Even for those who hardly crossed his path, college football coach Mike Leach was somebody to be admired.
Leach, who died Monday at 61, most recently was the head coach at Mississippi State, which faces Illinois in the ReliaQuest Bowl.
Leach, who grew up in Wyoming, previously was a head coach at Texas Tech and Washington State after playing rugby as an undergraduate at Brigham Young.
He had a 158-107 record in 21 seasons as a college coach, including 17 bowl-game appearances.
That included a trip to Jacksonville, Fla., where his Red Raiders defeated Virginia 31-28 in 2008.
It was the first time one of his teams had played the Cavaliers, but it wasn’t as if he was unfamiliar with UVa.
“I think I was on the staff at Kentucky at the time,” he told me in a phone conversation prior to the 2008 game. “We went to Monticello, visited the campus, looked at all the Jefferson stuff. I wondered what it would be like to live in one of those little [Lawn] rooms with the fireplaces.
“It looked like a cool deal. We stopped to read the plaques on the door. I seem to remember walking through their weight room next to the football practice field, but mostly what jumped out at me was the museum quality of the inner campus.”
Not surprisingly, Leach conducted that interview while he was eating dinner with his family prior to the Gator Bowl.
Al Groh, who later retired, was the Cavaliers’ coach at the time.
“I’ve given it a lot of thought in the last few days,” Groh said Wednesday. “These days, the so-called Air-Raid offense, which he’s so noted for, is much discussed even if they don’t know what it is. But, back in 2007, it was not as well known or as widespread as it is now.
“We had a choice of two places, one to go to another spot in Florida and play Michigan State or go to the Gator Bowl and I was thinking, ‘Whoa, if we play against Texas Tech, this is going to be some challenge. I read somewhere about a game where Mike threw the ball 89 times.’ “
Groh said he pushed his assistants to take care of recruiting while he studied Leach’s system for weeks on end.
“I wanted to really understand what was going on because we’d never played against this style of offense before. I kind of got to know Mike a little bit just because of all that research. Then, when we get down to the Gator Bowl, there were some special social sessions.
“One night there was a function at the [TPC] golf course. It was a nice outing — no players at this one — for the staffs and their wives or girlfriends with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. The coaches had suits on; the women had cocktail attire and what-not.
“It’s a real nice place and, after a while, Mike comes in and he’s still got on his practice khakis and a red, nylon windbreaker. He’s got a brown bag with him. He takes care of the brown bag; I go over to him and we’re talking. He kind of whispers conspiratorially, ‘Hey, look, if you want a beer, I’ve got a six-pack behind that tree over there.’ “
Texas Tech won the game with a field goal on the last play of the game.
“The team’s all upset after the game [and] I’m waiting to go into the interview room,” Groh recalls. “Mike goes in first because he’s the winning coach. He comes out afterwards and says, ‘That’s the best plan anybody ever had against us. ‘
“I said, ‘Thanks a lot, Mike, but you had one more answer than we did.’ That spring, because of some of the concepts they had that were very unique and very well thought out, our coaches went down there to visit with their coaches.
“They were very gracious about it. There was always a graduate assistant who was assigned to him and would drive him to one of the country music sites in Lubbock for however long he was having fun.
“He’d come in later in the morning. Of course, this was spring practice, so he wasn’t getting ready for a game but obviously, with some of his ideas, he had a brilliant mind that I would call unique — not quirky — for all of his interest in different things.
“But his passion was always football.”