history.

To say Mike Leach was one of a kind is an understatement. He was successful everywhere he went despite taking over mediocre to struggling programs. It seemed that every quarterback who operated in Leach’s Air Raid system became an instant winner.

Candidly, his wit and wisdom and legendary personality are what truly set Leach apart from his head-coaching peers. Some thought of him as a bit eccentric. He loved to divert and redirect conversations and questions about football into soliloquies on subjects such as pirates and Geronimo.

He was a storyteller extraordinaire, and if you got into a conversation with him, you better expect to stay a while because he certainly had a lot to say about a lot of things.

As an example of typical Mike Leach, Andy Staples, in piece published today in The Athletic, recalled remarks made by Leach about his defense in a 2007 loss to Oklahoma State:

"“The entire first half we got hit in the mouth and acted like someone took our lunch money. All we wanted to do was have pouty expressions on our face until somebody dapped our little tears off and mad us (expletive) feel better.”"

You could probably compile a book or two on his famous quotes and opinions alone.

The offensive system that Leach helped create is now a heavy part of the playbook at programs all over the country, including Oklahoma. Leach helped introduce it at OU under Stoops, and Lincoln Riley, a walk-on quarterback and later a coaching assistant under Leach, brought it back to Oklahoma when he was hired as offensive coordinator in 2015.

Mike Leach is no longer with us in person, but his legacy will live on through his growing tree of college head and assistant coaches and all the friends and acquaintances that had the privilege of knowing him.

Mississippi State athletic director Bracky Brett had what I believe is the perfect description of Mike Leach:

"“Mike was an innovator, pioneer and visionary. He was a college coaching icon, a coaching legend but an even better person. We are all better for having known Mike Leach.”"

Mike Leach accomplished what every one of us should aspire to in life: He left every coaching assignment and place he had been better off because he had been there.

Rest in peace, former member of the Oklahoma Sooner family. Boomer Sooner!!