Column: My interview with Mike Leach, BYU’s unlikeliest legend
I still can’t believe he’s gone.
It’s been nearly three months since Mike Leach left us, and it still doesn’t feel real.
It happened so suddenly. No one could have seen it coming. No one could have been adequately prepared.
Nobody was able to really say goodbye.
Leach, in the thick of bowl preparation with his Mississippi State squad, passed away Dec. 12 after suffering a massive, unexpected heart attack. He was 61 at the time of his passing, and today would have been his 62nd birthday.
It’s near impossible to eulogize a figure such as Leach. As one reflects on his life, achievements and character, you can never quite get to the bottom. There’s always more. I wonder if any of us have the depth to fully comprehend this man.
He was “the Pirate,” authentically himself and without a care in the world as to what anyone else might think of him. He was the Norm MacDonald of college football, although comparing anyone to Leach seems strange considering how unique the man truly was. He was as ‘one-in-a-billion’ as you could possibly find.
He was also a brilliant football mind.
Brilliant may even be an understatement— Leach was eccentrically genius.
He climbed the collegiate coaching ranks all the way to the head job at Texas Tech in 1999, bringing a previously irrelevant program into the national spotlight before doing the same thing at Washington State and ultimately landing in Starkville. He won 158 games, eight bowl games and revolutionized the sport with his trademark pass-heavy, air raid offensive scheme.. but more on that later.
When he wasn’t winning football games, he was fueling his obsession with pirates, whales, obscure historical figures (think Geronimo or Jackson Pollock) or whatever else caught his fancy.
How many other Division-I coaches, let alone considerably successful ones, never played a snap of college football but hold a law degree? Surely no other coach is spending his offseason teaching a five-week seminar titled “Insurgent Warfare and Football Strategies,” but for Leach, it was completely on-brand.
Leach’s antics were highly entertaining — especially when using postgame interviews to analyze which Pac-12 mascot would emerge victorious in a brawl or offer shrewd advice for dating and marriage — but his various quirks often spilled over into his coaching and resulted in further glory.
He named his running back, Jamal Morrow, as team captain at Washington State solely because he felt Morrow’s appearance on “The Price is Right” would bring a coin toss advantage, and sure enough, Leach’s Wazzu squad went 11-4 in games where Morrow called the pregame coin flip.
When Texas Tech needed a kicker at midseason in 2008, Leach pursued a Tech student who had made a 30-yard field goal during a promotional halftime contest in the previous game. The student, Matt Williams, immediately joined the team and finished his career netting 149 of 150 extra point attempts.
The stories are endless. Mike Leach was the epitome of what makes college football great, both on and off the field. His coaching tree is stacked with talent, his influence is infinite and his admiration among fans — which feels much more like a cult following — will never fade.
He was delightful. He was special. He was a legend.
And it all started at BYU.
Hailing from Cody, Wyoming, Leach arrived on Brigham’s campus as a rugby player in 1979, having had his dreams of playing college football dashed by high school injuries. Like so many of us, Leach did all the typical Provo things you’d expect: He lived in Helaman Halls, ate at Brick Oven and repeatedly feuded with the honor code office over his wavy, shoulder-length hair.
Leach was the winner of contest for free BYU football season tickets as a freshman, sparking an obsession with the Cougars’ unprecedented, prolific passing attack.
It was destiny.
Soon Leach’s dorm room at Helaman Halls was covered in newspaper clippings regarding BYU’s offensive excellence, starting what he called his “coaching file” to fill with different plays and concepts he had seen from the Cougars, in the paper or just imagined on his own. He continued to follow BYU closely, mimicking what he had seen from his season ticket-aided view, and the rest is history. Everywhere Leach went, he lauded LaVell Edwards and the BYU air raid offense as one of his greatest inspirations.
In turn, Coach Leach inspired me.
I had been fascinated by Leach for years. His teams were always fun to watch since they threw the ball like crazy. As a BYU freshman in 2018, I tuned in every Saturday to see my favorite Helaman Halls predecessor lead his explosive Washington State squad to battle, with the mullet-sporting, mustachioed quarterback Gardner Minshew running Leach’s offense to the tune of an 11-2 record (and most importantly, beating Utah).
Leach the tactician was a show, but Leach the person was even more captivating. There was something about him that just resonated with me, and after seeing how many other people feel the exact same way, I now realize it was because of how real and authentic he was. In a sports world where personalities and egos can be contentious, pretentious or just flat out horrendous, Leach was a breath of fresh air.
