Mike Leach’s BYU rugby teammates share memories of the late football coach

How the BYU rugby team shaped Mike Leach — and why it stayed a part of his life even as a famed football coach.

(BYU archives) Mike Leach, pictured here on a page from the 1981 BYU Banyan yearbook, was a member of the Cougars' nationally ranked rugby team during his time in college.

Mike Leach is standing on the roof of a building on a mink farm, hammer in one hand, nails in the other, shouting something about Geronimo.

Below him are dozens of cages, each housing a pair of semi-aquatic mammals. The smell is nauseating as the sun bakes down on the ranch in Alpine, Utah, which, on this day the summer of 1981, may as well have been in the middle of nowhere.

But Leach doesn’t seem to care. He is busy probing his coworkers of the moment with questions, inquiring about a variety of random subjects as he nails the rest of the roof onto the shed. He is younger and fresh-faced, but every bit of the Mike Leach the world would someday come to know and love.

Mike being Mike.

He is here building a shelter for rodents for two reasons really:

1) it seemed like a decent summer job, inasmuch as it paid about $5 an hour, which would plenty of petty cash for a feast later at Heaps Brick Oven Pizza.

2) his rugby teammate asked him to be here. The mink farm Curt Salisbury worked at was expanding and he needed some guys on the team to help put roofing on the overrun sheds after breeding season.

And if you knew Mike Leach, you knew that, as sure as a mink farm stinks, he would say yes immediately to anything one of his BYU rugby teammates asked. Didn’t matter what it was. Before Leach was a renowned football coach, the Cougars’ rugby team was his family, and he did anything for “the boys.”

Usually, to Leach’s delight, it ended in some crazy tale.

The tales of Leach’s college days on the BYU rugby team would be told again and again among his coach and old teammates. They would be told at every reunion, at which Leach was a regular attendee — most recently last summer when the group gathered at Brick Oven in Provo to eat, reconnect and reminisce.

And they’ll be told again when the boys get together this week, this time with a tinge of sadness just days after Leach died suddenly from complications of a heart attack at age 61.

Washington State head coach Mike Leach speaks at the Pac-12 NCAA college football media day, Thursday, July 27, 2017, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Leach’s time with the BYU rugby team was an important chapter in his life. It laid the foundation for who Leach was, long before he became college football’s most unique and quirky character. It had very little to do with the game of rugby. It was more about the camaraderie, the stories, that provided the perfect breeding ground to produce somebody like Leach.

From mink farms to long van rides, Leach was allowed the space to become what the world would eventually know him as: somebody who wanted to do things out of the ordinary, inquire about anything, and be unencumbered by convention. He built a tight-knit band of unlikely brothers who facilitated and supported his style. At each stop in his career, they were there somewhere in the background.

For the boys of the BYU rugby program, Leach’s death has hit hard. They lost one of their own, one they made.

“He was just Mike,” Salisbury said. “He wasn’t some special big-time football coach. He was just Mike.”

The college days

The gold Trans-Am cruised down the Arizona highway late one spring night. A car Burt Reynolds would have loved, pristine, a giant Firebird logo on the hood.

The Cougars were scheduled to play in Tucson the next day and the rugby team didn’t fly anywhere. It got from Utah to Colorado or Arizona or wherever it needed to go in a 12-seat van.

But this trip was an exception. Some of the players had a test that morning and couldn’t leave on time with the others in the van, so rugby player Cal Sistrunk offered to drive the remaining guys in his new car and catch up with the team by dusk.

That night, with Sistrunk driving his Trans-Am, he challenged a Volkswagen Switchback to a race. Somehow the Trans-Am lost, and when Leach and the rest of the team heard about it on the bus, they led the charge to make sure he never forgot it.

“We made fun of him the rest of that trip,” Salisbury said. “I mean, where else are you going to get that.”

That is what the rugby team was about. It was a band of strangers who came together in college to make memories and play a sport most had never seen before. In essence, it was perfect for Leach, who thrived in this free-flowing environment where every day offered something new.

The team was quite literally a team of misfits. Some were former soccer players, others former football players. The coach, John Seggar, didn’t care.

“I put an ad out in the paper saying anybody who wanted to join should come out,” Seggar said. “We were trying to build the program up.”

