‘Go be who you are’: Riders’ OC Kelly Jeffery believes Mike Leach’s influence extends beyond the field

Photo courtesy: Mississippi State Athletics

The football world is small, and the coaching world is even smaller.

The coaching community is in mourning following the sudden passing of Mississippi State University head coach Mike Leach on Monday. The man affectionately known as “The Pirate” died of heart complications, according to his family. He was 61.

CFL fans may not know much about Leach, but he has probably influenced every team in the league in one form or another.

In a sport where innovations are usually small tweaks of what has come before, Leach refused to follow that route and called the game his way.

“He’s a guy who believed you could throw a corner route, no matter what the defence was that you were playing,” said new Riders’ offensive coordinator Kelly Jeffery. “He was the first one (to) establish running the mesh concept down in the States and really having everybody try and emulate that.”

Ask just about anyone who has covered a team that Leach coached and they will all tell you the same thing: his playbooks are small but his team works on those plays constantly. When the “air raid” as Leach called it, worked, it was a thing of beauty.

Until this past season, Leach didn’t care much to run the football, opting instead for short passes that got the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly. Another thing that has spread across the world of football, including the CFL.

“I enjoyed talking to (Riders’ running back) Jamal Morrow about playing for Leach and the fact that they had, I think, two run plays in their entire offence and would sling it every down beside besides that,” said Jeffery.

Morrow, who recently signed a contract extension to remain the Riders’ starting running back in 2023, played under Leach at Washington State University from 2014 to 2017. He carried the ball 316 times for 1,795 yards (5.6 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns along with 202 catches for 1,748 yards and 14 touchdowns.

While Leach’s influence on football on the field has been felt for the last 20-plus years, Jeffery feels the two-time NCAA National Coach of the Year’s effect extends beyond the white lines.

“For coaches, he really said go be who you are. If you love pirates and talking about pirates, go swing your sword and make it about that. Not everybody has to be tough. Not everybody has to be (Alabama head coach) Nick Saban,” said Jeffery.

For as much as Leach was one of a kind on the field, he was something else off the field as well, for better or worse.

Leach famously followed raccoon tracks into the forest once to see where the animal lived, just because he wanted to. He talked often about his love for cargo shorts. He’s ranked Halloween candy and even did the weather on TV once during his stint as head coach at Texas Tech University.

The list is almost endless.

Sometimes, Leach got himself into trouble by being a little too quick to throw his players under the bus or making controversial political statements.

Leach was far from perfect and he was complicated. Split Zone Duo’s Alex Kirshner did a good job summing up Leach in a piece for SlateBut, at the end of the day, Leach was true to himself and people loved him for it.

“He’ll be missed as a mentor to so many (and) even (as) indirect mentors to so many in the coaching profession,” said Jeffery.

There will never be another one like the Pirate.

Joel Gasson is a Regina-based sports writer, broadcaster and football fanatic. He is also a beer aficionado.