Tributes to Mike Leach have been pouring in from throughout the college football community since the Mississippi State head coach died late Monday night after falling ill at his Starkville, Miss. home a day earlier.
Known for both his high-powered “Air Raid” offense that helped him win 158 games in 21 years as a head coach at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State and his an affable personality, the 61-year-old Leach is being remembered fondly by family, coaching colleagues, current and former players, friends and fans alike.
There is a current high school head coach in Hall County who checks almost all of those boxes, thanks to his unique connection to Leach.
Sean Pender, who recently completed his first season as North Hall’s coach, played for Leach when the latter was offensive coordinator Valdosta State under then-head coach Hal Mumme from 1992-95.
And he credits Leach with being a major influence not only on his career, but also on his life.
“What he’s meant to me in coaching is (that) he’s the reason why you get into this profession,” said Pender, who has 131 wins over in 21 seasons at Brantley County, Crisp County, Pierce County and Brunswick before coming to North Hall earlier this year. “You think about, as a player, all the stuff that you do – the things you talk about outside of the game.
“It’s not just with the X’s and O’s and how many games you’ve won. It’s the relationships that you end up having with your coaches. I always wanted to be that kind of coach, one that will have a (close, positive) relationship with their players outside of just football. He’s one of the guys who teaches you the value in that without even saying it.”
That relationship began when Pender was a standout receiver at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Fla., looking for a place to play college football.
He wasn’t sure if Valdosta State was still interested in him after Mumme became head coach after Mike Cavan, now the director of football administration at Georgia, left to take the East Tennessee State job following the 1991 season.
However, he soon found an advocate in Leach after being brought in with other prospects for a tryout early in 1992.
More importantly, he found a long-time mentor.
“Well, Mike Leach brings me back into his office separately before I went in to talk to Coach Mumme,” Pender recalled. “We just started talking and, of course, we talked about wanting to come there and he saw something in me. But one of the things that sold me (on Valdosta State), because I had a couple of other (opportunities) going on, was just the relationships that he had. It was just how he was talking to me, just making me feel good and was talking outside the box on certain things. It was just a good feel.
“I ended up going into Coach Mumme’s office and they offered me (scholarship) money, and part of it was that Mike really wanted me there. So I signed with Valdosta State, and there are a bunch of people I’ve been blessed to be around, but Mike was definitely one of the top coaches to be around, not for the X’s and O’s. I mean, his innovation and all that speaks for itself, but it was the relationships.”
That relationship with Leach proved to be not only productive on the field, where Pender forged an All-Gulf South Conference and Division II All-American career that was part of the Blazers’ first two postseason teams, but also entertaining off it.
Pender recalled numerous conversations with Leach that would seemingly go off in all sorts of directions.
“If we were in between classes or waiting on a meeting or something, we would just go into (Leach’s) office and talk about off-the-wall stuff,” said Pender, who will be inducted into Valdosta State’s athletic Hall of Fame on Jan. 21. “He had a Wall of Fame (in his office), and one of my buddies Wayne DeVane was there, and Kris Gingrow, another player, was there (one day), … and we understood that he had (pictures of) guys like Geronimo and other people (who are figures) in history, but he (also) had Britney Spears (on it). We were like, ‘Britney Spears?’ He’d say, ‘Yeah, she’s an icon.’ Of course, this is the early 1990s. He just (talked about) how she pushes the boundaries (and) thinks out of the box in her profession. So now, she deserves to be on the Wall of Fame. Just little things like that.”
Leach also had a penchant for bringing television into a conversations, particularly cartoon characters, something that was on display just this past summer at SEC Media Days, when he invoked Wile E. Coyote and Muttley into a conversation about his offensive philosophy, as well as his Netflix suggestions.
There was one cartoon character that Pender didn’t particularly care for, especially when he was compared to it by Leach.
“He’d always talk about putting us into a bag, like one room, and (wondering) who would come out. Like, who’s the toughest?” Pender recalled. “I remember one time, he called me ‘The Chicken Hawk,’ (after) the cartoon character. I got fired up. I was all mad that he was calling me a chicken hawk. I did know what he meant. But he was like, ‘No, you’re like this little dude who thinks he can always beat up everybody. He’s always trying to take down Foghorn Leghorn. That’s you, Pender. You’re the Chicken Hawk.’
“I know he’s going to be missed for some of the interviews (he’s given) and being colorful, but that’s … what he is uniquely. He’s an authentic person. So many people try to do and be different things. Not Mike. Mike’s going to tell you what’s on his brain. If you ask him (a question), you’re going to get the answer that he is truly thinking. He may do it in a quirky way, but it always ties back together with whatever it is he was talking about.”
Pender also insists that while Leach’s way of getting his point across may seem rather quirky, he always got around to that point, which usually involved making sure that no matter who he was talking to, he made that person know that he or she was important.
That philosophy was best embodied in a parable about a what makes a race car go really fast, which Pender says has helped shape his coaching philosophy, and is how he’ll best remember Leach.
“He said (that) when you think of a car that goes really, really fast, what do you think of? He said, ‘the engine, right?’ How big the engine is, how much horsepower it has or whatever,” Pender said. “But the thing you never paid attention to is a lug nut that’s sitting there on the wheel holding the tire together, and how important that little piece is to make that car run as smooth and as fast as it does. Just think about it. If that lug nut isn’t on the way it’s meant to be, the tire would be wobbly. If the tire is wobbly, … it might come off the frame. You can kind of picture him saying this and the way he believed it.
“The moral of the story is, … it doesn’t matter whether you’re the engine of the sports car or a lug nut. You’re equally important to the performance of that machine. He’s talking about how you treat people in terms of your organization. That’s how he was in life. … He’d always take time out, no matter who you were or what you did, to find their importance and talk to people.”
Pender says Leach, who graduated from Pepperdine Law School, never hesitated to let him know he was as important he was to his former coach as the other way around.
It was a theme during the last time the two spoke a few days before Mississippi State met top-ranked Georgia in Starkville on Nov. 12.
“I wanted to thank him for everything and what he meant to me,” Pender said. He responded with some great words. He called me a stud and ‘the original Wes Welker.’ Stuff like that, going back and forth. Then we talked about another buddy of ours, Marc Beach, who’s up in this area now at Lambert (as head coach).
“And he asked me to come visit him this spring in Mississippi. Every time we’ve talked, we’ve talked about visiting each other, but it just hasn’t worked out that I’ve been able to go see him for one reason or another. So I’m regretting that. … My phone’s been blowing up (Tuesday) with guys I played with and just people who know about the relationship with Mike and I. With one of my teammates, we just started reminiscing about and just talking about the different times and different stories.”