Paul Henderson, who played on Leach’s team in college, found rugby simply because the field was close to the soccer practice area. He was trying out for his soccer team, but ended up talking to Seggar by accident and wound up playing rugby all four seasons.

But once they came together, BYU was good. The team Leach was on, from late 1979 to 1983, was nationally ranked. In 1981, the group went 13-1 and lost in the game before the national championship.

Leach himself was a smaller guy, playing right winger. But he was fast and ended up being a solid role player.

“Mike wasn’t built stocky, but he was just a scrapper and a fighter,” Henderson said.

The success, though, was not why people did it. It was for the family. When they traveled, the team was broken up into married men and single men. And those single men, which Leach was a part of, did everything and anything together.

They talked dinosaurs one minute and grabbed dinner the next. They spent summers doing things just to see what it was like. It was Mike Leach before Mike Leach.

“He was a lively one,” Henderson said. “The life of the party.”

The coaching days

Salisbury got a call early one morning at 1 a.m. It was Leach.

And when Leach called, you picked up.

He was at Texas Tech at the time, and late-night phone calls out of the blue tended to be a staple of how he stayed in touch with his rugby mate.

FILE - In this Nov, 5, 2016, file photo, Washington State head coach Mike Leach directs his team during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Arizona in Pullman, Wash. Leach has been one of the best program-builders in coaching over the past two decades. (AP Photo/Young Kwak, File)

They would talk for hours about family, traveling to South America, or pretty much anything else. But on this night, the conversation wound its way to Salisbury’s Pop Warner football team he was coaching for his son.

Leach, without any pretext, told Salisbury to buy a plane ticket to Lubbock and come to a practice. He would teach him how to implement the air raid offense for a bunch of 8-year-olds.

“I was sitting in with the quarterbacks,” Salisbury said. “Leach is asking us questions about what we are getting out of it. We implemented the wide-blocking scheme and we were throwing for 200 yards a game as 8-year-olds.”

Even as Leach became a Power Five coach, as the rest of the world found out who Leach was, the rugby team was a silent backbone of his life.

While most were shocked at how Leach approached the job — talking about mythical creatures in postgames, hiring coaches in bars, going on walks in the wilderness to see where animals live — the rugby team was familiar with it. They knew who he was.

And because of that familiarity, they stayed in frequent contact and their lives intertwined.

Leach met one of his assistant coaches, Robert Anae, through Seggar. The rugby coach was a professor at BYU and helped with the graduate program. He alerted Leach that Anae, who was a grad student at BYU, was a potential candidate to be on his coaching staff at Tech. Leach hired him for five seasons in Lubbock.

And Leach remained loyal to them. He went to BYU’s first rugby national championship appearance in 2009 with his 1981 team. He organized an impromptu rugby game on the beach for some of the guys. It was his comfort zone.

In many ways, Leach’s career mirrored the lessons he learned in rugby, of embracing the unknown. He dropped out of his law practice to enter the coaching profession. He coached in Finland at one point. But it shouldn’t be a shock for the guy who embraced the BYU rugby family.

The next days

(Theo DeRosa | The Commercial Dispatch, via AP) The video board at Davis Wade Stadium displays a message in memory of Mississippi State NCAA college football coach Mike Leach, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in Starkville, Miss. Leach, 61, died Monday night, Dec. 12, at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson following complications from a heart condition, the university announced.

On Friday, the old rugby team will descend upon Tucanos Brazilian Grill in Provo. It is a pre-arranged reunion that now just happens to be four days removed from Leach’s death.

Leach — a regular fixture at these reunions — wasn’t supposed to be at this one. The thought that he won’t be at the next will cast a shadow over the evening.

It won’t feel the same. They will share old stories. But, for the first time, they won’t have any new Leach stories to look forward to or scheduled run-ins.

Seggar was looking forward to implementing rugby style plays in the Mississippi State offense with Leach this string.

“We were just talking about it,” Seggar said. “I’m getting sad just thinking about it.”

Salisbury kept thinking of one conversation he had with Leach that will also never materialize. They always said, whenever Leach retired, they would coach a rugby team together.

They promised to find the worst team out there and shape them up. But it wasn’t really a dream about rugby; it never was. It was about continuing to do things nobody would expect them to do, and doing it their own way.

It was what Leach was best at. And for this group, and the rest of the world, he will be impossible to replace.