Saturday’s Bahamas Bowl game between UAB and Miami Ohio didn’t feature an Air Raid offense. The post-game press conference didn’t contain any pirate references. And there certainly weren’t any swords to be swung inside Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium.
But the Miami Ohio football program found a way to honor former Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach in the first bowl game of the season, just four days after the 61-year-old football coach passed away from a massive heart attack. The Redhawks adorned the back of their helmets with stickers bearing his name and the “Fly The Flag” Mid-American Conference football motto.
You might ask yourself, what do the MAC and Mike Leach have in common? What ties do the Redhawks have to a BYU grad from Susanville, California?
Well, a pirate flag for one.
“I was actually at a dinner with executive director of the Bahamas Bowl Lea Miller-Tooley, Pete Derzis from ESPN and MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher and I just started thinking about the intersections of the pirate flag, Coach Leach and his history as well as the MAC’s history and everybody was like ‘hey, let’s connect the dots,’” explained Miami Ohio Athletic Director David Saylor. “That’s kind of where it started.”
Tangential dinner conversation about pirates and history is the perfect place to begin when envisioning a tribute to the loquacious Leach.
“We were just talking about Coach Leach and talking about how this is the first bowl game and maybe we should do something to honor him,” explained Steinbrecher. “And then we kind of went off on this tangent about a tradition I started, trying to build comradery in the conference - every time we have a non-conference FBS win, we do this thing called ‘Fly The Flag’ and we developed the MAC pirate flag. It was kind of a neat link. So, David said maybe we can incorporate that and Miami Ohio took it and ran with it.”
Ran with it both figuratively and literally, as Saylor immediately turned to associate athletic director Darrell Hallberg after dinner Wednesday night for help turning this inspired idea into a reality for the game. Hallberg went into two-minute drill mode. First, he made a call to a design company back in Ohio explaining his vision. He received the logo 45 minutes later and then worked with the amazing Bahamas Bowl staff to find a local printer. Before giving DigiPrint & Signs Bahamas Ltd. the go ahead, Hallberg checked with Mississippi State to make sure they were ok with it. The Bulldogs community was of course honored. The stickers were printed, the helmets were adorned and the Pirate on the Palouse was properly honored.
“To honor Coach Leach, to honor college football, to represent our conference, why not?” said Hallberg of the whirlwind mission. “If I can do it, I’m going to do it. I’m going to pull it off.”
It was a lot of work for a man he never met. But Mike Leach had that effect on people, both those who knew him and those who watched him from afar.
“I have no personal connection to him other than reading his book,” admitted Hallberg. “And his interviews are great. He’s just a unique individual that I’ve not heard a bad word about from anyone.”
I’m truly convinced that everyone has a Mike Leach story. Even UAB interim head coach Bryant Vincent shared a Leach memory with the media after the Blazers 24-20 win over Miami Ohio.
“I was a student assistant football coach at the University of West Alabama under Bobby Johns and we were running the triple option and Hal Mumme and Leach and all those guys come in and beat us like 62-6 and they were throwing it all over the field,” said Vincent. “I’ll never forget as an offensive guy I said ‘you know what, that’s what I want to do. I wanna do that, I wanna learn that.’ They broke the mold with the air raid back in that day and they set the tone…he’s one of a kind and he did it his way and you gotta repect that.”
This year’s Bahamas Bowl was supposed to be a run-heavy grudge match between two teams that boast physical backs. But instead, fans watched UAB wide receiver and Bahamas Bowl Offensive Player of the Game Trae Shropshire haul in 183 yards off of just six catches as well as one touchdown. They saw Dylan Hopkins throw for over 200 yards and utilize seven different receivers. They witnessed a combined average of 12.8 yards per completion, a number that would have made Leach proud.
“What was undeniable was his influence on the game and how it changed the game and how it really opened it up,” said Steinbrecher. “It’s hard to do those things – you’ve got to be willing to stick your neck out. His legacy will live on in this game for eons just because of how he helped evolve it.”
After the game, Miami Ohio head coach Chuck Martin sent out a call to action for other teams this bowl season to join the fray, swing their swords and honor the man who changed college football for better and for always.
“Hopefully the challenge is out, like the Ice Bucket challenge – everybody come up with a cool way to honor Mike Leach,” proclaimed Martin. “It was cool to wear something to honor a guy that made college football what it is, made it great every day of his life.”