Time ran out far too soon for my old friend Mike Leach, which is cruel and unfair and truly sad, because Mike always seemed to have so much time for everybody else, even a young peon journalist like me in 1999.
That was when I first met him, the start of a 23-year relationship that ended with shocking sadness Monday night when this one-of-a-kind college football visionary died at 61.
It began with a phone call to the Sheraton hotel in Lubbock, Texas.
‘Coach Leach? I’m a reporter with the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Just wanted to check something here. Are you interviewing for the head coach’s job at Texas Tech after the game?’
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Tech played Oklahoma in Lubbock the next day, and Leach was Oklahoma’s hotshot offensive coordinator at the time. It turned out to be the last game for legendary Tech head coach Spike Dykes, who didn’t announce his retirement until after Tech beat Leach and OU on that Saturday, Nov. 20, 1999.
Leach didn’t want to lie or spoil Dykes’ farewell the Friday night before. So he gave me a non-denial answer – Wasn’t Dykes still Tech’s coach?
It was the most evasive he ever got with me, probably because we didn’t know each other yet. He did become Tech’s head coach shortly after that, and I was the local reporter covering his first year on the job, attending every practice and game. Kliff Kingsbury was riding shotgun at quarterback for Leach back then, backed by a staff of assistant coaches that later produced several future head coaches, including Dana Holgorsen at Houston and Dykes’ son Sonny, now the head coach at TCU.
We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the birth of something big – a coaching tree and offensive football revolution that would soon spread throughout college and pro football.
But it was also about so much more than that, at least for a rookie beat writer in his 20s just a few years out of college.
‘Pearl Harbor’, tacos and a $91 bill
This was about a professional relationship and friendship that often included talking on the phone well past 3 a.m. – but almost never about football. Instead we talked about Paul Verhoeven films and how to sneak into the exclusive Skybar on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood.
It was about disagreements – about politics and news coverage he didn’t like sometimes. He once tried to convince me that the 2001 movie ‘Pearl Harbor,’ starring Ben Affleck, was some kind of cinematic masterpiece. ‘Seriously, Mike?’
It was about grumpiness, occasionally. He certainly wasn’t perfect. And nothing seemed to get under his skin more than a reporter asking about the injury status of one of his players. But that’s my job sometimes. ‘So what’s the deal with that, Mike?’ The best reason I could get out of him about that was that he could only focus on the healthy players who could play for him and not those who were on the mend and could not.
It was about food, too. Shrimp and grits with him at a dive bar in Mobile, Alabama, in 2004. Asian food at a buffet in Pullman, Washington, in 2012. In 2016, I even introduced him to the lobster tacos at South Beach Bar & Grille by the beach near my home in San Diego. He wanted to go back every time he was in town.
After that first meeting in late 1999, it also was about shared success and effort. Both of our careers were just getting started back then, and he really admired hustle, even among journalists. He told me that was how I endeared myself to him from the start. After tracking him down in that hotel room in 1999, I continued to report on his candidacy for the Tech job in the weeks that followed. One time I confirmed with a restaurant in Lubbock that he and others had run up a $91 bill one day as Tech courted him for the job. I did this for one reason – I wanted to provide that kind of detail for readers.
Leach recognized that and told me my skills would be better served ‘tracking down terrorists’ for the FBI instead of trying to break news about a football coach for the local newspaper.
‘Recipe for a Long Life’
That compliment stuck with me for years, boosting my confidence as I tried to find my footing in the business.
Some 20 years later, he even reminded me about that long after I had forgotten it.
In 2020, after he landed at Mississippi State, he also told me in a text message that I had ‘evolved’ into his ‘health guru’ for some reason. He solicited information from me on diet and nutrition, not that I’m an expert. One time he asked me about rosemary plants and supplements, prompting me to send him a New York Times article entitled, ‘Rosemary and Time: Does This Italian Hamlet Have a Recipe for a Long Life?’
I believe this is what made him especially interested in improving his health in recent years – obviously not just to live longer, for his family and career, but also to keep feeding something that made him who he was.
It was a gift he had that we all should be so lucky to have, because it really does keep on giving.
I often wondered why he gave so much of his time to me, which was so valuable to me as a young journalist trying to report accurately on his program. He did the same with other writers and coaches and people he just met, many of whom have similar stories about this strange night owl with an overactive imagination.
The best answer I got came from his father, Frank, who told me Mike’s brain was like an insatiable sponge. He wanted to learn more about all sorts of things and looked to other people as a way to help him do that. That’s because he really was that curious about the world, sometimes to the point where certain riddles of history and potential conspiracies captured his attention and wouldn’t let go.
The last text message I got from him was a link to a story he sent me entitled, ‘The Truth About JonBenet Ramsey’s Ransom Note.’
‘Any thoughts?’ he asked about it late one night.
I replied with my own theory about what happened to Ramsey, who was killed at age 6 in 1996 at her home in Boulder, Colorado.
That case remains a mystery, as do all the many wonders of the world that fascinated him.
His inquisitiveness was that unquenchable, a gift that led him to give his time to others until it finally ran out way too soon.
I wish I had one more late-night phone conversation with you to thank you for that.
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: email@example.com