Assuming he learned his lesson, Mike Leach brings right mix of flare, football to Bulldogs
Starkville. The etymology of the town name itself would seem to fit perfectly with one of college football’s most inimitable, out-there personalities.
And yet the home of Mississippi State is no Pullman, Washington or Lubbock, Texas. Mike Leach appears to have learned that the hard way.
Operating in such a manner tends to be the way of The Pirate’s world.
It’s why he opens each padded practice with the “bull in the ring” drill where players, regardless of position, stand in a large circle and step into it two-by-two, engaging in a series of one-on-one, last-man standing efforts to push the other guy back into the fray of teammates. It’s why “the Leach Beach” — a glorified sandpit that adds an element of resistance training to typical cardiovascular workouts such as the shuttle — has been used for both training and accountability at each of the Bulldogs coach’s stops.
One practice spans generations. The other comes straight from the beautiful mind of Leach — the same one that’s infatuated with swashbuckling, history, science, folklore and unmatched offensive creativity.
It’s that fine line between flare and football that Leach must walk if this foray into the waters of the SEC is to be a successful one.
Since a controversial tweet that could be seen as a rocky start to the Leach Era in Mississippi, the 59-year-old would seem to have toned it down some. His most recent public appearances have been spent breaking down the Bulldogs’ first fall camp scrimmage or dissecting the philosophy behind Mississippi State’s 3-3-5 defense — which can actually be traced to Joe Lee Dunn, who mentored fellow coach Rocky Long, under whom current Bulldogs coordinator Zach Arnett worked at San Diego State.
But Leach is still Leach, from the maroon and white Hawaiian shirt he wore at the Greater Starkville Development Partnership offices for the first episode of his weekly “Dawg Talk” radio show to his frequent Twitter videos in which he addresses burning non-football topics such as pineapple on pizza and why he originally wanted to be a lawyer.
He even has a Cameo account. For $150, Bulldogs fans can have their first-year coach give friends or family a shoutout. For free, you can see what Leach looks like inside his home, seemingly at all hours of the day, shooting selfie videos.
— Mike Leach (@Coach_Leach) August 25, 2020
But at a place like Mississippi State, which hasn’t won a conference title since 1941 or even a division crown since 1998, it’s the right mix. Programs like this one need something different, something to set them apart.
From the Air Raid offense to the off-color commentary, that’s Leach.
He could get away with almost anything at Washington State, though. This is the SEC. Coaches are under a much larger microscope, and no one man is bigger than any program — not even one like the one in Starkville.
Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen and president Mark E. Keenum knew what they were getting when they hired Leach. Along with his quirks, he has proven he can win at places like Washington State and Texas Tech, with less-than-elite resources and even fewer points of recent tradition.
The question is whether Leach can do it in arguably college football’s toughest conference. He became the all-time winningest coach at Texas Tech and gave bluebloods such as Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska fits during the first decade of the 21st century. But his time there ended tumultuously with the well-documented, alleged mistreatment of player Adam James, the son of then-ESPN commentator Craig James and the ensuing legal battle with Texas Tech.
At Wazzu, he took a perennial doormat to 5 consecutive bowls, highlighted by an 11-2 finish in 2018.
So the guy can coach. He can also develop elite talent, a la Gardner Minshew. And for all his offensive genius, the author of “Swing Your Sword: Leading the Charge in Football and in Life” is also adept at surrounding himself with other gurus like Arnett.
Furthermore, he provides the comic relief in a league and part of the country where coaches — and, admittedly, fans — can take themselves too seriously. It goes without saying that Nick Saban wouldn’t show up on “Friday Night Lights” and tell Eric Taylor he’s misplaced his “inner pirate.”
No, Leach’s style isn’t for everyone. But it can be attractive to recruits who have a persona of their own to build and see beyond the Xs and Os.
Just 2 weeks ago, Leach supported players who boycotted practice in the name of fighting for social justice. Somewhere beneath the hilarity, there’s relatability and empathy — the same traits that prompted Leach to make sure his athletes understand the meaning of playing football in the Magnolia State.
Will it translate to victories? Not overnight. But if he’s given ample freedom — and if he does his part by being himself, without stepping out of bounds — Leach just might have Starkville buzzing in a way it hasn’t in quite some time.
And in the meantime, he’ll surely provide the joviality we could all use, especially right now.