STARKVILLE — Each of the 13 speakers who climbed the stairs to the flower-bedecked podium Tuesday inside Humphrey Coliseum, Mississippi’s tribute to Mike Leach, gave an anecdote that filled the bowl with laughter.
The colors were faded, and the faces of the football heavyweights who directed their fleet of private jets toward Starkville to remember Leach, who died Dec. 12 at the age of 61, were solemn.
But there was a joy shared among those inside The Hump for the two-hour celebration of the life of the Leach. The stories that Leach gave to those who spoke made it so.
“He had time for everyone, and he also had very little time,” said longtime Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who hired Leach as offensive coordinator at Norman in 1999.
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SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey recalled a conversation with Leach in which he asked why neckties are still popular in formal wear today, but blow-dry wigs have faded. Lincoln Riley, a USC coach and protégé of Leach, has spun yarns about Leach receiving a call from actor Matthew McConaughey on his way to the team hotel. Leach moved — behind the wheel — to change lanes while chatting, not noticing the big truck he’d just cut into. When the truck driver came to Leach to have his say, Leach thought he was just a fan.
“It was just kind of pandemonium,” Riley said. “The coach had no clue.”
Gary O’Hagan, Leach’s agent, recalled the coach’s long-lived and spirited belief that he was a world-class dodgeball player in middle school gym class. Former Washington State wide receiver Gabe Marks shared the latest text message he received from his college coach. I arrived, of course, after two in the morning—the Leach was a self-confessed night owl—and he came in without any hint of context.
“You’re a stud,” he said.
Mississippi State linebacker Nathaniel Watson talked about waking up from a nap on the team plane to a tirade from Leach on the subject of grizzly bears. Gardner Mincio, the quarterback at WSU under Leach, dropped the f-bomb on the uproarious laughter, staying true to his authentic self as Leach had always implored him to do.
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Hal Mamie, who hired Leach as an assistant coach on three stations, shared the origin story of Leach’s notoriously hacker obsession. It started at Captain Tony’s in Key West. The two only ventured there together after Leach found a killer from the area to recruit as an excuse to vacation in Florida on a dime at Iowa Wesleyan College.
These novels were the Lich’s currency, and he would happily trade with anyone who would listen.
The tales turned an occasion reserved for grief and mourning into a cause for laughter and smiles on a Tuesday afternoon, as speaker after speaker filled the air with stories only Leach could live up to.
Watch any college football game in 2022 and Leach’s influence will be evident. Hear the voices of those who have spent time around him, and his impact on their lives is crystal clear.
“He changed what I thought possible for myself,” said Mincio. “I couldn’t be more grateful. Thank you, Coach.”
David Eckert covers Ole Miss for Clarion Ledger. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out to him on Twitter @davideckert98.
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