I read as much as I could about his career, strategies, life advice and all of the other humorous anecdotes and stories that made Leach who he was. He wasn’t near me, but he was one of the most important figures in my wanting to break into sports media.
Last spring, I began working on an extended project to take a deep look at LaVell’s impact on BYU and college football as a whole in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his hiring at BYU. I wanted to contact and interview as many members of LaVell’s coaching tree as I possibly could, especially Super Bowl champion head coaches Mike Holmgren, Brian Billick and Andy Reid, if possible.
But there was still one interview I coveted the most. I had to interview Coach Leach.
He was coaching down in SEC territory and could not be more separated from BYU, and I was just a random student reporter with no clout to my name, so the idea of such an arrangement seemed quite unlikely. Still, why not at least full send it? I had to try.
I contacted the athletic communications staff at Mississippi State, explained my project and that I wished to speak with Coach Leach. I sent my request via email and fully expected to be either denied or completely ignored. However, to my surprise, MSU Associate Athletic Director Brandon Langlois responded promptly to relay Coach’s willingness to participate.
A valuable life lesson learned: always full send it.
I thought an interview with Leach would entail a University-sanctioned Zoom call or something similar and easy to monitor, but instead Brandon just sent me Leach’s personal cell phone number. “That’s just how he rolls,” I would later find out.
Still in a bit of shock over the whole thing, I fired off a text to Leach to ask when he might be free for a quick phone interview, to which he responded with a certain day and time. I called him up once the moment arrived a few days later, only to be sent straight to voicemail on each attempt. I suddenly became anxious. Had Coach forgotten? Was he purposely blowing me off? I had no clue what to do.
Later that evening, my phone buzzed with a text from Leach. “Sorry. Was on a boat.”
Shame on me for trying to take a pirate away from his ship.
Coach apologized for spacing our interview and promised to call me the next day whenever he was free. Sure enough, he called the next afternoon, thanking me for taking time to talk with him as if he had been the one wanting an interview. His kindness was clear from the beginning. He told me how much he enjoyed reading The Daily Universe during his time at BYU and how “he could never say no” to an interview from us.
“The Daily Universe is the best student newspaper I’ve seen, and I’ve been around a lot of different schools,” Leach said. “They had this cartoonist back when I was there, and he was really good.. I can’t remember his name.. is he still around?”
Coach was a bit disappointed to hear that not only had his beloved cartoonist moved on from our campus newspaper more than four decades prior, but that The Universe no longer printed cartoons of any kind. I hope that news didn’t rattle him too much. Still, he kindly answered all of my questions and gave thoughtful and detailed answers each time. It was a gold mine.
“We borrow heavily from BYU,” Leach told me. “The base nucleus of what we do with the air raid is BYU. No other influence is greater than BYU.”
Leach couldn’t stop gushing over LaVell. It was obvious how much LaVell meant to him both as a football mind and a man, even if spotting the legendary coach on campus as a student often left him starstruck.
“For a couple years I would be coming down those stairs headed towards the Richards building and (LaVell) was always coming up the stairs,” Leach said. “I said hi to LaVell every day. He didn’t know who I was, but LaVell would say hi to everybody he saw on campus every day.. I said hi to LaVell several times a week for over a year. I was always intimidated just because he was such an iconic guy.”
After crossing paths hundreds of times on the west campus stairs, Leach finally had the courage to try catching glimpses of practice, asking to sit in on film sessions with the coaching staff and even scoring an invite to a few spring practices to watch LaVell in action.
“He had the ability to recognize and take the very best from everybody around him, and that created a very stable, confident environment leading to a dynasty that lasted for decades,” Leach said of LaVell. “I think he impacted all of football. If anyone denies that, they’re either lying or stupid, and in some cases they’re definitely stupid and just haven’t looked closely enough to know what they’re talking about.”
Leach spoke highly of former Cougar quarterbacks Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon and Steve Young, all of whom lifted LaVell’s powerful offense into the national spotlight to rewrite the NCAA record books and prove to a young Leach that an efficient passing offense with carefully charted packaging and precise timing could be almost impossible to stop.
“That was the perfect time for me to be around BYU, (LaVell) was transforming not just college football but the NFL too,” Leach said. “People started throwing the ball more aggressively because of the success BYU had while doing it. BYU just started crushing these teams that had more resources and better players. He changed everything.”
