Mike Leach’s legacy endures through his family as College Football Hall of Fame nod remains out of reach

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Sharon Leach blames herself. College football coaches’ wives are sainted about the time they say, “I do.” Family duties that normally would be shared by a couple quickly tilt to one side of the marital dynamic as the husband/coach logs countless hours away from home.

Sharon Leach is one of those saints, in part because she still blames herself for the only college football game her husband Mike Leach ever missed as a coach. 

“Why, why would I ever have a baby during a football season?” Sharon Leach told CBS Sports. “That was very bad timing. Not smart.”

Sharon is clearly aware of pregnancy’s unpredictability. Nonetheless, Kimberly Leach was born on a football Saturday — Nov. 4, 1989, a night during which her father’s Iowa Wesleyan Tigers won a football game without their offensive coordinator. 

“He never took a day off, [never] a sick day. His whole life in coaching, he would drag himself,” Sharon Leach said of her celebrated spouse. “The only time he missed a game was when I was in labor. They ended up giving him the game ball.

“He went [to work] no matter what. He put a lot of time and a lot of life into football and never got to really reap the rewards after.”

Her voice catches with emotion at the end of that last sentence. That’s understandable. It’s only been a year and a half since her husband died. Mike Leach’s shine on the college game as one of the sport’s great coaches, minds and rogues has barely dimmed.

When Leach died suddenly in December 2022 at the age of 61, he left a loving wife, four children and a portion of his legacy that sooner or later must be dealt with: By almost any measure, Leach is a College Football Hall of Fame coach. But as things stand right now, he can never be in that hall of fame. 

When the 2025 College Football Hall of Fame ballot was announced last week, Leach’s omission was noticeable. Nick Saban, eligible immediately at age 72, got on the ballot five months after his retirement. Urban Meyer made it in the minimum three years after his last coaching job. 

Less than two years after his untimely death, Leach still does not qualify for his profession’s highest honor. A career minimum .600 winning percentage is required to be considered for induction. That’s been the case since the hall was founded in 1951, according to National Football Foundation president and CEO Steve Hatchell.

That threshold has not been enforced for long periods of the hall’s history, though. The College Football Hall of Fame includes 30 coaches who have fallen short of .600, including Tuss McLaughry, who was inducted in 1962 despite a .490 winning percentage in a career that spanned from 1915-1955.

As an innovator alone, Leach deserves consideration. He helped invent the Air Raid offense, the concepts of which are used in some form or fashion by every NFL and FBS program, excluding the service academies.

Leach falls just short of that career winning percentage mark, finishing with a .596 (158-107) winning percentage in 21 years at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State. The coaching maverick nicknamed “The Pirate” could run up the score and go off on tangents in equal measure.

“He was able to win with less,” Sharon Leach summarized. “And while I think his legacy was, ‘He changed the way football was played,’ I can’t remember the number of times they said, ‘This will never work in the NFL or this will never work here or there.’ Pretty soon, everyone was doing it.” 

Mike Leach innovated the game across stops at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State.
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Leach’s coaching tree includes at least 14 current or former college coaches. All of it made him so lethal as a coach and quirky as a person that he made a career of basically stepping out of line with the human race. 

His former agent, Gary O’Hagan, was working on a TV project once with the coach and sent Leach a sign from Killarney National Park in Ireland that playfully read, “Leprechaun Crossing.”

“He calls me and says, ‘Hey, when we’re doing this show can we go kind of look for the leprechauns?'” O’Hagan recalled. “I said, ‘No, no, no, Mike. That sign is to lure the tourists.’ He backed up right away, ‘Oh, I know. But can we at least go to the areas where, if they were real, they would live?'”

Hatchell has been among the charmed. The former Big 12 commissioner got the job as NFF president and CEO in 2005, and upon taking office, he was told by powerful and prominent board members that he must adhere to the .600 winning percentage threshold.

However, since 2005, two coaches have been inducted with sub.-600 records: Doug Porter (2008) and Willie Jeffries (2010). Porter was 155-110-5 (.583) at Mississippi Valley State, Howard and Fort Valley State from 1961-1996.  Porter, the oldest living member of the hall, died this week at 94. He was an HBCU legend having been an assistant under Eddie Robinson. Jeffries was 180-132-6 (.587) at South Carolina State, Howard and Wichita State from 1973-2001. He was the first Black head coach in FBS, joining Wichita State in 1979.

