Paschall: Mike Leach’s death leaves you balancing sadness with laughter

Mississippi State athletics photo / Mississippi State on Tuesday announced the passing of Bulldogs third-year head coach Mike Leach, who led the Bulldogs this season to an 8-4 record and a win in the Egg Bowl.

When Mississippi State announced Tuesday morning that Bulldogs head football coach Mike Leach had died Monday night of a heart condition, I sat quietly for a few seconds.

And then I laughed.

There is no telling how many college football fans experienced a similar reaction, going from stunned silence to retrieving one of the countless moments Leach managed to crack us all up during his successful stints at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State. It's a blessing that the Southeastern Conference had the opportunity to experience three seasons of Leach, who seemed to have a thoughtful or entertaining answer to every question thrown his away, even about death.

When ESPN asked Leach how he wanted to be remembered in his obituary, he responded, "That's their problem. They're the ones writing the obituary. What do I care? I'm dead."

We tend to react to death on a case-by-case basis. We often celebrate a 90-year-old's passing for a life well-lived but are saddened when a 60-year-old has a life cut short, yet Leach seems to inspire a little bit of both emotional responses given how much he packed into his 61 years.

In an age when college football coaches are off-limits more and more to the media, Leach frequently gave out his cell phone number. He would somehow pack 30 hours into a day, because if he was spinning yarns with someone in Chattanooga, he had to be doing the same with folks all over the country.

Leach was a favorite with guys when it came to marital advice on Cameo videos, telling them before they tied the knot, "Make sure you're marrying your best friend. Make sure you get to continue to be you and can continue to do all those things that she fell in love with."

Whenever asked for pointers in coaching youth football, he would suggest running "a lot of crossing routes" in order to confuse the opposing kids.

There was never Mike Leach the college football player. After earning a law degree from Pepperdine University in 1986, he got into coaching the next year and by 1989 was Hal Mumme's offensive coordinator at Iowa Wesleyan.

Mumme and Leach developed the "Air Raid" offense that had success at Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State and Kentucky, with the 1998 Wildcats reaching the Outback Bowl behind quarterback and eventual top NFL draft pick Tim Couch.

Leach would leave Lexington after that season for the offensive coordinator role at Oklahoma, where his challenge was to mold an unheralded quarterback named Josh Heupel.

"In 1999, he gave a kid out of Snow College in Utah a shot at major college football," Heupel, now the second-year head coach at Tennessee, said Tuesday through a statement. "He saw something in me when no one else did. Like so many across our sport, I am grateful for Coach Leach's impact on my life both personally and professionally.

"His offensive philosophy and vision were ahead of his time, and they continue to shape the game today."

Heupel, Southern California coach Lincoln Riley and Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury each played quarterback under Leach, so he will leave behind one of the great coaching trees the sport has ever known. TCU first-year coach Sonny Dykes, who has the Horned Frogs in this season's College Football Playoff, is a significant branch on that tree as well.

Leach compiled an astounding 158-107 record at three Power Five locations that have modest traditions and uphill climbs on the recruiting front compared to other settings in the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. He won 11 games at Texas Tech in 2008 and 11 games at Washington State in 2018, and his third and final Mississippi State team went 8-4 with an Egg Bowl triumph.

There were several hours in December 2017 when it appeared as if former Tennessee athletic director John Currie had landed Leach to replace Butch Jones, but Currie was fired and replaced by Phillip Fulmer, who wound up hiring Jeremy Pruitt.

"I talked to Tennessee," Leach said at the 2021 SEC media days event. "Nothing ever got nailed down. Then pretty soon they had a coup d'etat there. You can sort that out amongst yourselves, but that's pretty well-documented.

"I didn't end up in the middle of the coup. Lucky for me."

In 21 seasons as a college head coach, Leach's teams earned 19 bowl invitations, and his 18 wins with an unranked team over a ranked opponent are the most in college football history. He managed to accomplish all these feats while expressing a respect for pirates and a disdain for candy corn every step of the way.

His impact at Mississippi State was instant, guiding the Bulldogs to a 44-34 upset of defending national champion LSU in Baton Rouge in the 2020 opener. That was the first weekend of the SEC's altered season due to the coronavirus outbreak, and Leach was asked afterward by a reporter on a Zoom call why he wasn't always wearing his mask properly.

"Are you a pretty good face mask guy?" Leach said. "I've got that face sock thing, which is kind of bad because it sits on your neck instead of hanging from your ears. Do you ever find that pretty soon those things will start to smell bad?

"All of a sudden, you're going, 'What's that smell? What's going on out there?' There's nothing going on out there. That's your breath."

College football has lost its most unique, interesting and entertaining head coach, and there is unquestionably a sadness about that. Certainly everyone's thoughts and prayers need to be with his wife and four children and to everybody he has touched along the way.

I actually found myself laughing a few more times Tuesday afternoon, and I don't think Leach would have minded.

Contact David Paschall at