While LaVell is usually pegged as the mastermind behind BYU’s revolutionary offensive scheme, Leach pointed out that many Edwards assistants — naming Doug Scovil and Norm Chow specifically — “deserve a huge amount of credit” for what BYU accomplished, calling LaVell a “master chairman of the board” for his ability to get the best out of everyone around him.
“The scheme he was famous for I think was a byproduct of letting an awful lot of great coaches be creative along with him recognizing the value and impact of their idea,” Leach said of LaVell. “If it was a great idea, Coach Edwards would elevate it so it could be a benefit to everybody.
“He had enough vision to understand that you hire good people and let them hammer out their best approaches and ideas. The US government could learn a lot from coach Edwards since they’ve got their heads up their (expletive) right now.”
Ah, yes. Classic Leach.
When I asked Leach if he still paid any attention to BYU’s program today, he raved about Kalani Sitake and the way he runs his program, expressing excitement to see what the jump to the Big 12 would entail in Provo. “Kalani is calm under fire like LaVell.. he’s really steady.”
My interview with Coach Leach lasted about 45 minutes in total. His voice never projected much enthusiasm, but in listening to him I could feel a real passion for the things he cared about, especially his family, players and experience as a BYU student. BYU allowed him to meet his wife and realize his dream, both of which meant the world to him. You could sense his gratitude for life and what he had been given. He truly loved LaVell. He loved Andy Reid and the way he brought glory to LaVell’s name with the Chiefs. He loved the art of football and what it could do for people. I couldn’t help but feel uplifted while talking to him.
Once I finished asking all my questions, I thanked Coach earnestly and tried to end our call, not wanting to waste any more of his precious vacation time. Even though I was finished, Leach definitely wasn’t. He spent the next half hour asking all about me, my professional aspirations, what I did for fun in Provo and everything in between. He talked to me as if I was an old friend he had known for years. He took legitimate interest in who I was and what I had to say. When I told him I was from the Washington, D.C. area, he unloaded a comical rant about the “slimy jokers” in politics and gave me his “expert” advice on who to vote for. “It’s real pretty where you’re from, but there’s just too many politicians,” he told me. “Enjoy the quiet of Utah.”
He expressed fear regarding the future of college athletics, lamenting the chaos of the transfer portal and hoping there would be safer boundaries set for NIL endeavors (“it’s like the wild west right now”). He asked for what I would do if I was in his shoes, which only slightly terrified me as I pondered how a 21-year-old college junior like myself could tell an all-time coaching great how to run a program. I definitely didn’t have anything to add to his coaching file, but that was clearly part of his genius: looking and asking for inspiration everywhere he went and in everything he saw.
I could tell Coach was enjoying our conversation, but I felt bad taking up so much of his time and figured his wife or kids were probably waiting for him to get off the phone. I was finally able to wrap things up, wishing him the best for the upcoming season and expressing my gratitude for sharing a generous amount of time with me. I would have loved to tell him how much he meant to me, but I really didn’t want to appear unprofessional.
“Thanks for the chat, Bubba. Really loved talking with you,” he told me. “Feel free to call anytime.”
It will always pain me that I never got to call him again.
There have been many tributes and testimonies to Mike Leach over the past three months (including BYU sporting a pirate sticker on its helmets for the New Mexico Bowl), and I know his stories and legacy will always live on. His influence is all over the sport— the once-starstruck LaVell Edwards disciple ended up changing football forever.
Leach never wore a BYU uniform or coached for the Cougars, but he will go down as one of the most important individuals to ever emerge from this institution. He truly embodied BYU’s motto of “enter to learn, go forth to serve,” taking the things he learned here as a student and using them to pave new paths ahead, lift others up, mentor young people and bring the best out of millions who watched him in awe.
Not bad for the kid from the west campus stairs.
I will forever be grateful for the interview I shared with Leach. It was one of the greatest thrills of my young journalism career and a day I will never forget. He was so kind and considerate of me, and I hope I can always be the same to others around me just as he would.
May we all be like Mike Leach, curious of the world we live in, humble enough to learn from everything we can and passionate about the path we’ve been put on and the people placed around us. His career is a perfect example that you can accomplish extraordinary things, defy the odds and inspire the masses while being your true self and never letting anyone change who you are.
Enter to learn, go forth to serve and swing your sword.
Jackson Payne is the lead columnist at Daily Universe Sports. Follow him on Twitter @jackson5payne.