Mike Leach, the gruff, pioneering, and unfiltered college football coach who helped revolutionize the passing game with the Air Raid offense, has died following complications from a heart condition, Mississippi State said Tuesday. He was 61. Leach, who was in his third season as head coach at Mississippi State, fell ill Sunday at his home in Starkville, Mississippi. He was treated at a local hospital before being airlifted to University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, about 120 miles away. His impact on all levels of football—from high school to the NFL—over the last two decades runs deep and will continue for years to come, per the AP.
Leach fought through a bout with pneumonia late in this season, coughing uncontrollably at times during news conferences, but seemed to be improving, according to those who worked with him. In 21 seasons as a head coach at Texas Tech, Washington State, and Mississippi State, Leach went 158-107. He was known for his pass-happy offense, wide-ranging interests—he wrote a book about Native American leader Geronimo, had a passion for pirates, and taught a class about insurgent warfare—and rambling, off-the-cuff news conferences. An interview with Leach was as likely to veer off into politics, wedding planning, or hypothetical mascot fights as it was to stick to football.
Leach's teams were consistent winners at programs where success didn't come easy. And his quarterbacks put up massive passing statistics, running a relatively simple offense called the Air Raid that he didn't invent but certainly mastered. As much as Leach enjoyed digging into topics other than football, he was excellent at the X's and O's. Six of the 20 best passing seasons in major college football history were by quarterbacks who played for Leach, including four of the top six.
A controversial part of his career: Leach was fired by Texas Tech in December 2009 after being accused of mistreating a player, Adam James—the son of former ESPN announcer and NFL player Craig James—who'd suffered a concussion. He clashed with his bosses instead of apologizing for the conflict, and eventually sued Texas Tech for wrongful termination. The school was protected by state law, but Leach never stopped trying to fight that case. He also filed a lawsuit against ESPN and Craig James that was later dismissed. (Read other notable obituaries.)