Trying to find a single story to define the life of Mike Leach is an impossible task. But the story of Matt Williams is a pretty good example of the revolutionary thinking that made an icon of the former Texas Tech coach, who passed away from a heart condition Monday night at the age of 61.
Williams was a student at Texas Tech in 2008 when he was chosen to participate in an on-field contest during halftime at a Red Raiders game against Massachusetts. If he kicked a field goal from 30 yards away, he’d win free rent for a year. Williams, a former kicker on his Weatherford high school team, nailed it right down the middle.
Leach was impressed. He told a strength and conditioning coach to run over and grab Williams. Two days later, he was working out with the team. One month later, he was kicking in the most unforgettable game in program history, the Red Raiders last-second win over No. 1 Texas.
Who else would have done such an unheard-of thing? But then again, could anyone other than Leach have pulled it off?
“The ability to be tied to somebody that played such a big role in so many different athletes’ lives and even just regular people,” Williams said during a phone call this week. “It’s a big honor to be tied to somebody like him.” The kicker finished his Texas Tech career nailing 149 of 150 PATs and 22 of 28 field goals.
The history of Texas is filled with outlaws, outliers, and originals. Nobody has embodied that individualistic Lone Star State spirit in college football this century more than Leach.
One of college football’s original and creative football minds, Leach was born in California but his family moved around before settling in Cody, Wyoming. He played football in high school and Brigham Young University recruited him, but an ankle injury changed his plans.
He graduated from BYU having never played a down, with his life seemingly moving in a different direction. But the pull of football was too strong, and he decided to give coaching a shot after earning his law degree from Pepperdine.
Working his way up from Cal Poly to Valdosta State to Oklahoma, he was hired by Texas Tech at the turn of the century. He spent the next decade in Lubbock, changing the sport with his explosive Air Raid offense and winning fans across the country with his open and idiosyncratic public persona.
“There will never be anybody else like him,” says Jay Leeson, a Lubbock-based artist who first met Leach as a Texas Tech undergrad 20 years ago. “His motto was swing your sword, and that’s exactly what he did. He swung his sword.”
The Air Raid offense, now commonplace in football, was doubted as a winning formula when Leach brought it to Texas Tech in 2000. But he proved the viability of the pass-heavy, fast-paced scheme with the Red Raiders. The team finished with a winning record every year and won five bowl games under Leach, who won a program-record 84 games between 2000 and 2009.
The 2008 season, which included that memorable last-second win over No. 1 Texas and a rise to No. 2 in the rankings by late November, is arguably the best season in program history.
But his on-field accomplishments tell only a fraction of who Leach was as a person. In a profession filled with coaches who don’t diverge from a strict set of talking points, Leach did his own thing. An avid learner, he’d talk about anything—from Halloween candy to weddings to mascot fights to his beloved pirates. His honesty and eccentricities made him popular with almost anyone who watched the sport.
His players loved him, too, including Cody Campbell, an all-conference offensive lineman for the Red Raiders in the early 2000s. Leach worked his players hard, Campbell says, but he worked them to get the best out of them.
“I hope they remember him as a person who changed the game, and I have no doubt that they will,” says Campbell, who is now on the Texas Tech Board of Regents. “I hope they remember him as a person who is just a unique thinker and just a one-of-a-kind person, and they certainly will do that as well. He was such a character and such a personality that he’s pretty hard to forget.”
Leach’s time in Lubbock ended on a sour note, with a wound that never fully healed. In 2009, after a player accused him of being abusive, which he denied, Texas Tech fired him for cause, meaning the school didn’t have to pay him his buyout.
Leach had been fighting for the money ever since. Mississippi State, where Leach landed after eight years with Washington State, played Texas Tech in the Liberty Bowl last December, and Leach said he would fight “forever” for the money he felt like he was owed. Despite the tension, Leach admitted prior to that game he has nothing against Texas Tech.
“Until the day he died, he loved the people of Lubbock and the friends that he made out there,” Campbell says. “He found a way to be happy and make the best of any place that he ever lived. But I know that Lubbock was his favorite place of all and where he felt the most at home.”
Many fans in Lubbock feel the same about Leach. “That man has a legacy here. We love him,” Leeson says.
The moments Leach created in Lubbock are inked in history books but his final impact on football is far from over. Leach’s legacy lives on with one of the most expansive coaching trees in college football, and one that has thrived in Texas.
Over the past two years, four Texas Football Bowl Subdivision programs have won at least 12 games in a season. Three of their head coaches worked for Leach.
TCU head coach Sonny Dykes was a Leach assistant for seven seasons. Baylor head coach Dave Aranda was a graduate assistant for three seasons. Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen and Leach were assistants together at Valdosta State before Leach hired him in Lubbock in 2000.
Other former Leach assistants and players to lead Lone Star State schools include Art Briles (Houston, Baylor), Seth Littrell (North Texas), Sonny Cumbie (interim at Texas Tech), and Kliff Kingsbury (Texas Tech).
Even hours after his death, his FBS coaching tree added another branch when North Texas announced the hiring of Washington State offensive coordinator Eric Morris as its new head coach. Morris, another Leach disciple, is a Texas Tech alum from the mid-2000s.
But Leach’s legacy also extends beyond his former players leading Division I programs. Concepts of his Air Raid offense can be found everywhere from Sundays at AT&T Stadium in Arlington to Wednesday practices at West Texas high schools. And former players and assistants—like Williams, now a teacher and coach at Mineral Wells High School—can be found all over relaying Leach’s gospel for the next generation.
“He was an inspiration to not just players that went to Tech,” Williams says, “but an inspiration to a nation.”