“There hasn’t been any wriggling of that [.600 number],” Hatchell told CBS Sports. “I was told by George Steinbrenner and a bunch of other guys that were on the board for a long time, ‘Hatchell, these are the rules. You stay with the rules come hell or high water.’ 

“Keep in mind, we love Mike Leach. I wish he was around now.”

Hatchell says Leach’s induction now would require a “waiver of the rules.” The NFF Honors Court would have to send a recommendation to the NFF Board of Directors for such a move. The board consists of more than 75 members and includes six current or former conference commissioners, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and one member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Archie Manning is chair. 

“The NFF takes our responsibility of setting criteria and overseeing the nomination and selection process for induction into (the) College Football Hall of Fame very seriously,” Manning told CBS Sports. “Our constituents understand the criteria and the process that has been set. Those are reviewed every year. Coach Leach was an outstanding coach, a good man and a friend to the NFF.”

Hatchell said Leach would still have to wait the required three years since his last game, but that point seems moot with the .600 winning percentage standing in the way. 

That honors court, which annually determines the final hall of fame members, is chaired by two-time Heisman Trophy winner and former Ohio State star Archie Griffin. An NFF source suggested Leach’s situation might be “the ultimate test case” of the .600 requirement.  

The hall of fame process can be complicated. The likes of Joe Montana, Dak Prescott and Eli Manning are ineligible for consideration because they were never first-team All Americans chosen by outlets approved by the NFF. 

Hatchell said Leach could still get in via other NFF awards such as its Distinguished American Award (outstanding contributions to amateur football), but he suspects the preference would be to get in as a coach. 

Sharon Leach hopes the way her husband exited Texas Tech doesn’t impact his chances. The school fired Mike Leach in 2009 after what Texas Tech called “a defiant act of insubordination.” A scandal erupted after Tech player Adam James alleged he was mistreated by Leach. 

Still, the hall is filled with controversial members. Former Heisman winners O.J. Simpson (USC) and Billy Cannon (LSU) each became convicted felons after their playing days were over.

It took legendary Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer 13 years to be inducted. Switzer resigned in 1989 amid an NCAA scandal.

“I knew those little shortcomings might be a factor,” Sharon Leach said of her husband. “I don’t know how willing they [NFF] are to bend. I kind of have hope that he will get in.”

Mike Leach’s legacy on and off the field continues unabated. Longtime college football journalist Bruce Feldman co-wrote the bestseller “Swing Your Sword” with Leach. Famous rants/analyses by “The Pirate” will keep YouTube going forever. Leach could break down a defense and offer marital advice in the same press conference. This answer to a question regarding student loans is one of his classics. 

Leach was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in April. Sharon is currently going through his papers, considering loaning them to Mississippi State for a display honoring Mike’s career. O’Hagan told CBS Sports there is a documentary in the works on the coach’s career that will be narrated by Matthew McConaughey. 

In a bit of serendipity, this fall Leach will be honored at a Washington State game. The opponent? Texas Tech. His son Cody remains an assistant at Mississippi State. 

Leach was a good dad who would wake up daughter Janeen after coming home from work to practice her softball pitching skills. Daughter Kiersten was born on September 25, 1998, the day before the Florida game when Leach was an assistant at Kentucky under Hal Mumme. This time, Leach made both the birth and the game, hopping on the team plane shortly after Kiersten’s arrival. 

“I was scheduled to be induced, but luckily I went into labor that morning,” Sharon said. “I went fast. He said, ‘Great it’s a girl. That’s cool. OK, gotta go.’ It’s like, ‘See ya, no hard feelings,’ because that’s football.”

Sharon left this discussion no less a saint than when she became a football wife. 

“The only way I’m getting through [the loss of her husband], really, is trying not to think about it so much. I like talking about him. It’s a little bit easier right now,” she said. “I kind of have hopes that he will get into the hall of fame at some point. He definitely changed the way football is played.

“That’s what I’m hopeful for … his memory will be honored.” 

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