KEY WEST, Fla. — The flame of a Key lime pie-scented candle flickers on an otherwise empty stage. Jimmy Buffett used to play for free beers at this 171-year-old morgue-turned-saloon, and surrounding the long bar at Captain Tony’s are the wooden stools marked for regulars: Walter Cronkite, Ted Kennedy, David Allan Coe.
The one onstage is stamped with MIKE LEACH, and just hours after Mississippi State University announced that its 61-year-old football coach had died of complications of a heart condition, Leach’s bar stool has become a shrine of sorts. Staffers have been told it is not to be moved. Occasionally patrons bring it drinks. Design Plastic Chair
“I feel miserable,” says Joe Felder, the bar’s owner and Leach’s longtime drinking buddy and debate partner, so broken up over Leach’s death that he hasn’t responded to his staff’s texts or calls all day. “I really can’t believe he’s gone.”
This was the coach’s favorite haunt in his favorite town, a place he fled to often, when he would get worn down by the grind of college football and tired of debating and just needed to disappear. He could jump on his bicycle and ride from his cozy bungalow to his bar stool at Captain Tony’s in three minutes flat. He would sit among the signed bras draped over a pipe, the dollar bills stapled to the wall, downing Crown Apple until closing time. Sometimes he would mix it up by ordering nothing but tequila. When he was feeling aristocratic, as the man who forever changed the way football teams play offense, he would spend all night drinking Brandy Alexanders.
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On this somber evening, a guitarist near the door is doing his level best to cheer people up. When somebody requests Buffett, he lets it rip on Leach’s favorite.
He said, "I ate the last mango in Paris
Took the last plane out of Saigon
Took the first fast boat to China
And, Jimmy, there's still so much to be done.”
The song is a biography of Captain Tony himself, the late Anthony Tarracino, a shrimper and a gambler and a gunrunner who ran for mayor of Key West and won. He would sit here telling the wildest stories, talking for hours about some inane skill he mastered, another odd topic into which he had turned himself into an expert.
There was an air of mythology in everything Captain Tony said, this silent acknowledgment he was probably full of it — that it’s not really Buffett’s handwritten first draft of “Last Mango” tacked up in the men’s room — but it was fun all the same to listen, suspend disbelief and just go on the adventure with him.
Leach and Hal Mumme were recruiting South Florida in 1990 when the song became the unofficial fight song of Iowa Wesleyan’s football program. They probably listened to it 10 times between Orlando and Key West, singing along loudly every time, and the first thing they did was go to Captain Tony’s and wait for the man himself to walk in. Mumme drank his fill and left — they did have a recruit to meet the next morning, after all — but Leach stayed, kept getting refills and talking to regulars, and you know who assumed Mumme’s bar stool right after he left? Captain Tony!
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“You missed it,” Leach announced to his boss over one of their red-eye breakfasts. “You’re going to be so jealous.”
That was the best part of those trips, along with Mumme and Leach trying to hack a game that had been played largely the same way for a century. Nobody wanted to throw the ball in the early ’90s. That was borderline irresponsible, especially at a backwater program such as Iowa Wesleyan, which hadn’t won a game in three years. But what if it wasn’t?
Over the sound of dripping pipes in the basement of the basketball gym, the two simplified Bill Walsh’s complex West Coast offense, then simplified it some more. A quarterback needn’t be a future all-pro who could look off four receivers before finding the fifth. He just needed to read a defense’s pre- and post-snap keys and, regardless of how many wideouts were on the field, throw it to one or two of them. They installed concepts that, three decades later, are in every playbook in America, whether the game is played on Friday nights or Sunday afternoons: “Four Verticals,” “mesh,” “stick,” each designed to take advantage not of players, exactly, but the spaces that players cannot possibly cover.
“What we’re talking about is not beating football. It’s beating defenses,” Mumme said not long ago. “But how long can a system survive? Well, ours, it’s survived since 1989.”
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Mumme may have been the attack’s Steve Wozniak, but Leach was its Steve Jobs. He would call reporters in Iowa and, later, at Valdosta State and Kentucky to preview what they would see on Saturdays. Watch how disruptive it is. Think about how simple and accessible and teachable it is. Leach called it the “Air Raid,” and though he could go on about it for hours, it was really just something so different, so weird, that you had to come out and see for yourself.
Then again, that was true of Leach, too. When Bob Stoops wanted to hire Leach at Oklahoma, Mumme told him it was best to avoid a phone call with Leach. He might carry on about growing up in Wyoming as the son of a forest ranger or what he learned graduating in the top quarter of his law school class at Pepperdine. Maybe he would regale Stoops about the leadership of the Apache leader Geronimo, on whom Leach would later co-author a book.
“In his meetings,” former Kentucky assistant coach Tony Franklin said, “he might talk for 45 minutes about horse racing and five minutes on receiver play.”
Maybe he’d confess to staying out until 3 or 4 a.m., showing up at work around 3 p.m., or slip up and admit the Kentucky staff used to lure offensive linemen out of the bars with a stack of Sharon Leach’s famous peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
No, better to just come watch Leach at one of Kentucky’s football practices and try to disregard that he feels just as strongly about cargo shorts and sandals as he does the Russian Revolution.
Stoops watched as Leach conducted his orchestra, the way it emphasized speed on the edges of the field and confusion in the center. Defensive linemen couldn’t cover slot receivers, and linebackers weren’t big enough to bring down the nimble oxen that were Kentucky’s tight ends. Stoops hired him, and a year later — after transforming the Sooners’ offense into one that would win the national championship in 2000 — Leach was named head coach at Texas Tech.
