Many will remember Mike Leach as a one-of-a-kind, colorful, quirky, pirate-loving college football coach.
A comparison to the “candid and bold” Old Testament prophet Enoch might not be too far off — “there is a strange thing in the land, a wild man hath come among us” (Moses 6:38), said a smiling Elder Matthew S. Holland, the General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“As many of the tributes rolling in today suggest, such could easily have been said of the Mike Leach we knew and loved. It also stands to reason that this is what the angels of heaven are saying about him right now,” Elder Holland quipped. “We should not assume for a second that Mike’s famous ‘Air Raid Offense’ was developed only for contests here on earth.”
Elder Holland was among a host of speakers who shared memories, offered words of comfort and paid tribute to Leach Tuesday at a memorial service in his honor on the campus of Mississippi State University. The service, attended by family, friends, coaches, players, administrators and many more, was well attended and broadcast nationwide.
Leach coached 21 seasons at the highest level of college football, including at Texas Tech (2000-2009), Washington State (2012-2019) and Mississippi State (2019-2022), compiling an overall record of 158-107 before he died on Dec. 12 following complications from a heart condition. He was 61.
No, Leach was not a prophet, Elder Holland said, “but he was fearless in challenging convention and passionate in pursuing excellence, even as he refused to take himself too seriously.”
Leach and his family are also members of the Latter-day Saint faith. Along with his success as a football coach, the Mike Leach that Elder Holland knew was a “man of faith,” who consistently read the scriptures, prayed and served others.
“Like all of us, he was imperfect. But, by his own account, and his children’s, Mike read the scriptures every night,” Elder Holland said. “Mike also prayed, and above all he loved — believing that any true follower of Christ must actively watch and care for the lost and lonely, the broken and overlooked.”
Many individual lives were “transformed” because Leach “could in an instant cut through the pressures and limelight of his high-profile life and address someone — often a stranger — in need,” Elder Holland said.
“For Mike, this was not just a personality trait. It was an exercise of his faith. It was what someone who believed what he believed should do,” the Church leader said. “And Mike did it again and again and again.”
Elder Holland concluded his brief remarks with a prayer that included a blessing upon the Leach family and all who will miss him, as well as his witness of the life, Atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“Because Jesus lived, and died, and lived again, He has broken the bands of death for us all. We are profoundly thankful for how He rescues this moment from complete tragedy — giving us a bright hope that we will see our dear friend again,” Elder Holland prayed.
“While Mike has passed on, how grateful we are that he lived. He was an arresting, one-of-a-kind character, who made us think, gave us wisdom, helped us laugh, and inspired our best efforts — on the field and off. We loved him because he so often loved and lifted us first. With gratitude to Thee and him, we ask that what he came to mean to us be indelibly etched upon our souls. … May we all be fortified in our resolve to take the best of Mike Leach’s remarkable life, character and faith, and go and do likewise.”
Elder Holland was one of 12 speakers at the memorial service, held in the Humphrey Coliseum on the MSU campus. Speakers included Mark Keenum, president of Mississippi State University; Greg Sankey, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference; Bob Stoops, former head football coach at Oklahoma University; Lincoln Riley, USC’s head football coach; Gary O’Hagan, Leach’s agent; as well as former players, colleagues and friends.
President Keenum said Leach was a remarkable member of the Mississippi State University family.
“By any measure, Mike was a very humble and caring individual,” the president said. “During his life’s journey, he positively impacted the lives of many, many people. He made a difference in this world as part of God’s plan for his life.”
Stoops hired Leach as his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Oklahoma in 1999. He came to appreciate him for more than his coaching skills and abilities.
“Mike was much more than a great coach to all of us here. He was a sensitive and thoughtful husband, a loving father and caring friend,” Stoops said. “We can get trapped in the pain and the grief of the loss. God doesn’t promise tomorrows. As hard as it is to look to the future without Mike. I believe it’s comforting to reflect on and be grateful for the time we did have with Mike because he made us all better. It was better that we were with him.”
Riley, who started his coaching career as a student assistant under Leach at Texas Tech, believes his mentor’s legacy will go far beyond his offensive creativity, the wins, the press conferences, the sayings and the stories.
“He truly did invest in other people. It’s a great reminder for us all that if you’ll take a little bit of your time and invest it in other people, and get to know them and look to help them, it’s amazing how you can change one person’s life,” Riley said . “He certainly did that for me and I’m forever grateful.”
Gabe Marks, who played receiver for Leach at Washington State from 2012-2016, delivered an emotional tribute that included several life lessons he learned from his coach.
- Authenticity of self.
- Freedom from fear and judgment.
- If you seek truth, you can always find treasure in any situation.
- Be the best at doing your job.
- If you make the routine plays in life, you will give yourself a good chance to win in the end.
- Always play the next play.
- When adversity strikes, make sure you strike back.
- Don’t ever look at the scoreboard in life.
“I will take these lessons with me throughout the rest of my life, a way of living that I strive towards every day,” Marks said.