Bottle rockets, flipped cars and law school: The college years that shaped Mike Leach

Dec. 26—STARKVILLE — They were only three blocks from Mike Leach's apartment when the classmate who agreed to give him a ride home started to hesitate.

"I'd better stop here and just let you walk," she told him. "I don't feel comfortable or safe driving any further."

Leach and his wife Sharon had just one car between the two of them.

With Leach hanging around Pepperdine in the mid-1980s preparing for his law school finals, he didn't want his wife constantly making the 30-minute drive to Malibu from their home in Canoga Park.

Leach was used to this drive. But his classmate — a woman from the East Coast, Leach says — not so much.

The view of the southwestern California mountains quickly turned into barred windows and gang writing as they drove down Bassett Street near the Los Angeles River.

"Her heart was beating fast," Leach says.

Leach could have lived in the dorms, but those were designated for students, which Sharon was not. After paying his own tuition, living in Canoga Park was one of few options for Leach.

Coaching football was a dream for Leach, but law school was his fallback.

If it meant living in a Canoga Park apartment — his infant daughter sleeping on a stack of blankets and him sleeping on a pullout couch he can still feel in his back — he'd do it. Whatever it was, he was determined to earn his degree.

Maybe that meant a white-knuckled drive through the city. Leach would do that, too. Even if his peers wouldn't.

"She dropped me off," Leach said with a laugh. "But she never offered to take me home again, though. I'll tell you that."

Football and fireworks fascination

Leach's mind works in creative and, at times, quirky ways. Whether it be on Mississippi State's sidelines or in Pepperdine's classrooms, Leach has a knack for problem-solving.

He attended BYU for his undergraduate studies. As a native of Wyoming, he knew the area's hacks in only a way Leach could.

"Everything from Everclear to fireworks — if it was illegal in other states, Wyoming sells as you're coming or going through the state," Leach said.

Whenever he felt like it, Leach drove from BYU to back home to Wyoming to stock up on fireworks.

He'd pull up to these stores — though stores might be a generous term — and the lights flashed on. A dog on a chain would bark at Leach in the middle of the night as a man in the dead of winter would scramble to put on his pants and boots to open the store.

He brought them back to school, and whether it be once every couple weeks or four times a week if he felt like it, Leach lit up the Provo, Utah, sky and made himself heard.

And this is at BYU, no less — the school where students aren't allowed to have coffee on campus.

He didn't just fire them into the air, though. Leach aimed the occasional bottle rocket at his neighbors' patio door, prompting his peers to walk outside confused and upset about what was going on.

One of those neighbors was Mark Vincent, who ended up as one of Leach's law school classmates at Pepperdine, too.

"Damn, he looks familiar," Leach remembers telling himself when he first saw Vincent in California.

Leach's time at BYU wasn't just spent on mischief. Though his competitive fix came through playing rugby in Provo, Leach studied deeply how BYU coach LaVell Edwards' offense worked.

He collected newspaper clippings and jotted down notes — sometimes motivational ones — about football, baseball and occasionally rugby.

Leach stuffed them in a file he still keeps, though he's not sure which box it's stranded in through his move from Washington to Starkville.

Leach's desire to learn — whether it be about sports, Geronimo or pirates — always stood out to Edwards. And it extended to those Leach though highest of at Pepperdine.

"I've never met anybody who can just talk about anything and on an intellectual and intriguing level," Leach's favorite Pepperdine professor, Janet Kerr, says.

L.A. living

Leach says he grew up in a middle- to upper-class family, but paying for college was something he had to handle on his own.

By the time he finished at Pepperdine and started focusing on coaching, Leach says he owed the federal government about $50,000.

"Which at the time might as well have been $50 million," he says. "Because they were just as likely to get $50 million as they were $50,000."

Sharon worked as a secretary for Pepperdine's athletic director while Leach was earning his law degree.

