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RIP Mike Leach, college football treasure and Florida man

The quirky, part-time Key West resident made a major impact across the state, even though he never coached here.
Mike Leach went 158-107 in his career as the head coach at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State.
Mike Leach went 158-107 in his career as the head coach at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State. [ BUTCH DILL | AP ]
Published Dec. 13, 2022|Updated Dec. 13, 2022

Mike Leach was a Florida man.

He had a place in Key West and moved there in 2009 after Texas Tech fired him. It was the perfect place for an exile awaiting a fresh start; the island’s free-wheeling vibe fit his unfiltered personality. Leach sounded gruff but went with the flow, never in a hurry, never worried about norms or protocols or what anyone else thought.

In an era of buttoned-up college football coaches who go out of their way to avoid saying anything interesting, Leach would talk about anything with anyone for any length of time. Aliens. Wedding advice. Netflix shows. Mascot fights. Pirates.

Related: Mississippi State’s Mike Leach, pioneering football coach, dies at 61

He was a swashbuckler, in more ways than one, and studied maritime history. He would have been right at home at Raymond James Stadium next month for Mississippi State’s trip to the ReliaQuest Bowl. If he wasn’t already acquainted with the legend of Jose Gaspar, he would have dug in and left Tampa as an expert.

Leach, who died Monday night at the age of 61 from heart complications, was also a darn good coach — one of the most influential of his era. And though he never coached in Florida (he applied for a job coaching the Key West High Conchs in 1996 but didn’t get it), he made an impact on every corner of the state.

Mike Leach leaves behind an enormous coaching tree.
Mike Leach leaves behind an enormous coaching tree. [ AP (2017) ]

As a Kentucky assistant, he lit up the SEC. His Wildcats put up 35 points on No. 8 Florida in 1998. No one else came close to doing that against those Gators, including eventual national champion Tennessee (which needed overtime to score 20).

Then-Florida defensive coordinator Bob Stoops hated facing it. When Stoops got the Oklahoma job before the 1999 season, he made Leach his offensive coordinator. One of Leach’s first tasks was to find a quarterback who could run his pass-happy Air Raid offense. He found one at a junior college in Utah: Josh Heupel.

“He saw something in me when no one else did,” Heupel said in a statement.

Leach only spent one season with the Sooners before he took over Texas Tech, but Heupel stuck around and quarterbacked Oklahoma to a 13-2 win over Florida State for the 2000 national championship. Without Leach, would Heupel have jumped through the coaching ranks to lead UCF to a Fiesta Bowl and reestablish Tennessee as an SEC East contender? Probably not.

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Josh Heupel, a former Mike Leach quarterback, went 28-8 in three seasons at UCF.
Josh Heupel, a former Mike Leach quarterback, went 28-8 in three seasons at UCF. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Heupel didn’t copy and paste Leach’s system to form his own playbook. But he told The Athletic earlier this year that his offense includes “portions of what I did with Mike Leach as a player,” and his Volunteers were one of only 11 teams to pass for more yards this season than Leach’s Bulldogs. That success led USF to poach Heupel’s offensive coordinator, Alex Golesh, as the Bulls’ head coach. One of the branches of Leach’s coaching tree got its own bud.

Related: Is new USF football coach Alex Golesh the next Jim Leavitt? Or another Jeff Scott?

It won’t be the first time Leach’s influence trickled down to the state. After the 2019 season, Miami hired Rhett Lashlee to spread out and ramp up the offense. Lashlee had spent the previous two years at SMU under Sonny Dykes, a former Leach lieutenant. The Hurricanes jumped from 90th in scoring offense to 34th.

In 2016, Willie Taggart wanted to tweak USF’s Gulf Coast Offense, so he went to Baylor to study the Bears’ system under Art Briles — another Leach disciple. USF went 11-2 that year and had the first top-20 finish in program history. Taggart later hired Briles’ son, Kendal, as his offensive coordinator at FSU.

The offenses weren’t the same as the Air Raid, but some of the principles were. Taggart emphasized “lethal simplicity,” while Leach was a master at keeping things easy.

Willie Taggart's Gulf Coast Offense was influenced by Baylor coach Art Briles, who was in turn influenced by Mike Leach.
Willie Taggart's Gulf Coast Offense was influenced by Baylor coach Art Briles, who was in turn influenced by Mike Leach. [ Times (2016) ]

“Us coaches are pretty good at turning football into calculus, right?” Mississippi State interim coach Zach Arnett said last week at a ReliaQuest Bowl stop in Tampa. “That’s about the worst thing you can do. He keeps it as simple as possible for players and gets them playing fast and gets them on the field and flying around. It’s been an incredibly successful formula for him.”

The formula made Leach the winningest coach in Texas Tech history (84-43). Only five coaches at Washington State (minimum two years) had a higher winning percentage than Leach (.539). The No. 24 Bulldogs he left behind have a shot at finishing ranked for only the fifth time this century.

Leach will be remembered for overachieving at three of the most challenging Power Five jobs in the country, but his legacy also includes a prolific coaching tree: USC’s Lincoln Riley, Baylor’s Dave Aranda, Houston’s Dana Holgorsen and West Virginia’s Neal Brown. On Christmas, the Bucs will face another Leach protégé, Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury.

“There is no way I would be where I am today if not for Mike Leach and everything he taught me about the game …” Kingsbury said in a statement. “Our sport was better because of Mike Leach and is far less interesting without him.”

Leach is survived by his wife, Sharon, and four children.

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