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A football coach with perspective

Mike Leach reminded us that games should be fun

Mississippi State coach Mike Leach watches as his players warm up before the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn., on Dec. 28, 2021. Associated Press/Photo by Mark Humphrey

A football coach with perspective

Sometimes sports seem irreparably broken. I’ve been involved in football in some form or fashion (player, coach, parent) for 37 years. Football routinely causes institutions of higher learning to compromise their academic standards, cheat in recruiting, and now legally scramble to pay players via NIL deals—all of which exists on a continuum from low-key embarrassing to downright nefarious.

Even Christian institutions are faced with the dilemma of how to field a roster of 85 dogs, while the rest of their student body seems to come straight off the homeschool debate circuit. Such dilemmas cause Christian college presidents to lose sleep. Football is not a nice game for nice people.

It causes grown men who are coaches to work 20-hour days, sleep on cots in their offices, and ignore their families. It causes grown men who are fans to hurl objects (like batteries, golf balls, and condiment bottles) at other grown men—this in addition to the routinely embarrassing acts of vandalism on opposing campuses and stadium chants that you feel bad about while driving home.

Football is violent. The practices and games are brutal. Anticipating the games is an exercise in anxiety and stress. When you’re doing it you just want it to be over, but then you immediately begin to talk about how fun it was and start planning to do it again.

To be honest, I love football. If you’ve experienced it as a player, you probably feel as though everything else is boring by comparison.

Mike Leach was head football coach at Mississippi State University, and he died suddenly this week at age 61. Leach’s stint at Mississippi State came after successful stints in the same capacity at Washington State and Texas Tech, and many other stops as an offensive coordinator. He is widely credited as the architect of the Air Raid offense, which is a sort of lineal child of the old Run-n-Shoot from the 1980s. He hatched the idea while serving as offensive coordinator at Iowa Wesleyan, where his players were outgunned and he had to come up with a way to compete. He decided that if you spread the defense out laterally, and have your receivers basically just run to open patches of green grass, they can get open and catch the ball. His players seemed to have fun doing it, and his teams won.

Leach never played college football himself, so in a way he wasn’t indoctrinated into how miserable it was supposed to be.

I’ve enjoyed studying Leach’s teams for about a decade, but even more than watching the game film I enjoyed watching Leach himself because he seemed to have fun. Most major college football coaches view their jobs—wittingly or unwittingly—as ultimate. I mean, many make more money than the presidents at their institutions. More people know their names. They are routinely on television. As a result, they have a rictus of presidential strain etched onto their faces at all times. They seem miserable and in turn tend to make their players miserable.

Leach stood out in stark contrast. He never played college football himself, so in a way he wasn’t indoctrinated into how miserable it was supposed to be. He seemed to be the only coach in the free world to realize that interviews with the media didn’t matter at all and could be occasions for fun—for himself and for viewers. His press conferences were like long, discursive performance art events where topics could range from marriage advice to favorite types of candy. He studied pirates, in detail. In this, he was not unlike most children for a season. He gave us players like Gardner Minshew, when most coaches would have discouraged their starting quarterbacks from routinely appearing in public in cutoff jean shorts, tank tops, and ironic moustaches.

So why should this matter to Christians? You could easily make the argument that football doesn’t matter at all and maybe shouldn’t even exist. Leach, more than any other coach, seemed to understand this at a deep level. And while he wanted to win as much as the next guy, he seemed to truly “get” that in the grand scheme of things it really doesn’t matter if Washington State beats Arizona.

I’ve spent most of my life blowing football out of proportion and making an idol out of it. This has been embarrassing and painful for me, and a real headache for my wife, at times. I have had to repent of that idolatry often, and as a result I tend to enjoy the game a lot more now than I did before. I don’t know if Mike Leach knew Christ. I sure hope so. But at a deep level, perspective should matter to Christians, and Leach seemed to have perspective in droves.

I never met Mike Leach, but I’ll miss him.

Ted Kluck

Ted Kluck is the award-winning internationally published author of 30 books, and his journalism has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, USA Today, and many other outlets. He is screenwriter and co-producer on the upcoming feature film Silverdome and co-hosts The Happy Rant Podcast and The Kluck Podcast.  Ted won back-to-back Christianity Today Book of the Year Awards in 2007 and 2008 and was a 2008 Michigan Notable Book Award winner for his football memoir, Paper Tiger: One Athlete’s Journey to the Underbelly of Pro Football.  He currently serves as an associate professor of journalism at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and coaches long snappers at Lane College. He and his wife Kristin have two children.

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