STARKVILLE, Miss. — The first time Mike Leach arrived at the seafood and soul food restaurant called WTF, he ordered the honey gold chicken wings a certain way.
“Extra crispy,” he told Shan Suber, the owner and head chef.
“Extra crispy?” Suber said. “That’s the way I like my wings, too!”
Since that meeting in 2020, Leach, the former Mississippi State football coach, and Suber, a Black single mom from the Mississippi Delta, grew close. Their relationship evolved into a friendship, and Leach went from frequent client to confidant.
Suber cooked for him and his friends at the coach’s home, hosted them for parties at her restaurant and drank with them deep into the night, as Leach loved to do—the stories and spirits flowing. He especially liked her Dungeness crab, lobster tails, salmon and those extra-crispy wings.
“Best cook in Starkville, Mississippi!” Leach once exclaimed on a video posted to social media.
On a day when the Starkville people, the Mississippi State community and the college football nation remembered the coach, a little-known business owner in this tiny town reveals a story about Leach one week after his death.
He saved her restaurant.
“I was down to the wire. I was going into debt,” Suber recalls. “He helped us stay open. I’m forever grateful.”
Given post-COVID-19 inflation and a lack of workers, Suber was on the cusp of closing the business in September when Leach learned of the news, came to the restaurant one day and wrote her a check. She wishes to keep the amount private, but it covered her bills and lease for at least a couple of months.
“We were hanging on by a thread. I didn’t ask for anything,” she says. “He willingly did that. I don’t know why he chose me.”
Suber was amid the crowd who gathered at Humphrey Coliseum on Tuesday for a memorial to celebrate the coach’s life. He died of heart-related complications Dec. 13 in news that rocked the college football world.
Some of the industry’s most high-profile figures attended the gathering on Mississippi State’s campus, including USC coach Lincoln Riley, Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, former Kentucky coach Hal Mumme, Houston coach Dana Holgorsen and TCU coach Sonny Dykes. Former Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew, a native Mississippian, paid tribute to the coach with a speech, as did Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey.
They remembered a quirky, eccentric man, known off the field for his fascination with life and on the field for a pass-heavy offense that revolutionized football.
As the memorial opened Tuesday, a familiar and fitting tune played over the speakers at Humphrey Coliseum: Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Those close to Leach describe the way he lived his life to the song’s very lyrics.
“He was truly one of a kind,” Stoops told the crowd. “A deep thinker. An independent thinker. Bold enough to always do it his way, regardless of how unconventional it was.”
Mumme launched into a story about the founding of the Air Raid offense, which happened in 1991 during a road trip to Florida with Leach. The trip ended with both men belly up at a Key West bar in what became Leach’s favorite spot: Captain Tony’s Saloon.
During the memorial, a video from country singer Toby Keith played on the jumbotron. “He’s a guy you wanted to have a beer with!” Keith boomed of his friend Leach.
The event was streamed live on SEC Network. That didn’t stop Minshew from dropping a curse word to a cackling audience—indicative of his mentor and former coach. “He really didn’t give a f— what people thought,” Minshew said. “He definitely wasn’t politically correct. That was him. You respect that.”
A night crawler, Leach was notorious for phoning friends late and keeping them on the line well past their bedtimes. “Let’s reach out and call each other after midnight every once in a while in Mike’s honor,” Stoops told the crowd.
Leach was a curious man who was interested in a great number of topics. From the U.S. economy to grizzly bears, from the Navajo to Geronimo. Gary O’Hagan, Leach’s longtime agent and good friend, often fielded peculiar calls from the coach.
“He’d ask me three or four times a year, ‘You think there’s a Loch Ness monster? How about Bigfoot?’” O’Hagan recalls. “Mike Leach wanted to believe in those things. He wanted to believe that anything is possible. He was going to live his life like anything is possible.”
It was a gray day in Starkville. Clouds dropped sprinkles of rain amid chilly temperatures. At the gates of Davis Wade Stadium, two folding tables held dozens of flowers and gifts left in memory of the coach: a message scribbled on a cowbell; an empty bottle of bourbon; a tin of Copenhagen snuff, which was Leach’s favorite.
