Mike Leach, the gruff, pioneering and unfiltered college football coach who helped revolutionize the passing game with the Air Raid offense, has died following complications from a heart condition, Mississippi State said Tuesday. He was 61.
Leach, who was in his third season as head coach at Mississippi State, fell ill Sunday at his home in Starkville, Mississippi. He was treated at a local hospital before being airlifted to University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, about 120 miles (200 kilometers) away.
“Mike 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,” the family said in a statement issued by Mississippi State. “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 fought through a bout with pneumonia late in this season, coughing uncontrollably at times during news conferences, but seemed to be improving, according to those who worked with him.
News of him falling gravely ill swept through college football the past few days and left many who knew him stunned, hoping and praying for Leach’s recovery under grim circumstances.
His impact on college football over the last two decades runs deep and will continue for years to come.
Leach was known for his pass-happy offenses, wide-ranging interests — he wrote a book about Native American leader Geronimo, had a passion for pirates, a taught a class about insurgent warfare — and rambling, off-the-cuff news conferences.
Leach’s teams were consistent winners at programs where success did not come easy. In 21 seasons as a head coach at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State, Leach went 158-107. And his quarterbacks put up massive passing statistics, running a relatively simple offense called the Air Raid that he did not invent but certainly mastered.
An interview with Leach was as likely to veer off into politics, wedding planning or hypothetical mascot fights as it was to stick to football. He considered Donald Trump a friend before the billionaire businessman ran for president and then campaigned for him in 2016.
He traveled all over the world and his curiosity knew no bounds. He most appreciated those who stepped outside of their expertise.
“One of the biggest things I admire about Michael Jordan, he got condemned a lot for playing baseball. I completely admired that,” Leach told The Associated Press last spring. “I mean, you’re gonna be dead in 100 years anyway. You’ve mastered basketball and you’re gonna go try to master something else, and stick your neck out and you’re not afraid to do it, and know that a lot of people are gonna be watching you while you do it. I thought it was awesome.”
As much as Leach enjoyed digging into topics other than football, he was excellent at the Xs and Os.
Six of the 20 best passing seasons in major college football history were by quarterbacks who played for Leach, including four of the top six.
Calling plays from a folded piece of paper smaller than an index card, Leach turned passers such as B.J. Symons (448.7 yards per game), Graham Harrell (438.8), Connor Halliday (430.3) and Anthony Gordon (429.2) into record-setters and Heisman Trophy contenders.
“You have to make choices and limit what you’re going to teach and what you’re going to do. That’s the hard part,” Leach told the AP about the Air Raid’s economical playbook.