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STARKVILLE, Miss. – I went down to Captain Mike’s funeral Tuesday to get out of the cold.
Then I heard a voice call out to me, “Son, come have a seat.”
It was dark in the Humphrey Coliseum at Mississippi State with gray, foreboding skies and near-freezing temperatures outside as State football coach Mike Leach was memorialized in front of about 7,000. But it grew as warm and beachy as a Jimmy Buffett song in Key West inside.
That’s where Leach, who died following a massive heart attack at just 61 last week in a Jackson hospital, lived – in the offseason and often in his mind while at his home here in Starkville or previous ones in Pullman, Washington, at Washington State and Lubbock, Texas, at Texas Tech.
Key West was really where it all started for Leach and the Air Raid offense, and it is where Leach moved following his firing from Texas Tech after the 2009 regular season. He kept that home after moving on to Washington State in 2012 and to Mississippi State in 2020.
Leach was the offensive coordinator at Iowa Wesleyan – 1,582 miles northwest of Key West – from 1989-91 under coach Hal Mumme, who hired him from obscurity at College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California.
Mumme and Leach had so much fun in Florida on a trip once that Mumme decided to try to make a business trip out of future such excursions.
“We’ve got to start recruiting down here,” Mumme – one of a dozen speakers at the memorial Tuesday – said he told Leach. They also dropped in on Miami Hurricanes coach Dennis Erickson, a national champion in 1989 and ’91, to study his passing game. They signed an offensive tackle from Key Largo. Nice work, if you can invent it.
And the tackle knew someone who knew someone who took Hal and Mike deep sea fishing.
They kept going south in a 1984 Ford Taurus listening to Buffett.
“Mike being Mike found a kicker in Key West,” Mumme said as the somber crowd laughed.
And one night they landed in Captain Tony’s Saloon just off the famed Duvall Street in Key West. The bar, which had remnants of Ernest Hemingway’s original nearby haunt Sloppy Joe’s, was owned at the time by fisherman, boat captain, gambler and politician Tony Tarracino, an Elizabeth, New Jersey, native who settled in Key West and was elected the resort’s real mayor from 1989-91.
“We knew about Captain Tony’s,” Mumme said. Yes, they had been listening to Buffett’s title track of his 1985 album, “Last Mango In Paris” a wonderful song about the bar.
“It was somewhere past dark-thirty,” the song says, referencing a half hour after midnight in military terms.
“It was about 1 a.m.,” Mumme said. “And I told Mike I had to go to bed. But Mike, he seemed to get stronger the later it got.”
Mumme left, and the next day he learned that Leach met the real Captain Tony Tarracino, who sat in the barstool Mumme left.
On the way back home, Mumme said he and Leach devised the original recipe to the “Air Raid” passing attack they would develop at Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State before perfecting it at Kentucky in 1997 and ’98. Also on that return home, Mumme first learned of Leach’s love for pirates, like Tarracino, an idol of Leach’s who died in 2008 in Key West at age 92.
Leach bought the home in Key West a year later and basically became Tarracino’s successor as Key West’s unofficial, de facto mayor until last Dec. 13.
“As we all know, Mike Leach was anything but typical,” Mississippi State president Mark Keenum said to open the service. “He had the spirit of a pirate who just happened to be a pretty good football coach.”
Pirates have their own way of thinking. While the College Football Playoff committee came up with a 12-team playoff last September that was passed this month, Leach devised a 64-team playoff format.
“It was crazy, but it made sense. He made it make sense,” said Keenum, who is the chairman of the CFP board of managers.
“I can hear him explaining the 64 to me,” said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who also spoke Tuesday.
Leach was the same with his passing offense of expert receiver spacing that has worked since the 1990s.
Former Oklahoma coach Mark Stoops hired Leach from Mumme at Kentucky to be his offensive coordinator in 1999.
“I thought I’d have him for three or four years before he became a head coach,” Stoops said at the podium. “After a year, Texas Tech hired him as head coach.”
Stoops explained Leach’s “serial lateness,” as Mumme had described.
“He had time for anyone and everyone, but he had no concept of time,” Stoops said.
Stoops praised Mississippi State for sticking to its postseason plans after Leach’s death. The No. 22 Bulldogs (8-4) play Illinois (8-4) in the ReliaQuest Bowl in Tampa (just seven hours north of Key West) on Jan. 2 (Noon, ESPN2). Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett has replaced Leach as coach.
“He would be glad and proud that you’re playing in that game,” Stoops said.
Stoops closed by saying he could still see Leach pointing with his left hand and holding a play sheet in the other.
“There’s a football game going on in heaven now,” Stoops said. “It’s fourth-and-2 on his own 40, and you know he’s going for it. Rest In Peace, Mike.”
Lincoln Riley, who replaced Stoops at Oklahoma and is now USC’s coach, is one of the many from a coaching tree of Leach’s that Auburn athletic director John Cohen called “off the charts.” Cohen, who recently left the Mississippi State athletic director post, hired Leach from Washington State before the 2020 season.
“It’s amazing how he could change one person’s life,” Riley said of Leach after following Stoops on stage. Riley, one of Leach’s brightest pupils at 39, was a reserve quarterback under Leach in 2002 at Texas Tech and coached offense under him there from 2003 through 2009.
Tennessee coach and passing game wizard Josh Heupel was Leach’s quarterback in 1999 at Oklahoma. Former Baylor coach and passing game progressive Art Briles coached under Leach at Texas Tech. Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury played quarterback for Leach at Texas Tech and coached under him.
“And his offense still works,” Kingsbury said on videotape at the service.
Other Leach pupils at the memorial were TCU coach Sonny Dykes, who coached offense at Texas Tech from 2000-06, and Houston coach Dana Holgorsen, who played receiver at Iowa Wesleyan under Leach and coached under him at Valdosta State and at Texas Tech.
Leach instilled confidence in his coaches and his players.
“It was part confidence for coach Leach,” said Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Gardner Minshew, who played for Leach at Washington State in 2018. Minshew, who also looks like a pirate with his Fu Manchu mustache, skipped practice Tuesday to be at the ceremony. And he may start in place of injured Jalen Hurts on Saturday against Dallas.
“It was also part not giving a f— what people thought,” Minshew said. “There was no façade, no ego. It was just him. Didn’t matter who was around or what you were doing or where you were. It was always just him. I was with him for only about six months, but he really changed my life.”
And quoting the “Last Mango In Paris” song:
“I had to search my memory as I looked into those eyes. Our lives change like the weather, but a legend never dies.”