Behind the gates, a maroon pirate flag flapped in the wind.
Inside the Coliseum, white flowers and photos graced the stage, as well as the glistening Egg Bowl trophy, which Leach captured in his last act as coach—a 24–22 upset of Ole Miss.
“There’s a ballgame going on in heaven,” said Stoops, who hired Leach as his offensive coordinator while at Oklahoma. “It’s fourth-and-2 on his own 40, and you know he’s going for it.”
A day before the memorial, Suber, 38, opened her restaurant—closed Mondays—for a reporter. She pointed to the walk-up window where Leach ordered those extra-crispy wings in their first meeting during the pandemic. He became such a regular that year that Suber would let him into the restaurant despite COVID-19 restrictions.
The restaurant is located along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, in an area of Starkville that is somewhat removed from the downtown scene, the brightly lit bars of the Cotton District and the rolling hills of campus.
Suber claims to be one of very few Black women to own a restaurant in the area. She learned to cook from her grandmother Mattie while growing up in the Delta town of Greenville. She opened WTF in 2015 with intentions of being different—hence the name. WTF stands for Where the Food. Her signage and themes are built for sharing on social media. In fact, when she opened, she mandated every customer post at least five photos of their food onto social platforms.
Her signage includes an “@” at the end of WTF.
“Where the Food At,” she says. “When he walked up the first time, I told Mike, ‘You’ve found the food, coach!’”
He found a friend as well. Leach immediately gave Suber his number and the two began a texting relationship, which evolved into a close friendship that went beyond food. She even weighed in on his coaching decisions. She recalls once telling him, “They’re going to drop eight guys, and you need to run the damn ball!”
In many ways, Suber introduced Leach to Starkville culture and food. She refers to Leach as “top-shelf tequila.”
“He’s the good stuff,” she laughs. “Mike came around and talked to the town people. He wanted to get to know the town and the people of Starkville.”
Suber and Leach grew close despite having differing political backgrounds. Suber is a 38-year-old Democrat, while the 61-year-old Leach supported former president Donald Trump. Suber says she doesn’t allow political ideals to impact her personal relationships.
Neither did Leach. “He had time for anyone at any time,” Stoops said during the ceremony.
However, Leach developed a perception because of his brash nature, friendship with Trump and his loose words, especially on social media.
In the spring of 2020, the coach took heat for posting a meme on Twitter that depicted a woman knitting a noose. Suber asked him about it. “It was a joke,” she says.
“O.K., so he’s a Trump supporter. That’s his choice. Everyone has a choice,” she says. “It didn’t mean he’s a bad person. We bonded over food. I don’t give a f— what people think. Excuse my French!”
In September, when word got to Leach that Suber planned to close WTF, he wrote her that check. He never asked to be repaid.
Today, the restaurant is doing fine, but it’s still a struggle. Because of labor issues, she’s open only four days a week compared to six days. She’s made about $200,000 in sales this year. Last year, she made $750,000.
Suber never knew Leach was sick. She regularly catered massive meals at his home. In fact, she cooked for Leach and friends as recently as a month ago. She and assistant Gege Wells served lamb chops, salmon, lobster tails and stuffed shrimp.
“He never showed any sickness or said anything. He was battling it internally,” Suber says. “I didn’t think Mike was going to die. It’s still unbelievable.”
However, several people at Mississippi State knew. The coach had endured pneumonia-like conditions for much of the season. They were so severe that staff members suggested he take time off. He refused.
After the season, he made at least one trip to Houston to visit doctors, those close to him say. But no one expected what happened Dec. 11, when paramedics were called to his home for cardiac and breathing issues. Leach was later airlifted to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, where a day later he died.
“We were just with this man making plans to cook Christmas dinner!” Wells says. “We are shook.”
In history’s eyes, Leach will be remembered mostly as the man who spread the Air Raid offense across the sport, who tutored some of the best quarterbacks and led remote places to big wins. Here in Starkville, he helped revive Mississippi State’s offense and brought excitement to Davis Wade Stadium.
But about two miles from campus, tucked in a more forgotten part of this tiny town, there is a restaurant where his legacy endures through honey gold chicken wings.