Perhaps the highest compliment about the most improbable college coaching career of this generation is that as time marches on, and new eras of homogenized football coaches emerge, explaining the Mike Leach coaching experience will sound like fiction.
A former rugby player with no college football playing experience? A Pepperdine Law grad who coached in Finland and then won in Lubbock, Pullman and Starkville? A coaching tree that includes Lincoln Riley, Dave Aranda and Dana Holgorsen? A list of former players that ranges from Kliff Kingsbury to Josh Heupel? It all sounds like a Dan Jenkins fever dream.
But that was Mike Leach, a Renaissance man masquerading as a football coach, who died Monday night, Mississippi State announced. He was 61.
"He's truly a one-of-a-kind," Washington State athletic director Pat Chun said of his former coach. "There will never be another Mike Leach to walk this earth or grace the sideline at a college football game."
Experiencing Mike Leach's more than three decades of college coaching helps explain why he was unique. As the college football world descends into mourning for the loss of an American original, it's difficult to encapsulate the breadth of a career that spanned from Cal Poly to Valdosta State, Iowa Wesleyan to Kentucky, and College of the Desert to Oklahoma.
He touched three major conferences -- SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 -- and can be traced through nearly every boldface name in the sport the past two decades as a colleague or rival. There are few college coaches at any level who don't have a Mike Leach story, be it from their time as an opponent, using him as an inspiration or bellied up at a bar in the coach's beloved Key West, Florida.
"He changed college football," former Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen said. "He took college football from a very conservative offensive approach where coaches were afraid to make a mistake ... I go back to the word fearlessness. He's not afraid to take risks."
Mike Leach was schematically brilliant, intellectually fascinating and stubborn, flawed and unconventional enough to never get a chance to coach a blue blood. He rarely showed contrition for mistakes and proved nearly allergic to apology, the same traits that both carved his impossible path and eventually limited it. Leach was difficult to manage, prone to self-induced controversy and managed to cross lines with embarrassing public moments at all his head-coaching stops, from an acrimonious exit at Texas Tech over allegations he mistreated a player with a concussion, leading to wrongful termination lawsuits, to controversies over inappropriate tweets at Washington State and Mississippi State.