It’s not easy getting from Lubbock to Key West, but that didn’t stop Leach. In fact, that’s where members of the Red Raiders’ coaching staff took their annual retreat after national signing day, always staying in the same house, always fishing for their dinner, Leach always dragging them to the same damn bar, just in case Captain Tony strolled in so they could feel what Leach felt. One year a young assistant quietly asked whether they could switch it up next year, and the coach exploded.
“Never seen him get madder,” says Ruffin McNeill, a former Texas Tech defensive coordinator who spent a decade on Leach’s staff.
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Pub loyalty was just one of the roughly 8 trillion things Leach was passionate about, and recent days have been filled with memorials posted to social media about his curiosity, humanity and persistence. He once thought of a question that only one person could answer, so he spent a few hours working his way up the White House staff telephone directory until, finally, he was connected to George W. Bush’s private secretary.
“You can talk about a ceiling fan with him,” McNeill says, “and it may be a two-hour conversation.”
Sonny Dykes, a former Leach assistant who’s now the coach at TCU, says he once stood between watering holes on Sixth Street in Austin while Leach debated classic TV westerns — “Bonanza” vs. “Big Valley” — for two hours with a homeless man.
“People thought he was drunk,” Dykes would recall in an interview last year, “but that’s just how he was. You almost give up on him at times.”
And Leach might dare you to do just that. He was set in his ways, about everything, and could be labeled selfish and myopic. He’d stay up watching cowboy movies (he preferred “Rio Bravo” to “Unforgiven”) and sometimes showed up at work at noon. He turned iconoclasm into performance art, which could be in conflict with his deep-seated need to be taken seriously by those he deemed legitimate: from law school to declaring himself a candidate for so many jobs while at Texas Tech that the university once tried to write into Leach’s contract that other schools had to request permission before interviewing him, common practice in the NFL but virtually unprecedented in the college game.
He befriended Donald Trump in the most Leach way possible, having read “The Art of the Deal” but coming away from it with questions. So he called the phone number on the back of the book and eventually showed up at Trump Tower. When Trump was elected president in 2016, Leach texted his congratulations with an offer to be his “secretary of offense.”
Friends say it just didn’t occur to Leach that such a relationship might be divisive. Or that his 2020 retweet of a meme featuring a noose might be offensive, particularly to residents in Mississippi. Or that locking Adam James, the son of former football star Craig James, in an equipment shed in 2009 was an inappropriate form of punishment. The latter got Leach fired at Texas Tech, and the first thing he did was move into the three-bedroom house in Key West he bought three months earlier. The second was sue Texas Tech, a case that remains active more than a dozen years later.
Leach abandoned most all of his belongings in Lubbock and didn’t even take a car to Key West. The family walked most everywhere and took a taxi to and from the grocery store. He would ride his rusty beach cruiser to church and the bar — where Leach was presented with a bar stool shortly after his firing from Texas Tech — and meetings at the marina for his next job. Within five minutes of his interview with former Washington State athletic director Bill Moos, Leach was opining about Winston Churchill and the mechanics of snowblowers amid the rigors of Wyoming winters.
“What have I arrived at here?” Moos would recall wondering. But he hired him anyway, knowing Leach was perfect for a place such as Pullman.
Leach spent news conferences talking about aliens and walked reporters past a graveyard while discussing his theories about the existence of ghosts. He kept a life-size talking pirate statue in his office. He interrupted one interview by casually speaking into a drive-through speaker, prompting a few friends and former colleagues to wonder whether the Mike Leach persona had overtaken the man himself.
“There’s this chip on his shoulder, and it’s the gist of: We just want to win in football. We don’t give a s--- how it’s done,” Dykes said. “If our guy is a little bit nutty, that just makes it a little more fun. They want somebody who’s going to kiss babies and raise money, and Mike’s not going to do any of that.”
In late 2020, Leach met two administrators from another major program in an airport meeting room. It was early afternoon, so the group just left the window open and never turned on the lights. But Leach went Leach, pivoting from having a remarkable program turnaround at Washington State that produced four consecutive winning seasons to the outlook for the BYU men’s rugby team.
“You can literally watch his face,” one of the administrators would recall. “ ‘S---, he just took a turn.’ ”
Hours passed, the sun went down, and the administrators kept hoping Leach — sitting closest to the light switch — would flip on the lights. Or just acknowledge that it had gotten so dark they couldn’t see each other. Leach just kept talking, and when he stopped, the two men across from him heard some shuffling as Leach said nothing more and walked out. He was not hired.
“One minute he’s talking football; the next he’s talking pirates. Not everybody can handle that. Most people can’t handle that,” the administrator said. “I just didn’t think our fan base would be willing to lose by 30 and then have him talk about SpongeBob or whatever.”
A short time later, Mississippi State hired Leach. He installed the same offense he perfected decades earlier. He did media interviews. He got to know the town, and outsiders contemplated whether the SEC, with its prestige and money, represented the legitimacy he long sought.
After a few days, he was looking at flights from Mississippi to Key West. There was a bar stool with his name on it and a song playing in his head.
I went down to Captain Tony's to get out of the heat
When I heard a voice call out to me, “Son, come have a seat”
I had to search my memory as I looked into those eyes
Our lives change like the weather, but a legend never dies
Style Furniture A cold snap was passing through eastern Mississippi, and with a new staff already behind on recruiting, Leach told himself he belonged on the road. Besides, he had access to Mississippi State’s private jet. He told people there was a player in Florida he needed to go see. Might as well stop in Key West while he was at it, maybe get a taste or two at the saloon, and then lock in and get serious about this new job.