Sitting in a crowded bar with my former boss in Springfield, Massachusetts in the winter of 2006, I turned my head to see what the commotion was all about.
The patrons at this particular establishment — many of which were boosters and fans of the recently-crowned National Champion Winona State University men’s basketball team — were cheering loudly as WSU’s head coach, Mike Leaf, walked through the door.
Stopping for hugs, handshakes and a quick conversation with just about every person in the building, Leaf sifted his way through the crowd and eventually made his way to the seat directly to my left. At the time I was just a 22-year-old college senior lucky enough to be asked to help chronicle the Warriors’ incredible postseason journey. It was my first major assignment as a sports reporter and here I was, 1,211 miles from home shooting the breeze with a man who had just captured the ultimate prize in his profession a mere four hours before.
I learned that Leaf was also a Saint Mary’s University alum and we talked about how the campus had evolved in the two decades since his graduation in 1983. We talked about how he recruited “Division I basketball players that wanted to play Division II” and how much he learned in the three months prior during what was a magical 2006 campaign.
That night left a huge impression on me for a long, long time. As Leaf’s prominence blossomed over the next three years — a span that included a national-record 57-game winning streak, two national title game appearances and one more D-II championship — I often found myself reminiscing about that night in Springfield.
On Monday, I found myself thinking about Mike Leaf again, only this time it was with profound sadness. At the age of just 58, he died of liver failure in Winona.
Leaf’s passing comes with a mixture of sentiments and reactions from the regional and national landscape. He was a complicated person with an even more complicated legacy.
No one can argue his coaching acumen and ability to lead a relatively high-profile program to national prominence. In 16 years at the helm, he guided the Warriors to an incredible .726 winning-percentage. According to the school’s official athletics web site: “During Leaf’s tenure at Winona State, three Warriors have been named the NCAA Division II Player of the Year while 11 have been selected as All-Americans. On five different occasions a Warrior has been named the NSIC’s Player of the Year while the league’s Defensive Player of the Year has been from Winona State seven times. Winona State has also been a postseason constant, advancing to the NCAA Tournament 10 times. Four times the Warriors have reached the NCAA Central Region championship game, each time emerging victorious. WSU has advanced to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2013.”
So, yeah, he knew what he was doing when it came to recruiting and assembling talent. In fact, a great deal of his front-line players either transferred from Division I programs or were heavily recruited to play at college’s highest level.
Unfortunately, the story of Mike Leaf cannot be told without mentioning some of his major internal struggles and a sad fall from grace.
After 26 total seasons with the program, Leaf abruptly retired in June of 2015 after it was reported that he made unwanted sexual advances toward one of his players. It was a shocking and bizarre final chapter to what had previously been a quintessential story of a hometown boy making it big.
According to the Winona Daily News, one of his players “spent an afternoon and evening with Leaf during which the former coach drank alcohol on several occasions, and served the player, who is older than 18, alcoholic drinks at Leaf’s house. Later in the evening he allowed the player to leave his house after trying to stop him, only to follow him to his apartment, lead him back to his house, and touch the player multiple times while the player was lying in Leaf’s bed, according to the player. All of the advances were unwanted, the player said.”
Almost immediately following his resignation, rumors swirled that Leaf not only pursued one of his players in a sexual manner, but would on occasion show up to shootarounds intoxicated and leaned heavily on his two full-time assistants to galvanize the team when he was nursing a hangover. These reports of drunken practice sessions were never officially confirmed to my knowledge, but once the rumors leaked into the consciousness of a town of roughly 27,000, Leaf was never the same. He had gone from a hero to a pariah almost overnight.
Liver failure is often associated with alcohol abuse, and there’s a good chance Leaf’s drinking increased after his retirement.
Partially due to the fact that I moved away from Winona, I never talked to Leaf outside of a professional setting after that night in Springfield, and I guess I’m glad I didn’t.
I’d rather remember the man that took the time to make a 22-year-old part-time sports reporter feel important, at least for a couple hours.