Sports

‘To Coach!’ Celebrating Mike Leach’s enduring Key West legacy

KEY WEST, Fla. — I was running circles around the bar at Captain Tony’s and I was getting angrier with each lap completed. It had to be there. I knew it was there. But where the hell was it?

It was Monday. Jan. 22, 2024, exactly two weeks after the College Football Playoff national championship game. My wife and I were in Key West. The mission of the getaway was to quiet my college football brain amid the rum-soaked breezes of the southernmost point of the United States.

But in this moment, the mission had changed. Because as has always been the case whenever I am in flip-flops on the streets of the Conch Republic, all I could think about was a college football coach.

Only this time was different.

This was the first time I was in the land of Ernest Hemingway when I knew Mike Leach would not be. There would be no accidental sightings as he glided by on his rusted beach cruiser. No waking up to 3 a.m. texts that read, “Did I see you walking down Duval tonight?” No calls from Pullman or Starkville because he knew I was there and to demand, “Listen, if you are going to stay in that hotel where you do at the end of the street then you have to get in that water and swim because that’s where Tennessee Williams swam every morning.”

None of that was going to happen during this visit because Leach died Dec. 12, 2022. Now, like Hemingway, Williams, Leach’s beloved Jimmy Buffett and all the pirates and rumrunners who fascinated Leach so much that he bought a home in Key West to tap into their spirits, his spirit now floats around the island. As much a part of its atmosphere as key lime and conch fritters.

So yeah, I was desperate to find the spot where I’d last seen him in a location that wasn’t a stadium or press conference podium. The corner seat at Key West’s darkest yet most colorful watering hole, the stool upon which Leach had parked himself so many times that the proprietors decided to paint his name atop the seat. That’s what I was looking for, the dark-wood barstool with the golden block letters: MIKE LEACH.

This week, as his March 9 would-be 63rd birthday approached, I have thought a lot about that January trip and that moment of anxiety, me endlessly walking around and staring at the butts of irritated Captain Tony’s patrons, hoping they might scoot over so I could see what name they were sitting on.

Robert DeNiro … Dan Aykroyd … “Excuse me, ma’am, but could you shift your hips so I could see if … Ok … No… Sorry … That’s Clint Eastwood.”

It was six years ago that Leach called me while sitting at that bar. I asked him what he was drinking and he said it was Crown Apple. Then he spent the next 15 minutes explaining to me that his answer to that question would depend on what time of day or night it was, or even the time of year. “Sometimes, to mix it up, I will just drink tequila,” he said. “I like rum, but I want to make sure there’s enough left for you when you get down here because I know you’re a rum guy. But if I am feeling particularly good, then I will order Brandy Alexanders.”

I told him I didn’t know what that was. He replied, “That’s because you aren’t as fancy as I am.”

“Anyway …” he continued with a laugh pushed through a cough. “These guys were telling me that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in here yesterday and I was thinking, ‘I want to meet that guy and I know a guy who knows these NASCAR guys,’ so, do you have his number?”

I did. I sent it to Leach. They met up. I thought of that moment in January as I kept sifting through barstools and a rather large gentleman stood up to adjust his jorts to reveal the lettering beneath his behind: DALE JR.

It was at this bar atop one of those stools that Leach fell in love with Key West. The story goes that in the early 1990’s, he and boss/brother/mentor/co-creator of the Air Raid offense Hal Mumme were in South Florida on a recruiting trip for their jobs at Iowa Wesleyan, an NAIA football program located 1,700 miles northwest of Key West. During their drive down from Miami, rolling over the blue waters atop the Overseas Highway, they blasted Buffett to get into the mood. Leach particularly loved the song “The Last Mango in Paris,” a biographical tune about a gambler and arms runner-turned-shrimper and businessman named Anthony Tarracino.

Leach being Leach, he started researching Tarracino and learned the former scofflaw had been elected mayor of Key West. Not only that, the man operated a bar just off Duval Street, in a building that was once the city morgue, where pirates were embalmed. Captain Tony’s — named for himself — was built around the Hanging Tree, an oak from which nearly 20 ne’er-do-wells took their final breaths, some buried in the ground directly beneath where the bar now sits, right next to the tree that still grows right through the middle of the room.

