Canzano: Mike Leach left the world wanting more
A football coach, a fan... and their friendship.
The first time Mike Leach and Wade Hogg met was at a fundraiser for Washington State University’s athletic department.
The football coach and the loyal WSU donor were seated at the same table where they introduced themselves and then challenged a little kid to put an entire slice of cheesecake in his mouth.
“If you try,” Hogg said, “I’ll try”
I saw video of the dare. A panel of speakers is on stage behind their table, talking. The room was otherwise quiet. Hogg and Leach look like two teenagers, bored with the festivities and creating their own amusement.
Hogg, who owns a manufacturing business in rural Oregon, leaned down and used both hands to shove the entire piece of cheesecake into his open mouth.
Leach, sitting beside him in a sport coat, stared at the feat and announced to the table: “That’s just genetic superiority.”
The football coach died in December due to complications from a heart condition. Last Saturday marked Week 1 of the first college football season since Leach’s death. Washington State won its opener. So did Mississippi State. Hogg noted both scores, but told me he couldn’t bring himself to turn on the television.
He did check his phone, though, where his typical post-game exchange with Leach might have been.
“No, ‘Good game coach,’” he said.
“No, ‘Thanks Bubba,’” reply.
Hogg and Leach became good friends. They stayed in touch after Leach traded Pullman for Starkville, Miss. And why not? The men liked to hang out, drink cocktails, eat good food, take trips with their wives, and tell stories.
Did you know Mike Leach collected art?
Hogg told me this week that his friend liked Western art and pieces from the Dr. Seuss collection. Leach loved to talk about the work of Andy Warhol, too. Anyone who has ever heard Leach speak in a casual setting knows the subject matter was never limited: aliens… cowboys… the lunar landing… In-and-Out Burger… Geronimo… so why not art?
Said Hogg: “He liked what made him happy.”
In November of 2020, with the pandemic raging, Hogg drove his RV from Oregon to Mississippi in time for a Saturday night game against Auburn. The game got postponed. So Hogg parked his rig in Leach’s driveway and the two men sat inside that Saturday evening, talking and drinking whiskey.
The house next door happened to be for sale. As the night wore on, Leach tried to convince Hogg to make an offer. It wasn’t happening. But the subject eventually turned to Key West, Fla., where Leach and his wife kept an offseason home. Hogg and his wife bought themselves a second home, just 50 feet away.
“I still am amazed that out of all the people he could have had as a friend that I was one of them,” Hogg told me.
The football coach often didn’t sleep well and loved to text. Hogg said he misses waking to Leach’s 4 a.m. messages. Those close to Leach, and even some who really weren’t, got texts and calls from the coach at odd hours. The last conversation I had with the Leach, in fact, came after midnight his time.
It was one year ago — today.
Leach was walking his dog and dialed me up. His phone calls usually began with “Hey Bubba…” followed by the coach immediately launching into whatever subject happened to be on his mind. In our final call Leach started by talking about his British Labrador.
“She can do anything,” he told me. “It’s pretty cool. Kind of a new adventure. She’ll walk always on your left side, if you insist on it. She’ll fetch anything. The best is watching her swim out in the water and haul all kinds of stuff back.”
On Saturday, Washington State will honor Mike Leach during its home football game against Wisconsin. The student section will receive T-shirts with a pirate design on it. There will be flags in Leach’s honor. The whole week aims to honor the guy who inherited a struggling football program and somehow became the first WSU coach to win 11 games in a season.
Leach was a terrific football coach. His impact on the offensive side of the ball is well documented. It’s particularly interesting because he played rugby — not football — in college at BYU. Later, Leach earned a law degree from Pepperdine. That same guy planted a football coaching tree that now looks like an oak. But Leach didn’t like to talk about X’s and O’s — even with other coaches.
“Everybody would put out the sound bites about getting married or Halloween candy or whatever, but that was just him,” former Washington coach Chris Petersen said this week. “You’d start to have a conversation with just you two or whatever and all of a sudden you’re talking about the best canoes you could buy.”
“He wanted to talk about all kinds of random things, really, as long as it wasn’t about football,” Petersen said. “I don’t think we ever had a conversation about football.”
I loved what WSU coach Jake Dickert said on Monday about Leach’s impact on people. Dickert said, “No one talks about games. They talk about stories. They talk about his presence.”
One night Leach called Hogg and suggested that they should take the RV on the road and travel around the country visiting tourist spots. They’d hit Gettysburg one day, then visit the “World’s Largest Ball of Twine” the next.
Leach even thought they should hire a student from Washington State’s Edward R. Murrow communications program to film the journey and make a documentary. They’d get a full production crew and turn the trip into a project.
“Do you think anyone would watch?” Leach asked.
Hogg shook his head at the absurdity and shot back: “A few might tune in.”
The trip never happened.
I’d have watched. I’ll bet it would have been a hit, too. I suppose it’s one of the gifts Leach offered the world. He always left it wanting more.
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