Seemingly anyone who came in contact with Mike Leach left that interaction with a story, or at least a memorable anecdote.
A slew of those stories and anecdotes were shared across the college football world on Tuesday after Leach, who was the quizzical third-year head coach at Mississippi State, and previously the head coach at Texas Tech and Washington State, died Monday night at the age of 61 due to complications related to a heart condition.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham was ready Tuesday night with his own anecdote.
As Pac-12 head coaches, Whittingham and Leach squared off six times, Leach holding a 4-2 edge. Before one of those six games, the two men were talking on the field when Leach pulled a banana out of his pocket and started eating it. Leach told Whittingham he actually had a second banana on him and asked if he wanted it.”
“I said, ‘No, I’m good, Coach,’” a somber Whittingham recalled through a smile at that moment. “That’s who he is. He was his own man, his own person. I don’t want to say he didn’t care what anyone thought, but he said what was on his mind, and he was one of a kind. He was one of a kind, and his humor was second to none. I miss him dearly.”
The bond between Whittingham and Leach goes beyond just the six times they coached against each other.
The two men attended BYU at the same time. Whittingham was in Provo from 1978-81 as a linebacker playing for his father, former Cougars defensive Fred Whittingham. Leach attended from 1979-83, when he played rugby, but occasionally sat in on football film sessions under legendary head coach LaVell Edwards.
Both men met their future wives as college students. As the two became friends later as their coaching careers flourished, their wives turned out to have a lot in common, so that was a start. The fact they both attended BYU was also a common factor, which led to a sharing of common places and experiences.
Of course, Whittingham soon found out what kind of mind he was dealing with in Leach.
“First of all, he was brilliant, I can tell you that,” Whittingham said. “You could pick any subject. UFOs, Sasquatch, politics, three hours on any subject and he could go. You don’t get much talking, he would carry the conversation and he was well-versed in every subject, any subject.”
From a football standpoint, Leach’s most-famous coaching moment came on Nov. 1, 2008 when 8-0 Texas Tech, No. 7 in the BCS rankings at the time, beat No. 1, 8-0 Texas, 39-33, in Lubbock.
With the Red Raiders trailing late in the fourth quarter and facing second-and-10 at the Longhorns’ 28-yard line, Graham Harrell hit Michael Crabtree with along the right sideline at the 6 in front of two defenders. Instead of falling out of bounds, Crabtree toed the sideline, found his balance, and sprinted to the end zone for the winning points.
Harrell finished 36-for-53 for 474 yards and two touchdown passes. Crabtree, who would go on to win a second Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver that fall, had 10 catches for 127 yards and the touchdown as Leach’s Air Raid offense owned the night.
That particular night had the attention of at least one current Ute, Frisco, Texas native Jaylen Dixon, who wouldn’t have been older than 8 at the time of Crabtree’s catch.
“Rest in peace to Mike Leach, I grew up a huge Tech fan,” Dixon said. “Michael Crabtree, Graham Harrell, those were my guys.
“I loved his philosophy, his scheme, what he was able to do. Not many teams were throwing the ball 50, 60 times a game, gaining those kinds of yards, it was just crazy to see. His wit, jokes he made, his character, he was just a great guy.”
Added Whittingham: “He’s really the guy that took the Air Raid and made it what it is. Hal Mumme was the brainchild of it I guess, but Mike Leach took it where he did during the course of his career. He’s an innovator, an offensive innovator and really deserves the credit for making that offense come to fruition and making it so effective.”
Is Devaughn Vele thinking about returning?
On Nov. 12, Devaughn Vele took part in Senior Night festivities at Rice-Eccles Stadium. He said days later he was leaning towards leaving Utah with two years of eligibility remaining.
On Tuesday, Vele, who at the time cited his advanced college football age of 24 and the desire to have a legitimate shot at the NFL, sounds like he may be changing his mind.
“I can say I have been thinking about it a lot lately, and while it isn’t final, I have been leaning more towards staying another year,” Vele said. “Trying to get better film out there and be able to three-peat with these guys.
“We have a lot of good players coming in, but I know I am getting older. It’s a part of life, but this program is special and I want to be a part of it. While it’s not set in stone, I have been thinking about it a lot lately, and it’s starting to lean towards staying another year, but you’ll have my answer by the time the bowl game comes.”
Vele leads all Utes wide receivers in catches (50), receiving yards (595), and receiving touchdowns (5), but he is correct in that his film is limited. Before this season, the fourth-year sophomore, who has served as Utah’s punt returner this fall, had just 25 catches and one touchdown in 23 career games.
Vele’s potential return adds new intrigue to who else may return for an offense that finishes fifth in the Pac-12 and 17th nationally in yards per game at 472.7.
Brant Kuithe, who can take a redshirt this season after playing in just four games thanks to a torn ACL, and Cam Rising, both have one season of eligibility remaining. Both have long been assumed to be leaving after this season, but neither has announced their respective intentions for next season.