Thad Balkman has fond memories of meeting up with Mike Leach at a local restaurant for long talks over lunch or dinner.
It was the college football coach’s version of a Latter-day Saint home teaching visit.
“We had some great conversations on our common background of the law and sports, but he was just the most fascinating, interesting guy,” Balkman said.
Balkman, who now serves as a district judge in Oklahoma, joined the sports world Tuesday in offering memories, condolences and tributes to Leach following the football coach’s death Monday evening.
The two men met when Leach was hired as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Oklahoma Sooners in 1999. They were both members of the same congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Balkman was serving as the elders quorum president then and as a football fan, said he took the liberty of assigning himself as Leach’s home teacher.
Balkman described his home teaching visits with Leach as “unconventional.” Home teaching usually took place in a member’s home. Leach preferred O’Connell’s, a popular sports bar/grill near the OU campus.
“Because of his job, hours and stuff, he said the best place to catch me is at O’Connell’s. Everybody knew coach Leach. He was a regular there,” Balkman said. “We would have great free-range conversations. We both went to law school — he went to Pepperdine, I went to OU. I’m a BYU grad and love football. ... He would expound on history. Everybody knows he loves pirates. He had such a broad range of history and he was pretty opinionated. I don’t want to breach too much confidentiality, but he definitely had opinions on celebrities, politicians and other people. It was fun talking to him and getting his perspective.”
One time Leach took Balkman up to his office in the football facility. Leach had a huge whiteboard that covered almost the entire wall.
“It looked like a mad professor’s formulas, X’s and O’s all over with arrows pointing. I suppose they were diagrams of plays he was conjuring up,” Balkman said. “But it was clear he was a mastermind of offense. He was just such an unconventional thinker, not just the way he approached offense, but his approach to life. He was a renaissance man.”
They rarely discussed faith and religion, but Balkman said Leach occasionally attended Latter-day Saint worship services. His wife and kids attended church meetings every week and his son served a mission.
“I think he had a lot of respect for the faith,” Balkman said. “I don’t think he ever shied away from letting people know he was a member.”
Following the 1999 season, Leach was hired as the head coach at Texas Tech and moved to Lubbock. But the occasional visits continued over the telephone. They lost touch when Leach took the job at Washington State.
While Leach made football fun and exciting for so many to watch, what Balkman will remember most is their friendship.
“Everybody knows the football side of him, but he was a friend who took an interest in others, wanted to know others and share opinions,” Balkman said. “I’ve home taught a lot of people but there’s very few who after they move away, we still keep in contact. We had that kind of bond and enjoyed it.”