They lived in that studio apartment in Canoga Park — listening to gunshots throughout the night, even if people were rarely firing at each other — quite the contrast from their nine acres of land in Mississippi now.

"You would come out occasionally and see a stop sign or something full of bullet holes," he says.

A helicopter would wake them up each night as its spotlight shined through their curtains. Leach would often come out on his balcony and see the guy below doing drugs.

Leach's favorite story is when he saw a car — a "fancy Mazda" he later found out was stolen — out front flipped upside down.

As folks went to check on the driver, they informed him the police and fire departments were on their way to help.

"Then, all of a sudden they turn around and the guy is bolting," Leach says.

The thief took off through a fence and down the LA River — which is mainly an empty concrete ditch designed to be used for runoff.

Leach can't help but laugh as he reflects on watching the man sprint away while this car sits with its wheel pointed toward the sky.

"He was hauling ass," Leach said.

Their studio was part of an eight-plex, and Leach had no issue getting along with those living in the building.

Leach and Sharon were often invited to holiday parties. They started to pick up a little Spanish living in a Hispanic-majority neighborhood, though not enough to stick around for the entire party.

Leach was still playing in L.A.'s baseball leagues, so he'd often be outside throwing a ball against the wall. His neighbor's son — a fifth- or sixth-grader, Leach says — would often come outside and join.

"We weren't really in the cliques with (the neighbors), but you'd see each other around," Leach said. "You didn't really hang out, but you're friendly to one another."

From passing class to passing attack

Leach says in a perfect world, had he continued in law he would've wanted to become a product liability plaintiff's attorney.

He wanted to "battle the establishment" and "fight for the little guy."

The irony comes in Kerr being his favorite professor despite teaching a corporate law course — the opposite of what Leach wanted to do — in his second year of law school.

Leach frequented Kerr's office even when she was no longer his professor. Sometimes they'd discuss law school, but often times Kerr encouraged Leach to pursue football.

"Very rarely in life do we really have an extreme passion for things," Kerr says. "We're lucky if we do. Then, when you have the concomitant skills to match that, that's when things that are magical happen."

Ronald Phillips was named Pepperdine School of Law dean in 1970 and served in the role for 27 years before being named senior vice chancellor and school of law dean emeritus in 1997.

Phillips and Leach didn't really know each other until about 2002 when Leach was head coach at Texas Tech and Phillips reached out to him via email. Since then, Phillips has contacted Leach after nearly every game and often been surprised by how quickly Leach responds.

Leach wrote Phillips an email in 2007 where he said while it's hard to pinpoint, he uses his law degree every day through problem-solving skills he developed.

"Anybody who will take the time to do the law study, it gives them an advantage in life," Phillips says. "It helps your analytical skills tremendously."

Leach graduated in the upper 25 percent of his class, but he and his family spent the next decade bouncing around small college football jobs while struggling to make ends meet. His classmates, Leach says, were concerned with tax shelters and buying condos.

Yet it was Leach — the kid who diagramed football plays during law classes — getting envious messages from former classmates who wish they had followed a career they were more passionate about.

And they got to see Leach's passion for football in a way unlike most.

On Fridays, Leach left Canoga Park for the Malibu glamor and a weekly 7-on-7 football game with his classmates. The games weren't pretty, but law students compete against each other every day for class rank.

Football was just a more fun form of competition for them.

They played on the same field that now hosts commencement, where Leach spoke in 2019 as distinguished alumnus of the year.

Vincent was part of these gridiron battles as he got to connect with Leach. Though they'd play, Vincent wasn't aware of Leach's interest in coaching but one thing did stand out.

"We would talk about LaVell Edwards at BYU and the passing attack," Vincent said. "(Leach) was pretty bright with regards to what was going on, which surprised me. Most of us just knew the quarterback threw the ball. He understood it to a much greater depth."

STEFAN KRAJISNIK is the Mississippi State athletics reporter for the Daily Journal. Contact him at