STARKVILLE, Miss. – When Mike Leach first arrived at the seafood and soul food restaurant called WTF, he ordered the chicken wings with honey gold a certain way.
“Extra crispy,” he said to Shan Suber, the owner and chef.
“Extra crispy?” said Suber. “That’s how I like my wings too!”
As of that meeting in 2020, Leach is the former State of Mississippi Football Coach, and Suber, a black single mother from the Mississippi Delta, became close. Their relationship blossomed into a friendship, and Leach went from being a regular to a confidant.
Suber cooked for him and his friends at the coach’s house, invited them to parties at her restaurant, and drank with them late the night Leach loved – the stories and spirits flowed. He especially liked their Dungeness crab, lobster tails, salmon and those extra crispy wings.
“Best Chef in Starkville, Mississippi!” Leach once exclaimed in a video posted to social media.
In a day when the coach was remembered by Starkville residents, the Mississippi state community and college football nation, a little-known business owner in this tiny town is revealing a story about Leach a week after his death.
He saved her restaurant.
“I was finished. I went into debt,” Suber recalls. “He helped us stay open. I am forever grateful.”
With post-COVID-19 inflation and a shortage of workers, Suber was on the verge of closing the shop in September when Leach found out about it and came into the restaurant one day and wrote her a check. She wants to keep the amount private, but it will cover her bills and rent for at least a few months.
“We were hanging by a thread. I didn’t ask for anything,” she says. “He did it voluntarily. I don’t know why he chose me.”
Suber was among the crowds that gathered at the Humphrey Coliseum on Tuesday for a memorial celebrating the coach’s life. He died of heart-related complications December 13 in news that rocked the college football world.
Some of the highest profile figures in the industry attended the gathering at the Mississippi State campus including USC Coach Lincoln Riley, Ole Miss Coach Lane Kiffin, Former Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops, Former Kentucky Coach Hal Mumme, Houston Coach Dana Holgorsen and TCU coach Sonny Dykes. Former Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew, a Mississippi native, paid tribute to the coach with a speech, as did Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey.
They remembered a quirky, eccentric man known off the field for his fascination with life and on the field for a pass-heavy offense that revolutionized football.
When the memorial opened on Tuesday, a familiar and appropriate tune blared from the Humphrey Coliseum speakers: Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Those close to Leach describe the way he lived his life, right down to the lyrics of the song.
“He was really one of a kind,” Stoops told the crowd. “A deep thinker. An independent thinker. Brave enough to always do it your way, no matter how unconventional it was.”
Mumme began with a story about the creation of the air raid crimes that took place during a 1991 road trip to Florida with Leach. The trip ended with both men lying in a Key West bar at Leach’s favorite spot: Captain Tony’s Saloon.
During the memorial service, a video of country singer Toby Keith played on the jumbotron. “He’s a guy you wanted to have a beer with!” Keith boomed from his friend Leach.
The event was streamed live on SEC Network. That didn’t stop Minshew from throwing a swear word at a cackling audience – a nod to his mentor and former coach. “He really didn’t give a shit what people thought,” Minshew said. “He was definitely not politically correct. That was him. You respect that.”
A night owl, Leach was notorious for calling friends late and keeping them on the line well past their bedtimes. “In Mike’s honor, let’s reach out and call every now and then after midnight,” Stoops told the crowd.
Leach was an inquisitive man who was interested in many subjects. From the US economy to grizzly bears, from the Navajo to Geronimo. Gary O’Hagan, Leach’s longtime agent and good friend, often took strange calls from the coach.
“He asked me three or four times a year, ‘Do you think there’s a Loch Ness Monster? How about Bigfoot?’” recalls O’Hagan. “Mike Leach wanted to believe in these things. He wanted to believe that anything is possible. He would live his life as if anything was possible.”
It was a gray day in Starkville. Clouds dropped raindrops in cool temperatures. Outside the gates of Davis-Wade Stadium, on two folding tables, were dozens of flowers and gifts in memory of the coach: a message scrawled on a cowbell; an empty bottle of bourbon; a tin of Copenhagen snuff, which was Leach’s favourite.
