Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach died Monday night after complications related to a heart condition, the school said. He was 61.
Leach’s family said in a statement released Tuesday by the school that Leach participated in the organ donation at the University of Mississippi Medical Center as a “last act of charity.”
“We are supported and encouraged by the love and prayers of family, friends, Mississippi State University, hospital staff and football fans around the world,” Leach’s family said. “Thank you for sharing the joy in the life of our beloved husband and father.”
Leach was suffering from what the university originally described in a press release as a “personal health issue” at his home in Starkville on Sunday, which resulted in him having to be flown to UMMC in Jackson, about 125 miles from the state of Mississippi.
Leach, in his third season as Mississippi State coach, had told ESPN after the regular season that he had battled pneumonia during the season but was feeling better. He was in training on Saturday before suffering from his health problems on Sunday.
The news that he had become seriously ill swept through college football in recent days, leaving many who knew him stunned, hoping and praying for Leach’s recovery from grim circumstances.
“Coach Mike Leach cast a tremendous shadow not only on Mississippi State University, but on the entire college football landscape,” University President Mark E. Keenum said in a statement. “His innovative ‘Air Raid’ offense changed the game. Mike’s sharp intellect and unvarnished candor made him one of the nation’s true coaching legends. His passing brings great sadness to our university, the Southeastern Conference, and all who loved college football. I will miss Mike’s deep curiosity, honesty and open approach to excellence in all things.
“Mike’s death also underscores the fragility and uncertainty of our lives. Three weeks ago Mike and I were in the dressing room together celebrating a regretted hard-fought win at Oxford. This is a valuable legacy. May God bless the Leach family in these days and hours. The prayers of the Bulldog family are 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 2009 and at Washington State from 2012 to 2019. In 2018 he was Washington State AFCA National Coach of the Year.
“We are heartbroken and devastated by the death of Mike Leach,” Bracky Brett, Mississippi State’s interim athletic director, said in a statement. “College football lost one of its most beloved figures today, but its legacy will live forever. Mike’s energetic personality, influential presence and exceptional leadership touched millions of athletes, students, coaches, fans, family and friends for decades.
“Mike was an innovator, pioneer and visionary. He was a college football icon, a coaching legend, but an even better person. We’re all better off knowing Mike Leach. The thoughts and prayers of Mississippi State University and the entire Bulldog family are with his wife Sharon, his children and the entire Leach family.”
Known for his prolific air raid offenses, Leach was 158-107 in his 21 seasons as head coach. He was also known for his quirky personality, dry wit, and penchant for talking about history, economics, and politics (and pretty much everything else, actually) as comfortably as he did with quarterbacks who made the right reads and receivers went the right way.
Six of the top 20 seasons in great college football history have been played by quarterbacks playing for Leach, including four of the top six.
Leach called plays from a folded sheet of paper smaller than an index card and converted passers like BJ Symons (448.7 yards per game), Graham Harrell (438.8), Connor Halliday (430.3) and Anthony Gordon ( 429.2) in record holder and Heisman Trophy contender.
Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, who played three seasons under Leach at Texas Tech and was the head coach of the Red Raiders from 2013 to 2018, said Tuesday that the sport of football “was better because of Mike Leach and is far less interesting without him. “
“There’s no way I would be where I am today without Mike Leach and everything he taught me about the game,” Kingsbury said. “Truly one of the most innovative attacking minds in football, he was more than a coach. He was a mentor, a friend and one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met.”
In addition to Kingsbury, Leach’s extensive coaching tree includes USC’s Lincoln Riley, TCU’s Sonny Dykes and Houston’s Dana Holgorsen.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said in a statement he was “deeply saddened” by Leach’s “unexpected death.”
“I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Mike over the past few years,” said Saban. “I never knew exactly where our conversations were going, but they always made me smile. He was an offensive innovator who always did things his way and was admired for it. His teams were well trained and extremely challenging to defend. They played with balance and tenacity, which suits his leadership.”
Leach, nicknamed “Pirate,” had an affinity for pirates and even had a life-size statue of a singing pirate in his office when he was in Washington state. It was a gift from Hall of Fame basketball coach Bob Knight, who was basketball coach at Texas Tech when Leach was in Lubbock as a football coach.