“The place across the street, they claim to be where Hemingway used to hang out,” Leach growled to me during a visit to see him at Washington State in 2017, referring to Sloppy Joe’s. “But the place that became Captain Tony’s, this is where Hemingway usually was. Harry Truman went there. John Kennedy went there. So, that’s why I went there. Mumme went to bed that night. We had a meeting with a recruit the next morning. But I sat there, waiting on Tony. And as soon as Hal left, a guy came in and took his seat. It was Tony!”

Captain Tony and Coach Leach became friends. That friendship lasted until Tarracino’s death Nov. 1, 2008.

The friendship made in that bar extended to the man who took over ownership from the Captain, Joe Felder. Leach and Mumme kept coming back, even as their jobs migrated to Valdosta State and Kentucky, and Leach moved on to Oklahoma as an assistant coach and then head coach at Texas Tech. The official reason was a football camp/fundraiser for local Key West athletics, organized by a school administrator named Joe Clements, who eventually became Leach’s best friend. It was there, on America’s southernmost football field, at Key West High School — Go Fighting Conchs! — sitting in metal grandstands rusted by the ocean across the street, that Leach and Mumme brainstormed huge chunks of the pass-happy offense that has slowly taken roots beneath every level football like, well, a live oak growing in the middle of a bar.

“The reality is that Mike loved Key West so much that he found any excuse he could to get down there, even if that meant that we all had to go down there with him,” longtime Leach assistant and current NC State special assistant Ruffin McNeill recalled last year with a laugh. “That’s a place that has always welcomed every kind of unique character with open arms. And there’s never been a more unique character than Mike Leach.”

Unique and imperfect. Every name on every stool, from Hemingway and JFK to Arlo Guthrie and Urban Meyer, came with flaws to go with their fame. Leach certainly did, too. His only full-time residency in the town was between jobs, when he was pushed out of Texas Tech amid an investigation into his treatment of a player with a concussion. As he fought for his career and reputation, he calmed his mind by sitting on the beach and deep sea fishing. Just like Hemingway and Williams. And just as Key West’s characters still do every single day.

This past January, those characters reminded me of Leach, no matter where I went. At the Tipsy Rooster, as a local crooner worked his way through the Buffett catalog, a group of guys rode by on rented bikes, all wearing Texas Tech football jerseys. At the Key West Historic Seaport, where Leach used to host visiting athletic directors in town to interview him for jobs, a woman in a Washington State Cougars T-shirt stood up at the bar and randomly toasted, “To Coach!” and we all knew who she was talking about. Even in a Duval Street boutique called Nu Shuz, amid shelves stocked with bright green floral ankle strap closed-toe high-heeled mules, stars-and-stripes sequined booty shorts and, in the words of the store manager, “everything anyone needs to look fabulous,” there was a sequin-covered clutch purse adorned with the maroon block M logo of the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

“We have other schools, but this one stays out front because I get a lot of requests for that one,” the manager explained. “You know, the coach used to live here.” The manager then recalled an hourlong conversation with Leach about Key West drag shows and that they still catch themselves looking out for him, even though they know he won’t be walking by again.

I knew that, too. But it didn’t stop me from looking. Not at every middle-aged man riding by on a creaky bike. Not as our tour bus went down the street where he and his wife Sharon used to live. Not as we drove by Key West High School headed to and from the airport. And certainly not at Captain Tony’s, where yes, I knew Mike Leach wasn’t going to be sitting on his stool at the bar, but at least I could find the stool, right?

Back at the bar, my wife, tired of watching me run laps, asked the night manager where the seat was. “It isn’t sitting,” he said, directing us past the bar and around the stage where, on Jan. 2, 2023, Captain Tony’s regulars watched Mississippi State’s first game after his death, a ReliaQuest Bowl win over Illinois, as they spent halftime on an open mic sharing their favorite Leach stories. We descended into the lower level and there, between the pool tables, he pointed up. “We had to do this because people kept trying to steal it. And because he belongs there.”

Nailed to the ceiling of Captain Tony’s, at the same altitude where pirates once swung dead and where their ghosts are presumed to float now, hang four barstools.

PAPA HEMINGWAY … HARRY TRUMAN … JOHN F. KENNEDY … MIKE LEACH.

I snapped a couple of bad photos with my phone and excused myself to hit the men’s room. There, I stopped being sad and suddenly started smiling again. There, framed over the toilet was Jimmy Buffett’s hand-scribbled lyrics to “The Last Mango in Paris.”

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.

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