Swing Your Sword: Remembering Mike Leach
Cover photo: Mike Leach poses for a photograph with an eye-patch, embracing his nickname "The Pirate."
Cover photo credit: Lionel Deluy, Texas Monthly
If I had to make a football team composed of all my favorite players, it would be to say the least, an interesting group. Ryan Fitzpatrick would play quarterback, and finish the season with as many touchdown passes as interceptions; Larry Fitzgerald would be wide receiver one, and ultimately would lead the team in tackles because of Fitzpatrick's interceptions; and Scooby Wright would out hustle everyone on the field, only to be ran over upon trying to make a tackle because he's as light as a feather. Those are just a few examples, but as you should be able to tell, it would be a somewhat motley group of fan-favorites, superstars, and cult heroes. Being that as it is, there is only one man fit to be in charge of such an interesting group of players, a man who is just as interesting, if not more, than the group itself.
Mike Leach (March 9, 1961-December 12, 2022) is the only man I would trust to lead my aimless group of football players. He is my favorite football coach of all time, and thus, would lead my all-time team. He would lead them the way he has led all of his teams: with heart, personality, and with absolutely no aversion to risk.
Leach was not the most accomplished college football coach ever. Not even close. In his 21 seasons as a head coach, he only had two 11-win seasons. He had zero national championships. Zero conference championships. Only two division titles. And yet still, he made an impact on the game of football that was bigger than perhaps any other person in our lifetime.
The offense he invented, appropriately dubbed "the air raid," is the most widely used offense in college and high school football. The elements that make it up can be found in every football playbook in the country. Every time you see a four or five-wide receiver set, a quarterback in the shotgun, or offensive lineman spaced so far apart that they could each be in their own zip code, just know that that would have never happened without Leach. Every time you see a quarterback put up 400 yards through the air in one game, or a team opt to go for it on fourth and long, think about how, prior to Leach, those ideas were not only uncommon, they were downright frowned upon.
Mike Leach never cared about being frowned upon though. That's why he would do card tricks for recruits, go on tangents about his favorite candy during press conferences, or begin interviewing the interviewer in the middle of an interview. Much of the time, they wouldn't even notice.
By all accounts, Mike Leach never should have coached college football. The world of college football is a rigid one. One where personality, uniqueness, and innovation is not encouraged. That's ultimately why he coached where he did. Of the three spots he was a head coach, two of which, Washington State and Mississippi State, have all-time winning percentages that are less than 50%. The only spot where he coached that had won more games than it had lost was Texas Tech, which is located on the harsh plains of west Texas in a city that can best be described as remote. The spots that he coached at are the bizarre, desolate, forgotten outposts of their respective conferences. That didn’t matter to Leach. They were oftentimes the only programs willing to embrace what the Mike Leach experience would bring. So, he embraced them right back.
I honestly could go on and on about Mike Leach. About how everything in his career made perfect sense in the way that none of it made any sense. Like how he earned a law degree and masters degree, only to go coach football in Finland. This would be only the first in a long line of bizarre coaching spots. All without playing a single down of college football himself.
Or about how he earned the nickname “The Pirate” because of the random and passionate diatribes he would go on about the history of piracy. Of course, he would also ask his player prior to games how they were going to “swing their sword” and put their mark on the game.
Every place he coached, interview he gave, or tirade he went on was as unique as he was.
The world of college football is not the same without him. Luckily for us, however, he lives on in the schematic mark he made on the game. As we speak, there are eight head coaches in college football that learned under Mike Leach, coaches such as Sonny Dykes at TCU, Josh Heupel at Tennessee, and Lincoln Riley at USC. That is a pretty strong coaching tree.
Before I close, I’d like to leave you all with one more thought. The minimum number of games a coach needs to have to make it into the College Football hall of Fame is 160. Leach has 158. He passed away before Mississippi State’s 2022 bowl game, a game that they won. That would have brought his total to one shy of the minimum. Other than that, many of his seasons were spent rebuilding programs that were never really built in the first place. A challenge he was more than willing to accept. He did that all while utilizing an original offense that made defensive locker rooms go into a “deep, deep state of depression.” At least that’s how Oklahoma head coach and former Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables described feeling after playing against Leach’s offense after Oklahoma spring games.
The point I’m making here is this: I understand the lack of high-win total seasons. The lack of championships of any kind. The lack of respect that Leach had for the way things are supposed to be. But context is critical, and it is my belief that the hall of fame committee can make an exception for someone who changed football more tangibly than probably anyone else in the history of the sport. I strongly believe that if they do not, they will have made a terrible mistake.
Rest in peace to the greatest to ever don a headset. Swing your sword.