Leach, who never shies away from speaking out on any subject, once joked, “I miss speedsters,” after a fan ran onto the field and after a touchdown in Washington State’s 24-21 win over Stanford in 2017 pants down. And after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, Leach texted congratulatory Trump and offered to become 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 from Pepperdine University with a law degree in the top 25% of his class and co-authored a book on Geronimo and the Apache leader’s approach to leadership. After growing up primarily in Cody, Wyoming, Leach earned his bachelor’s degree from BYU where he played rugby. He didn’t play football in college, but he did study BYU Hall of Fame coach LaVell Edwards and his offense closely.
After earning his law degree in 1986, Leach began his football coaching career at Cal Poly in 1987 and joined Hal Mumme’s associates at Iowa Wesleyan in 1989. He earned much credit for turning the program into a brand name. Leach worked for Mumme as an offensive line coach at Iowa Wesleyan and was also a de facto publicist, sending out press 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 said in a recent interview with ESPN. “He came up with the name for us to publish, and it’s probably fitting since he was the one who worked with it the furthest.”
Leach followed Mumme to Valdosta State and Kentucky, where quarterback Tim Couch thrived and was the No. 1 pick in the 1999 NFL draft. Leach spent the 1999 season as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator, dramatically improving the Sooners’ offense with quarterback Josh Heupel under coach Bob Stoops before landing his first head coaching job at Texas Tech in 2000.
“I am heartbroken by the death of Coach Leach,” said Heupel, who is now Tennessee’s head coach. “In 1999 he gave a boy from Snow College in Utah a shot at great college football. He saw something in me that nobody else did. Like so many in our sport, I am grateful for Coach Leach’s impact on my life. Personally and professionally, his offensive philosophy and vision were ahead of his time and continue to shape the game to this day.
“Off the field he was one of a kind – an incredible storyteller, a man of wisdom and someone who always looked after his former players and coaches. I have enjoyed our friendship over the years.”
Leach developed record-breaking offenses at Texas Tech and quarterbacks like Kingsbury and Graham Harrell. The Red Raiders won 11-2 in 2008 and have finished in the AP Top 25 in five of Leach’s last six seasons as coach.
“Coach Leach will forever be remembered as one of the most innovative offensive players in college football history,” Texas Tech said in a statement. “His impact on Texas Tech Football alone will live on in history as one of the greatest tenures in the history of our program. From his 84 wins to his record-breaking offenses, Coach Leach has quickly built a legacy here at Texas Tech that will never be forgotten.”
He coached 10 seasons at Texas Tech before being fired on December 30, 2009. A former player, Adam James, accused Leach of mistreating him after he suffered a concussion. Leach was suspended on December 28, 2009, and then fired because the university called an “unruly act of insubordination.” He sued the university for wrongful termination and lost an offer for monetary damages due to a legal technicality, but continued to fight to obtain records of his dismissal.
When Leach arrived at the Palouse in 2012, Washington State had gone through eight straight seasons without a win. But he led the Cougars to a bowl game in his sophomore season and won at least eight games each season from 2015-18, including 11 in 2018.
“Mike’s a guy who’s been in the spotlight for 15 or 20 years, with the Big 12, the Pac-12, the SEC,” Mumme said in a recent interview with ESPN. “So he’s the guy everyone was looking at. He’s won football games in places where you shouldn’t win.”
Leach joined the SEC in 2020, taking office in the state of Mississippi. After years of questioning whether Leach’s spread offense could succeed at the nation’s most talented football conference, the Bulldogs set an SEC-record for yards passing in his first-ever game against defending champion LSU.
Leach is survived by his wife Sharon; children Janeen, Kim, Cody and Kiersten; and three grandchildren.
Keenum and Brett had defense coordinator Zach Arnett in charge of the football program when Leach was hospitalized. The Bulldogs will face Illinois on Jan. 2 in the ReliaQuest Bowl.
Chris Low, Adam Rittenberg, and Dave Wilson of ESPN and The Associated Press contributed to this report.