Mike Leach, Mississippi State football's innovative and influential coach, dies at 61

Langston Newsome Stefan Krajisnik
Mississippi Clarion Ledger
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STARKVILLE — College football has lost an icon.

Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach — a sharp-witted on-field innovator whose Air Raid offense transcended the sport and created numerous coaching disciples across the nation — died Monday night at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson following complications from a heart condition, MSU announced.

He was 61.

"Mike was a giving and attentive husband, father and grandfather," his family said in a statement. "He was able to participate in organ donation at UMMC as a final act of charity. We are supported and uplifted by the outpouring of love and prayers from family, friends, Mississippi State University, the hospital staff, and football fans around the world. Thank you for sharing in the joy of our beloved husband and father's life."  

Leach, the third-year Bulldogs coach, collapsed at his home in Starkville on Sunday and did not receive medical attention for between 10 to 15 minutes. EMTs used a defibrillator machine and delivered multiple shocks to restore normal heart rhythm. After he was stabilized at Oktibbeha County Hospital, he was transported by helicopter to UMMC.

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Mississippi State president Mark Keenum and interim athletics director Bracky Brett named defensive coordinator Zach Arnett as interim coach when Leach was hospitalized Sunday.

"Coach (Leach) cast a tremendous shadow not just over Mississippi State University, but over the entire college football landscape," Keenum said. "His innovative Air Raid offense changed the game. Mike's keen intellect and unvarnished candor made him one of the nation's true coaching legends. His passing brings great sadness to our university, to the Southeastern Conference, and to all who loved college football. I will miss Mike's profound curiosity, his honesty, and his wide-open approach to pursuing excellence in all things."

Leach was raised in Cody, Wyoming, and graduated in 1983 from BYU, where he played rugby. He earned a master's degree from the U.S. Sports Academy in Daphne, Alabama, and a juris doctor from Pepperdine before entering the coaching ranks.

Leach was a head coach for 21 seasons, working at Texas Tech and Washington State before joining the Bulldogs in January 2020. He had a 158-107 career record, including a 19-17 mark in three seasons with Mississippi State.

The Bulldogs defeated rival Ole Miss 24-22 in Leach's final game. Leach secured his first Egg Bowl victory in the 95th edition of the matchup and Mississippi State's first win over the Rebels since 2019.

"Mike's death also underscores the fragility and uncertainty of our lives," Keenum said. "Three weeks ago, Mike and I were together in the locker room celebrating a hard-fought victory in Oxford. Mike Leach truly embraced life and lived in such a manner as to leave no regrets. That's a worthy legacy. May God bless the Leach family during these days and hours. The prayers of the Bulldog family go with them."

Leach battled pneumonia this season, according to ESPN. He also joked with reporters this season about a “trademark” cough he was working on after recovering from the flu. However, there was no indication his health struggles were of major concern.

Leach had been with the team since the regular season ended — even taking part in Saturday’s bowl practice and recruiting events leading up to the Dec. 21 signing day.

Leach has been coaching at MSU since he was hired to replace Joe Moorhead. In three seasons, Leach led the Bulldogs to three bowl bids – including the ReliaQuest Bowl on Jan. 2 (11 a.m., ESPN2) vs. Illinois. MSU is still expected to play in the bowl game, a spokesperson confirmed to the Clarion Ledger.

Leach joined MSU after an eight-year tenure at Washington State. With Leach at the helm, the Cougars found unprecedented success. They went 55-47 with a program-best 11-win season in 2018.

Jul 19, 2022; Atlanta, GA, USA; Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach shown on the stage during SEC Media Days at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Leach’s most memorable, and perhaps most polarizing, coaching stint came prior to his time in Pullman. Leach spent a decade coaching Texas Tech, where he led the Red Raiders to wins in 66% of games.

He was fired from Texas Tech in 2009 after claims of abuse toward a player. 

However, how Leach will be remembered best in the college football landscape will hardly have to do with football. Just like with his Air Raid offense, “The Pirate” created an easily recognizable brand through his persona. His rants – from dinosaurs to mascot fights to “fat little girlfriends” – made him a treasured icon in the sport.

And his influence was seemingly limitless, spawning the coaching careers of some of the giants in the sport, including Southern Cal's Lincoln Riley, Tennessee's Josh Heupel, TCU's Sonny Dykes, former Baylor coach Art Briles, Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, and several others.

Leach’s interests stemmed far beyond football. He earned a law degree from Pepperdine. He often spent offseasons traveling abroad. He frequented Key West, Florida. He taught a class on the intersection of football and insurgent warfare.

Leach’s interests were exhibited in his books. The best-selling author published “Swing Your Sword,” which dives into Leach’s unique approach to football while discussing leadership skills. He took his lessons in leadership a step further in another book about Apache leader Geronimo. 

Leach is survived by his wife Sharon and four children: Janeen, Kimberly, Cody and Kiersten.

Funeral details were pending Monday. Mississippi State announce a memorial service, with the date to be determined.

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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