'He was a perfect fit': Starkville, Mississippi State mourn death of Mike Leach

Stefan Krajisnik
Mississippi Clarion Ledger
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STARKVILLE — Five folding tables sat outside the south gates of Davis Wade Stadium on Tuesday morning. They supported a collection of flowers, gummy bears and Nerds clusters. Black ribbons tied to the gates were perched above.

The video board in the north end zone of Mississippi State football’s home illuminated a gloomy sky fitting for the mood in the Magnolia State. On it sat a projection in memory of Mike Leach, the college football icon and MSU coach who died Monday night after complications from a heart condition.

The same image hovered over Dudy Noble Field. It also lit up a barren Humphrey Coliseum.

Four miles west on Highway 12, a billboard honored the coach who was known for his passion for pirates almost as much as his innovative Air Raid offense.

“Sword Swung,” it read.

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It was a quiet morning in a town known for its noise. Leach was a big reason why, orchestrating a team worthy of blistering cowbell clanging in his three seasons at the helm.

Now, instead of anticipating a trip to the ReliaQuest Bowl ahead of a promising 2023 schedule, Starkville mourns. A man so seemingly content with where he was is now gone.

Jackie Sherrill, a coaching legend in his own right at Mississippi State and a close friend to Leach, knows a special marriage between coach and town was just stripped from college football.

“He was a perfect fit,” Sherrill told the Clarion Ledger on Tuesday.

“Every time that we talked on the phone or were together, and that was a lot, he always said how much he liked Starkville,” he added.

Leach was fond of Sherrill and frequently complimentary, though he found his chances to take shots. Sherrill coached at Texas A&M prior to his 13 seasons at Mississippi State. Sherrill was honored at Kyle Field last season during halftime of MSU’s win against A&M.

Postgame, Sherrill walked into Leach’s press conference. Immediately, he captured Leach’s full attention. Mid-answer, Leach stopped to engage in a near-minute long conversation with Sherrill. Leach joked about it being a "double whammy" game for Sherrill.

“He was different and unique,” Sherrill said. “That’s why people liked him.”

Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach joined Lane Kiffin of Mississippi, and Will Hall of Southern Mississippi, unseen, in participating in a special "Football at the Fair" program at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., Thursday, July 29, 2021. The three Mississippi NCAA Division 1 football coaches discussed their programs' future, joked with each other and answered audience's questions in the hour long program. The fair, also known as Mississippi's Giant House Party, is an annual event of agricultural, political, and social entertainment at what might be the country's largest campground fair. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Part of what tied Leach to the community now mourning his loss was his path to the top.

“Mike paid his dues to get where he was,” Sherrill said. “He earned every step.”

Leach was a Wyoming native who played rugby, not football. He always had an eye for coaching, but he pursued a law degree from Pepperdine.

He wasn’t handed an opportunity to make it to the college level as a head coach. He coached the offensive line at Cal Poly in 1987, then coached linebackers at College of the Desert the following season. The next year took him abroad to coach the Pori Bears.

The Bears aren’t in the SEC, Pac-12 or Big 12. The Pori Bears play American football in Finland. It was an opportunity for Leach, so he took it. In an email to the Clarion Ledger in July, a former Bears assistant alongside Leach shared the impact he left behind.

“The fundamentals for these successful people were taught by Mike Leach,” Antti Kokkila wrote.

Leach’s intensity on the field was met by a humor off of it that few of Leach’s colleagues own. Leach made more than $5 million a year in Starkville, yet he often wore the same cargo shorts, Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops.

The combination of clothing was a familiar sight at the Neshoba County Fair – an event he grew to love thanks in large part to Gardner Minshew’s family cabin.

“He knew who he was,” Sherrill says.

The quirkiness was met with care. After a loss in the Liberty Bowl last season, Leach battled emotions when reflecting on the 2021 season and the momentum Mississippi State built.

He held players accountable in the way a parent would, and that was part of why Sherrill feels Leach was destined to lead Mississippi State to an SEC championship.

Instead, the Bulldogs are left with shock and hurt. The perfect pairing of coach and program features a tearful ending with fans dropping off flowers at the gates of the stadium Leach once roamed.

Stefan Krajisnik is the Mississippi State beat writer for the Clarion Ledger. Contact him at skrajisnik@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter @skrajisnik3.

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