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We mourn the passing of Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach, who passed away much too young (at the age of 61) on Dec. 13. He was a truly unique character, a lawyer who never played college football and yet was one of the greatest and most innovative coaches of our time.

Four of the top nine college players in terms of passing yards in a season (of all time!) were coached by Leach. Only four coaches have ever had a team average over 470 passing yards per game for an entire season, and Leach did it at three schools. He took Washington State (!) to five straight bowl games.

I remember the night that the University of Arizona fired Rich Rodriguez, who, after having taken Arizona to the Pac-12 Championship game in 2014, had seen his program begin to decline. (Rodriguez was fired for off-the-field stuff.) I wrote a column that night, begging the UA to hire Mike Leach away from Washington State.

He would have been perfect. Leach thrived at second-level schools and loved challenging the big boys. He took Texas Tech to the top of the Big 12, shoving powerhouses Oklahoma and Texas aside in the process. Washington State had gone a decade without a winning season when he took over and made them a winner almost overnight. And this year, he coached perennial loser Mississippi State to an 8-4 record in the mega-tough Southeastern Conference. (One of those eight wins was at Arizona back in September.)

As it turned out, the university, which rarely takes my advice, settled on Kevin Sumlin instead and the death spiral that had begun under Rodriguez accelerated to warp speed under Sumlin. New coach Jedd Fisch has stopped the bleeding and has started to turn things around, but it will still probably be a couple years before Arizona fans will be able to watch that scene in the movie “Speed” where Keanu Reeves says “Arizona Wildcats…good football team…” without wincing.

Mike Leach was widely known as a character. He had a long-time, good-natured feud with a fellow coach as to which Native American leader was the better battle commander. The other coach argued for Comanche leader Quanah Parker, while Leach was so adamant that it was the Apache Geronimo that Leach wrote a book about it (“Geronimo: Leadership Strategies of An American Warrior”).

He grew up in Cody, Wyoming, and despite not being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he attended Brigham Young University. He would later recall, “I liked BYU. The place was like Disneyland only without rides and merchandising.”

He broke the honor code at BYU so many times, they put in a revolving door just for him. But it was mostly for having hair too long and lips too loose. But he was a good student and after graduation, he went to Pepperdine Law School. Fortunately for the sports world, he decided to give football coaching a try. And fortunately for the college football world, some knuckleheads on a committee turned him down for a high-school coaching gig, so he tried the next level.

Everywhere he went, first as an offensive coordinator and then as a head coach, footballs would be flying all over the place. His offense was called the Air Raid and it often kept his outmanned teams in games in which they would have had no business competing. Not surprisingly, Leach holds the all-time NCAA record for wins by a coach for an unranked team over teams in the Top 25.

There was a decent sports movie called “Glory Road,” which chronicled the Cinderella (true) story of a backwater college that put together an all-Black lineup that won the NCAA basketball championship over all-White powerhouse Kentucky back in the 1960s. The school was called Texas Western (it’s now University of Texas-El Paso). In the movie, Texas Western coach Don Haskins (played by Josh Lucas) stops at a gas station. The attendant (played by the real Don Haskins) offers a few words of encouragement. It was a cute moment.

Having seen that, Leach, who was then a rising star at Texas Tech, did a cameo on the outstanding TV series “Friday Night Lights.” In the scene, Coach Eric Taylor, only a year after winning a state championship, has been the victim of petty politics and has been moved to East Dillon High, an inner-city school with bad facilities and no football tradition.

Taylor is very down, but then, at a gas station, he has a chance encounter with a character played by Leach (or maybe it’s Leach as himself; we never do find out). Leach launches into a bizarre keep-your-head-up rant, including instructions on how to swing a sword. He ends with “You’ve lost your inner pirate.”

We lovers of college football (and characters) have lost our favorite pirate.

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