Mind of Mike: Expansive coaching tree part of Leach’s legacy
When Mike Leach first moved to Mississippi State from Washington State, he stayed in the Left Field Lofts at the Bulldogs’ baseball stadium.
The two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments have balconies that look out at the diamond at Dudy Noble Field, and are a 3-minute walk from Mississippi State’s football facility and practice field.
Leach asked about living in one of the lofts. Even if that had been possible, his wife, Sharon, quickly put the kibosh on that idea.
Just another example of Leach being Leach, the quirky, mad scientist football coach with a passion for pirates — his autobiography is titled “Swing Your Sword” — and strong opinions on candy and coffee.
John Cohen, the athletic director who hired Leach at Mississippi State, saw it differently.
“I think that everything to him was about functionality,” Cohen, now the AD at Auburn, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “I think that’s why he was able to beat people that might have had more talent. Because he just had such a practical, highly functional way of looking at things.”
Leach died Monday night of complications from a heart condition at the age of 61. He coached college football for more than three decades, 21 of those as a head coach at Mississippi State, Washington State and Texas Tech.
Running the prolific Air Raid offense he learned from Hal Mumme as an assistant early in his career, Leach’s teams went 158-107 and often set records along the way.
While Leach will be remembered most for helping to revolutionize offensive football and his propensity to riff on myriad topics, those who worked with him saw an underappreciated leader and program builder who spawned an expansive coaching tree.
Mumme told The AP a conversation with Leach could drift like “a balloon in the wind.”
“But he had this innate ability just to focus like a laser on certain things and make his players do the same thing,” Mumme said. “And that’s where I think he was great. And that’s why he was able to turn around three programs.”
The list of current head coaches who worked and/or played for Leach includes some of the most successful in the country: Southern California’s Lincoln Riley; TCU’s Sonny Dykes; Tennessee’s Josh Heupel; Baylor’s Dave Aranda; Houston’s Dana Holgorsen; West Virginia’s Neal Brown; Louisiana Tech’s Sonny Cumbie; and Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals.
On Tuesday, just hours after Mississippi State announced Leach had died, former Texas Tech receiver and Washington State offensive coordinator Eric Morris was named head coach at North Texas.
“This is incredible for this to happen on a day like today. Another Mike Leach guy!!!” Holgorsen tweeted about Morris.
Cohen, a former college baseball coach, said Leach’s practices were some of the most efficient he had ever witnessed in any sport.
“There’s just no wasted movement,” Cohen said.
Ruffin McNeill was a defensive assistant during Leach’s entire time as head coach at Texas Tech (2000-09).
“He believed in a set of principles or philosophy, and he was steadfast,” McNeill said.
Under Leach, the Red Raiders lost their first two of 10 straight bowl games — an unprecedented streak of postseason appearances for the program.
So Leach directed his staff to identify the programs that were having success in bowl games and find out how they prepared, McNeill said. The Red Raiders ended up winning six of the last eight bowl games during that stretch.
Leach’s time at Texas Tech ended tumultuously. He was accused of mistreating a player with a concussion and fired after butting heads with the administration over the accusation. When Leach was ousted, some players said he could be abrasive, stubborn and even belittling.
No one worked with Leach longer and more closely than Dave Emerick, who was chief of staff at all three head coaching stops before taking a similar job for Riley at USC earlier this year.
In a text message to The AP, Emerick said he wanted people to know the side of Leach that television cameras rarely caught.
Leach believed in small acts of kindness toward those in need, Emerick said, whether it was a call or video, an invitation to watch practice and hang out with him afterward or giving away gear or tickets to a game.
“He really went out of his way to touch people that didn’t have a lot of good in their lives,” Emerick wrote. “Coach had a reputation for being a hard ass but he cared about so many people and gave them something to look forward to.”
AP Sports Writer Gary B. Graves in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.
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