Fair winds, calm seas to football’ ‘pirate’

Published 8:00 am Saturday, December 24, 2022

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE — Having an opportunity to spend a little time with Mike Leach and experience the world through his filters – or lack of them – was a privilege for which I will always be grateful.

The storied coach’s untimely death from complications of heart disease Dec. 13 at University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson brought a jumble of images to my mind. I genuinely liked Coach Leach and enjoyed my encounters with him a great deal. 

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From the day of his arrival on the Mississippi State University campus in January 2020, I was nervous every time Leach was in front of an open microphone or in sight of a cell phone video operator – which was virtually constant. By reputation, he was brash, unpredictable and given to freely sharing his opinions.

And he lived up to his billing – Leach was all of those things. I spent parts of both good days and bad days with him. On both ends of that continuum, he held fast to who he was and what he believed and let the chips fall.

His social media offerings on occasion drew criticism. He shared a Twitter meme meant as a commentary on COVID isolation and the notion that “familiarity breeds contempt” that depicted an old lady knitting a noose for the husband with whom she’d been cloistered.

Leach was deeply saddened that some Black voices – including some enthusiastic MSU fans – took offense to the noose image as an insensitivity to lynchings in the South. But afterwards, Leach took part in a teleconference with some of those who took offense and sincerely apologized.

It was a tough conversation. Frankly, the Mike Leach I knew didn’t have a racist bone in his body. He was kind to children, especially kind to those with special needs, and was perhaps the most approachable and patient man with fans I’ve ever seen. He was an exceedingly “regular guy” for someone with his brain power.

Leach’s intelligence was palpable. He was not only able to discuss almost any subject, but he did also so armed with the product of his voracious curiosity. As one would expect of a lawyer, Leach was really good at argument and was rather unflinching in debate.

A good day I spent with Leach came at my hometown Neshoba County Fair in 2021. The institution invited all three coaches from Mississippi’s biggest football programs – MSU’s Leach, Ole Miss Head Coach Lane Kiffin and USM’s Will Hall – for a roundtable discussion at the Founder’s Square Pavilion before a large live crowd and a statewide radio audience.

Leach and Kiffin had an obvious friendship based in mutual respect and familiarity. Both were generous to the younger Hall in the appearance. But Leach made the rounds at Neshoba because the whole vibe of the place fit him. He located the Minchew cabin and was embraced by the family of his former Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew, now the backup quarterback of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.

On the day, Leach indulged an inordinate number of photos, handshakes, and impromptu visits. When the time came to leave the fairgrounds, he didn’t want to go. I drove him to the Philadelphia municipal airfield and as he exited the car, he said: “Can you take me back out there after this alumni thing tonight is over?”

Particularly in the first year on campus, Leach walked a lot. I would see him coming in cargo shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and a ball cap with a cup of coffee. He talked to students, faculty or staff and usually not about football.

Like a lot of Bulldogs, one of the saddest aspects of Leach’s sudden death to me was the fact that after a really tough 2022 schedule, 2023 seemed to promise more opportunity for a special season – a season that would see Leach begin to receive the recognition his career deserved in the nation’s premier football conference. 

The “Air Raid” had proven effective in the Southeastern Conference. Leach had proven effective in the SEC and was as individually captivating and iconic as he had been in the Big 12 and the PAC 12. The “Pirate” had found safe harbor in north Mississippi – and here he will be missed.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com