Mike Leach would have been too much for some schools. Like Kevin Kelley in Arkansas high schools, his penchant for sophisticated offense worked against him in pursuit of coaching on a higher level.
One of college football's foremost mavericks, Leach totaled 158 victories at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State -- what ESPN's Pete Thamel, in a tribute to the coach Tuesday, called "three of the toughest ZIP codes in the sport."
Arkansas fans remember Leach, who died Monday night of a heart attack, mainly for three seasons at Mississippi State. He did not coach Dak Prescott in Starkville (that honor went to Dan Mullen, now a TV commentator), though the Dallas Cowboys' quarterback was among many football people to say kind words about Leach upon his passing.
Leach arrived in Starkville -- where the streets roll up early, it has been said, except on game night -- in 2020. The same year, Sam Pittman took over at Arkansas and Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss. Leach's last coaching victory came against Kiffin in the Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving night, 24-22 in Oxford, after back-to-back Rebel victories in the series.
On a deluxe day for quarterback Will Rogers, State beat Arkansas at Starkville in October when KJ Jefferson did not play for the Razorbacks. Pittman's first SEC win, and as a head coach, came against Leach in the second game of his first season -- the Razorbacks catching the Bulldogs with heads in the clouds after trouncing LSU at Baton Rouge the previous week. For want of an accurate field-goal kicker, State might have won at Fayetteville in 2021, Leach's frustration spilling over with assurances later of kicking tryouts once his team got home.
The 2022 Bulldogs unmasked Texas A&M's future problems the Saturday after the Aggies did likewise against Arkansas. Not competitive against Alabama or Georgia, Leach's team reached 8-4 overall, 4-4 in the SEC, with late wins over East Tennessee State and Ole Miss.
Before Leach was taken ill, the Bulldogs were booked for the Tampa Bay Bowl (formerly Outback) against Illinois Jan. 1. Rather than banter between Leach and opposite number Bret Bielema, that game will be cloaked in sadness with Leach assistant Zach Arnett, the team's defensive coordinator, coaching State.
Though Jimmy Buffett sang "A Pirate Looks at 40." a favorite tune of Parrot Heads, Lynch espoused the pirate lifestyle in everyday conversation. Coaching in Starkville, Lubbock, Texas, and Pullman, Washington, didn't exactly enable Leach to make "enough money to buy Miami" but in a profession that burns out some coaches prematurely, Leach stopped and smelled the roses more often than most.
I remember him as offensive coordinator at Kentucky under Hal Mumme. With Tim Couch at quarterback, the Wildcats took on Houston Nutt's first Arkansas team early in the 1998 season at War Memorial Stadium. Kentucky led the SEC in time of possession entering that game, which didn't seem possible for a passing team, but worked the clock while moving downfield.
Arkansas defensive back David Barrett returned Couch's only interception for a touchdown on a night that the Madhouse on Markham Street shook to its rafters, the Razorbacks winning.
Leach's Air Raid offense became noted in the profession. Among other jobs, he was Bob Stoops' first offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. The Texas Tech-Texas game of 2008 on a Saturday night in Lubbock helped make his a national name, Graham Harrell passing late to Michael Crabtree for the winning touchdown.
A dispute with former SMU Pony Express star Craig James over son Adam's treatment as a Red Raider player led to Leach's ouster at Texas Tech. His star remained bright at Washington State, one of several lower-profile jobs in the Pacific 12. Mississippi State, seeing to stay visible on Gucci Row (SEC football), snapped him up and out of what, with the Los Angeles schools going to the Big Ten, may become a West Coast sinkhole of college football.
Former Texas coach Mack Brown, now at North Carolina, said, "Today is a sad day in the world of college football. Mike Leach was an innovative football mind, who kept us on our toes. I always enjoyed facing off with him over the years."
Said Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum: "Mike's keen intellect and unvarnished candor made him one the nation's true coaching legends. His passing brings great sadness to our university, to the Southeastern Conference, and all who loved college football. I will miss Mike's profound curiosity, his honesty, and his wide-open approach to pursuing excellence in all things."
In a profession that many lean on "coachspeak," perhaps consulting one's sixth-grade teacher for a timely quote, Leach proved a refreshing change. His coaching tree includes Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals, Lincoln Riley (USC) and Josh Heupel (Tennessee).
How many coaches formerly played rugby but not college football? Or graduated from Pepperdine Law School and coached in Finland? What memoirs might he have written.
Washington State athletic director Pat Chun said of his former coach: "There will never be another Mike Leach to walk this earth or grace the sideline at a college-football game."