Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach died at a Jackson, Miss., hospital late Monday, a day after after suffering a medical emergency at his Starkville home.
Leach, who was 61, had been in critical condition in University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson after having what was initially described as a “personal health issue” on Sunday morning and first being treated at a Starkville-area hospital.
Leach’s family released the following statement Tuesday morning through university spokesman Sid Salter:
“Coach Mike Leach passed away last night from complications related to a heart condition. He was a giving and attentive husband, father and grandfather. He was able to participate in organ donation at UMMC as a final act of charity.
“We are 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, whose pass-heavy offenses rewrote college football’s record books over the last two decades, was in his third season at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs (8-4) are scheduled to face Illinois (8-4) in the Reliaquest Bowl on Jan. 2.
Leach’s final game came on Thanksgiving night against Mississippi State’s arch-rival, Ole Miss. The Bulldogs rallied for a 24-22 in the Egg Bowl in Oxford.
“We are heartbroken and devastated by the passing of Mike Leach,” MSU interim athletics director Brackey Brett said in a statement. “College football lost one of its most beloved figures today, but his legacy will last forever. Mike’s energetic personality, influential presence and extraordinary leadership touched millions of athletes, students, coaches, fans, family and friends for decades.
“Mike was an innovator, pioneer and visionary. He was a college football icon, a coaching legend but an even better person. We are all better for having known Mike Leach. The thoughts and prayers of Mississippi State University and the entire Bulldog family are with his wife Sharon, his children and the entire Leach family.”
Leach coached 10 seasons at Texas Tech and eight more at Washington State before taking over at Mississippi State in 2020, a somewhat surprising hire by then-athletics director John Cohen. All told, Leach had a record of 158-107 with eight bowl victories in 21 seasons as a head coach.
Well-read and outspoken, Leach’s media sessions and sideline interviews were among the most unusual and entertaining in the sport. In addition to talking football, he might offer advice on wedding planning or his favorite restaurants or pontificate on any number of historical and geopolitical topics.
During his tenure at Texas Tech, Leach became known around college football as “The Pirate,” for his intense interest in the subject, even adopting “Swing Your Sword” as his team’s motto (and as the title of 2011 book on leadership). He also co-authored a 2014 biography of Geronimo, the famed 19th-century Native American military leader.
“Coach Mike Leach cast a tremendous shadow not just over Mississippi State University, but over the entire college football landscape,” Mississippi State president Mark Keenum said in a statement. “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.
“Mike’s death also underscores the fragility and uncertainty of our lives. 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.”
A California native who grew up in Wyoming, Leach graduated with a law degree from Pepperdine in 1986 and had no high-level football playing background when he was hired as offensive line coach at Cal Poly in 1987. He later joined up with spread offense guru Hal Mumme at tiny Iowa Wesleyan University in 1989 and the two revolutionized college football with the “Air Raid,” which routinely attempted upwards of 50 passes per game.
Leach followed Mumme to Valdosta (Ga.) State and then Kentucky, before joining Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma staff as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in 1999. After one season with the Sooners, he was named head coach at Texas Tech in 2000.
Leach’s quarterbacks set school, conference and NCAA passing records at every stop. Among those he tutored were Chris Hatcher at Valdosta State; Tim Couch and Jared Lorenzen at Kentucky; Kliff Kingsbury, Graham Harrell and Sonny Cumbie at Texas Tech; Gardner Minshew, Luke Falk and Tyler Hilinski at Washington State; and Will Rogers, who has become the SEC’s all-time leader in completions and attempts in just three seasons as a starter at Mississippi State.
Leach’s coaching tree is also extensive. Among those who played or coached under him who now are head coaches are Samford’s Hatcher, Louisiana Tech’s Cumbie, Baylor’s Dave Aranda, West Virginia’s Neal Brown, TCU’s Sonny Dykes, Tennessee’s Josh Heupel, Houston’s Dana Holgorsen, USC’s Lincoln Riley and Kingsbury, who first coached at Texas Tech and is now with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
Leach is the first SEC football coach to die while still active since LSU’s Bo Rein, who was killed in a plane crash while on a recruiting trip in 1980. Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant died following a heart attack in January 1983, some four weeks after retiring following 25 years as Crimson Tide head coach.
Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett was appointed as Mississippi State’s acting head coach earlier Sunday. The team was not scheduled to practice again until late this week.
Leach is survived by his wife Sharon, four children and three grandchildren.