STARKVILLE — Michael Wright rounded the southwest corner of Davis Wade Stadium, grieving a man who looked more than a little like him.
Besides their first names, Wright and late Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach share some undeniable physical characteristics. The Columbus resident, who drives for Uber in Starkville, has been asked about it before.
“I’ve had people riding say, ‘Are you sure you’re not Mike Leach?’” Wright recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘If I was making $5 million a year, would I be Ubering your butt right now?’”
When he found out on social media Tuesday morning that Leach had died at the age of 61, Wright drove by the Bulldogs’ home stadium.
Unable to snap a clear picture of the message on the video board in the north end zone announcing Leach’s death, he parked at the Barnes and Noble lot and walked over to the black metal gates.
A lifelong Bulldogs fan, Wright was a Leach fan, too.
“I haven’t heard of anybody who didn’t like him,” he said.
That was the prevailing reaction in the hours after Leach’s death was announced, which came shortly before 8 a.m. Tuesday.
Mississippi State junior Alex Howell was scrolling Twitter at the time when he heard the news: Leach had died from complications related to a heart condition at a hospital in Jackson.
Howell, a Terry native, called the coach’s death “unimaginable.”
“It’s surreal,” Howell said. “It really hasn’t hit all of us yet, I don’t think.”
But there he was, anyway, part of a three-member team from State Floral on University Drive arranging a makeshift memorial at Davis Wade’s southwest gate. Howell and two women pinned black ribbons to the metal bars and hoisted flowers onto a plastic table outside them.
Howell said Executive Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Affairs Rhett Hobart contacted the company to set up a memorial. The MSU student said he expected more to come on campus and around Starkville on Tuesday and throughout the week.
The reaction to Leach’s untimely death speaks to the impact the already legendary coach had in just three seasons in Starkville.
An iconic part of college football for more than two decades, “The Pirate” won big at Texas Tech and Washington State before coming to MSU.
“I don’t know that he has a legacy so much specific to us as he does to college football throughout his career,” Wright said. “We were just a small part of it.”
Leach embraced Mississippi State nonetheless, fitting into the university’s culture during his tenure.
That included on-field success, as Leach led the Bulldogs to eight regular-season wins in 2022 after a 7-5 campaign the year before.
Wright said he feels “fortunate” to have even had Leach in town for three years and hopes his legacy will survive.
“Who knows? There may be somebody who comes along who carries on his Air Raid philosophies,” Wright said.
Who that will be — at Mississippi State, at least — is too early to think about. The sadness and mourning are still fresh.
Wright said he’d heard the rumors circulating about Leach’s health during the season. The coach was stricken with a persistent hacking cough during media sessions.
But Wright never expected the news of the past few days: Leach was airlifted to University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson on Sunday afternoon, and his condition deteriorated from there.
He died Monday night, leaving behind his wife Sharon and four children.
“It was kind of shocking,” Wright said.
For Howell, who as a fan of college football grew up following Leach’s exploits, it was hard to stomach.
A trumpet player in the Famous Maroon Band, Howell was a fixture at Bulldogs football games. When Leach brought his “Insurgent Warfare and Football Strategies” class to Starkville in April, Howell got to go.
“That’s the most personal encounter I’ve had with him,” Howell said. “He always seemed like such a cool guy.”
Howell pointed to Leach’s influence on the sport — not just at the college level.
On Monday night, watching the Arizona Cardinals face the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football, Howell pointed out the Cards’ “Air Raid”-style offensive scheme to his father.
Leach helped launch the Air Raid in the 1980s and 1990s, but his unique personality, in ways, trumped his on-field accomplishments. The coach’s dry humor, intelligence and ability to hold court on any subject imaginable endeared him to fans everywhere.
Mississippi State fans, of course, have a special connection. And even though Leach is gone, he lives on in their hearts.
For some, in present tense.
“Who doesn’t love Mike Leach?” Howell said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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