A maroon pirate flag flapped in the wind beyond the gates.
Inside the Coliseum, white flowers and photos adorned the stage, as well as the glittering Egg Bowl trophy captured by Leach in his final act as a coach – a 24:22 upset from Ole Miss.
“There’s a ball game going on in heaven,” said Stoops, who hired Leach as his offensive coordinator while he was in Oklahoma. “It’s fourth and second in his own 40 and you know he’s aiming for it.”
A day before the memorial service, 38-year-old Suber opened her restaurant — closed on Mondays — to a reporter. She pointed to the walk-in window, where Leach ordered those extra crispy wings when they first met during the pandemic. That year, he became so regular that Suber let him into the restaurant despite COVID-19 restrictions.
The restaurant is located at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, in an area of Starkville that’s a little removed from downtown, the brightly lit bars of the Cotton District, and the rolling hills of campus.
Suber claims to be one of the few black women to own a restaurant in the area. She learned to cook from her grandmother, Mattie, while growing up in the Delta city of Greenville. She opened WTF in 2015 with the intention of being different – hence the name. WTF stands for Where the Food. Their signage and themes are designed for sharing on social media. When she opened, she required every customer to post at least five photos of their meal on social media.
Their signage includes an “@” at the end of WTF.
“Where the food is,” she says. “The first time he approached me, I said to Mike, ‘You found the food, Coach!'”
He also found a friend. Leach immediately gave Suber his number, and the two began a texting relationship that grew into a close friendship that transcended food. She even influenced his coaching decisions. She recalls telling him once, “They’re going to drop eight guys, and you gotta run the damn ball!”
In many ways, Suber introduced Leach to Starkville culture and food. She describes Leach as “premium tequila.”
“He’s the good stuff,” she laughs. “Mike came by and talked to the townspeople. He wanted to get to know the town and people of Starkville.”
Suber and Leach became close despite their different political backgrounds. Suber is a 38-year-old Democrat, while Leach, 61, is a supporter of former President Donald Trump. Suber says she doesn’t let political ideals influence her personal relationships.
Neither does Leach. “He always had time for everyone,” Stoops said during the ceremony.
However, Leach developed a perception due to his brash manner, his friendship with Trump and his loose words, especially on social media.
In the spring of 2020, the trainer took the heat for posting a meme on Twitter depicting a woman knitting a noose. Suber asked him about it. “It was a joke,” she says.
“Okay, so he’s a Trump supporter. This is his choice. Everyone has a choice,” she says. “It doesn’t mean he’s a bad person. We bonded over the food. I don’t give a shit what people think. Excuse my French!”
When Leach learned in September that Suber was planning to shut down WTF, he wrote her this check. He never asked for a refund.
Today the restaurant is doing well, but it’s still a struggle. For labor law reasons, it’s only open four days a week, compared to six days. She made about $200,000 in sales this year. Last year she earned $750,000.
Suber never knew Leach was ill. She regularly provided massive meals at his home. In fact, she only cooked for Leach and his friends a month ago. She and her assistant, Gege Wells, served lamb chops, salmon, lobster tails, and stuffed shrimp.
“He never showed any illness or said anything. He fought it internally,” says Suber. “I didn’t think Mike was going to die. It’s still incredible.”
However, several people in the state of Mississippi knew. The coach had been suffering from pneumonia for most of the season. They were so severe that staff suggested he take time off. He refused.
After the season, he traveled to Houston at least once to see doctors, according to people close to him. But nobody expected what happened on December 11, when paramedics were called to his home with heart and respiratory problems. Leach was later flown to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, where he died a day later.
“We just caught up with this man making plans for Christmas dinner!” Wells says. “We are shaken.”
In the eyes of history, Leach will be remembered primarily as the man who spread the air assault offensive across the sport, who taught some of the best quarterbacks and led out-of-the-way places to great victories. Here in Starkville, he helped revive Mississippi’s offense and created excitement at Davis Wade Stadium.
But about two miles from campus, tucked away in a more forgotten part of this tiny town, there’s a restaurant where his legacy lives on through honey-gold chicken wings.