Mike Leach’s Legacy a Bit More Complicated for Some Arkansas Fans

Mike Leach, Arkansas football, Mississippi State football
photo credit: MSU Athletics

Many words can be used to describe the man known as college football’s Pirate — “quirky,” “unique,” “genius” — but one thing is certain: Mike Leach was never afraid to speak his mind…about anything.

That led to some fair criticisms. Just don’t do it this week.

Sadly, as the world learned Tuesday, the former Mississippi State head football coach passed away at the age of 61. It’s more than unfortunate that we will not get to see Leach’s brilliance on the sidelines — or in interviews — ever again. However, we will continue to see his legacy for decades to come.

Mike Leach was not your typical football coach. A Californian by birth, his family eventually settled in the small town of Cody, Wyo., where he graduated from high school. He was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and went on to BYU where he played, believe it or not, rugby. Then, perhaps even more unusual for a future football coach, he earned a law degree at Pepperdine.

As a head coach, he won 158 games against 107 losses and took three different teams to 17 total bowl games across 21 seasons. That is a record that would make any 91-year-old proud, but again, he was just 61.

It seems the entire country mourns his death and so should Razorback Nation. He was a worthy adversary, and he was one of the group who made it possible to call the SEC West the toughest division in the history of college football.

The Legacy of Mike Leach

He led Texas Tech from 2000-09 and Washington State from 2012-19. Mississippi State is where his career ended as he moved on to greener fields in a place we can only imagine.  

The legacy that will outlive him is, of course, the “Air Raid” offense that his former boss, Hal Mumme, created and he essentially perfected. Arkansas fans see it up close and personal through the play calling of offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, whose RPO spread tactics evolved from “Air Raid” principles that Briles’ father picked up while coaching running backs under Leach at Texas Tech. (Sonny Dykes, head coach of new College Football Playoff entrant TCU, was also on that staff.)

Mumme’s formative years were spent in an era where most teams still clung to a straight-forward, 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust style of offense often embraced by the likes of Frank Broyles, Fred Akers, Barry Switzer and others.

Not many teams run the type of offense that those former Razorback coaches ran and there are a handful of coaches who are responsible for that. Leach was one of them. While he was at BYU playing rugby, he kept a close eye on the football team, which was one of the early programs to start breaking the mold. Leach shattered it.

His quarterbacks piled up incredibly impressive passing stats and, by extension, so did his receivers, but not by irresponsibly and erratically chucking the ball downfield and hoping for the best. And, make no mistake, playing running back in his system was just as good as playing receiver.

Leach coached his QBs to be tacticians who threw tons of passes, many of which could just as easily have been considered runs with the only difference being that what might have been a hand-off or a pitch in other schemes, was simply a short forward pass. His key, much like that of former Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino, was to get the ball to his most explosive players in space and let them do their thing.

Leach and Arkansas Football

In the aftermath of Petrino, Leach was twice in the running to be Arkansas football head coach — or should have been.

The first time was after Bret Bielema was fired, when Leach apparently shared with Pig Trail Nation reporters he was “very, very interested” in leaving Pullman, Wash., for Fayetteville. He admired the Razorbacks and the statewide fervor the program engendered, which especially comes through here when he talks about why War Memorial Stadium was the loudest stadium in which he had ever coached.

The admiration often ran both ways. While some Arkansas football fans were turned off by Leach’s tactics, dry wit and sometimes bracing style, quite a few others admired how he carried himself with the same kind of chippiness that seems to be a birthright for supporters of the team.

But alas, it seems that the interim AD at the time, Julie Cromer, couldn’t think outside the box enough or just didn’t have the sense to even interview him. Instead, she left us with the worst coach in program history.

Yes, we could have had Mike Leach, but we got Chad Morris, who went back to coaching high school football in Allen, Texas — and resigned after one season. Are you kidding me? This should make all Hog fans sick to their stomach. That’s like choosing to buy a marshmallow for lunch instead of a pulled-pork sandwich for the same price.

Just think of the damage to the program that could have been avoided. Leach’s acumen would have ensured the Hogs had respect instead of being the laughingstock of college football for those dismal couple of years. It goes without saying that when we lose someone we respect, we mourn them. Arkansas fans should mourn his loss this week.

It’s appropriate that Leach won his last game — the Egg Bowl against arch-rival Ole Miss. But that’s just a victory that lives on paper. Leach’s real victory was in life. To a man, every coach who has made any kind of statement about his passing liked him as a person, respected his high level of intelligence and feared his “Air Raid” offense.

What more do any of us want than to be respected enough in life by our peers that the same peers would mourn us in death? Rest in peace, Mike Leach.


More coverage of Mike Leach from BoAS…

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