December 14, 2022
The college football world lost an icon on Sunday night when Mississippi State University head football coach Mike Leach passed away after a sudden health issue over the weekend.
Just weeks after Leach and his Bulldog gridiron squad had won the annual Egg Bowl game with a dramatic 24-22 win over crossstate rival Ole Miss, Leach left this side of eternity after suffering what was reported by numerous media outlets as a massive heart attack on Saturday while at his home in Starkville. After being airlifted to a hospital in Jackson and being in critical condition over the weekend, Leach passed away overnight on Dec. 12, 2022, and left a massive void in the sports world as a result.
Leach was a lot of things in the world, from one of the most innovative football coaches to ever walk the sidelines to a man interested in pirates, grizzly bears, history, how things work, and the lives of others. His sudden and unexpected passing brought an outpouring of grief from coaches, players, fans, and just average people across America who loved the man known as the Pirate.
While the world focused on his football exploits after the tragic news of Leach’s passing, there was also an outdoors side to Leach’s life and career, including a rarely known love for spring turkey hunting, fishing, and a special Labrador retriever. More on that in a moment.
A Legend on the Gridiron
In terms of football, there’s little doubt that few have ever left their mark like Leach did, inventing the "Air Raid" offense years ago at Iowa Wesleyan University while he was the offensive coordinator and Hal Mumme was the head coach. The pair revolutionized football—at the collegiate level, soon at the high-school level, and eventually even at the NFL level—with their Air Raid offensive concepts that were perfected even more during coaching stints at Valdosta State and the University of Kentucky.
Leach eventually forged ahead on his own, becoming the offensive coordinator for one season at the University of Oklahoma, where he famously left a fake play-call sheet in the tunnel leading out onto the field at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas during the annual Texas/OU game. Texas discovered the sheet, and before they realized it was a ruse and eventually came back to win the game in the second half, the underdog Sooners had grabbed a 17-0 lead over the Longhorns.
After one season in Norman, Leach—who played rugby at BYU, got a law degree from Pepperdine University, received a master's degree from the United States Sports Academy, and never played college football—became the head coach at Texas Tech University, where his pirate-loving persona and Air Raid offense bloomed to full maturity. After leading the Red Raiders in Lubbock from 2000-2009, Leach would go on to Washington State from 2012-19 and at Mississippi State from 2020 until the time of his untimely death.
There's certainly little doubt that Leach left his mark on the football world, since the Air Raid offense has revolutionized the modern game with its shotgun quarterback, three wideouts to one side of the field, another wide receiver to the other side of the field, and a lone running back next to the quarterback.
Designed to spread the field, find player mismatches, and tire out a defense, the pass-happy offense led Leach's college teams to an amazing stat, being an unranked team in the Associated Press poll and beating a ranked team a total of 18 different times, the most in modern-college-football history.
Leach's unique offense enabled his teams to win a couple of division championships, and found him being named the American College Football Association Coach of the Year in 2018, the PAC-12 Coach of the Year in 2015 and 2018, and the Big 12 Coach of the Year in 2008, when his Red Raiders upset No. 1 Texas and altered the national title landscape.
Turkeys and the Spring Woods
But for all of his football prowess, there was another side to Leach that not everyone knew about, a side that dabbled in the outdoors world, thanks to his move to Starkville, only 26 miles away from where the famed Mossy Oak camouflage company is headquartered.
And it's that close proximity that gave the Pirate—he had a longtime admiration for pirates, studied them diligently, had numerous pirate mementos in his office, and had a pirate-referencing cameo appearance in the TV series Friday Night Lights—a window into the outdoors world.
Mossy Oak revealed that side of Leach this week with a touching social-media tribute to Leach and his interest in the outdoors. That included a photo of Mossy Oak’s Cuz Strickland and Leach in the spring turkey woods, with Leach decked out in Mossy Oak Bottomland camo, a lucky hat, and a wry smile.
Leach never killed a turkey while hunting with Strickland, but that didn't keep him away from the springtime woods during the offseason when the longbeards were gobbling, the leaves were bursting forth with new growth, and an opportunity presented itself.
"He had hunted occasionally," said Daniel Haas, Director of Marketing for Mossy Oak. “[He was] not a hardcore hunter by any means, but he loved to fish, and of course, had a legendary curiosity for all things, including the outdoors, so he usually hunted when he had an invite a few times a year.
"He loved being in the woods, talking about wildlife and asking a million questions. And his Mossy Oak cap turned into his lucky cap around town after that."
After news of Leach's passing broke, the company paid tribute to Leach with its social-media posts.
“Our office in West Point is less than 20 minutes from Mississippi State's campus, and our roots run deep there," said a Mossy Oak Instagram post. "We were lucky enough to call Mike Leach a friend after he moved to Starkville, and sharing the turkey woods with him was as entertaining as you'd expect for a man with legendary curiosity for all things including the outdoors."
Keira and a Love for Dogs
In addition to the spring-turkey hunting noted above, Leach—who had shown a recent interest in acquiring a pet or two for the home he shared with his wife Sharon—had another interest that many outdoors enthusiasts can readily identify with.
And that's a love for the All-American dog, the Labrador retriever, a favorite canine hunting companion for many waterfowlers and upland-bird hunters, as well as the most popular American Kennel Club breed for 31 years running.
And once again, Mossy Oak comes into play here, being a bridge for Leach, his growing interest in obtaining a dog a few months ago, and a kennel full of Labs barking and hoping to be chosen by the legendary coach.
“@mossyoakkennels is at the edge of town too, and Coach Leach loved to come by, tell stories with Bill and visit our dogs," said the Mississippi company's Instagram post. "He and Sharon adopted an old female, Keira, who'd been with him since last summer.
"We have plenty of young dogs ready to run through ice and mud retrieving ducks, but Mike wanted Keira. Her breeding and hunting days were behind her, but he knew she'd be a loving companion. Us and all of our dogs will miss you, Coach."
There's no doubt that’'s true, that the folks at Mossy Oak, a kennel full of hunting dogs, and the college football world at large will miss the Pirate, Coach Mike Leach.
But perhaps aside from Leach's wife Sharon, their four children, and their three grandchildren, no one will miss Leach more than Keira will.
And while she might not have been the Lab that others would have chosen to walk by their side, she turned out to be the perfect dog for a 61-year old legend. So long Coach Mike Leach. Keira, the folks at Mossy Oak, and a whole lot of the rest of us—including this Texas Longhorns fan—are certainly going to miss you in the days ahead.
Rest in peace sir, you made college football and the world of pirates a whole lot of fun.