KEY WEST − Joey Faber, the owner of Capt. Tony’s Saloon, one of the most famous landmarks in a town filled with them, knew it was time.
The mourning period for Mike Leach, the head coach at Mississippi State and one of Key West’s most beloved figures, had entered its next phase. The bar stool bearing Leach’s name had been removed from the stage. As had the memorial candle. And the symbolic drink preferred by Leach – grape vodka and water.
It was time to find a spot in the ceiling to hang that stool.
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Faber looked at the empty spot to the right of the stool that honors Ernest Hemingway and to the left of stools with the names of two U.S. Presidents, John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman.
“I really think we have to stick a guy like Mike between Hemingway and two presidents,” Faber said that day. “I know he can tell better stories than Hemingway and is a lot smarter than Kennedy and Truman.
“Ironically, they’re all big liberals.”
Leach, a die-hard conservative, would have approved.
Capt. Tony’s, a legendary hangout located just feet from another famous Key West landmark, Duval Street, was Leach’s favorite spot to tell stories. The 171-year-old building was a morgue, cigar factory and bordello, among other businesses, back in the day. It is where Jimmy Buffett got his start and Hemingway came to drink. It’s the site of the original Sloppy Joe’s and is famously known for its bar stools stamped with the names of iconic people who regularly occupied them such as Bob Dylan, Ted Kennedy, Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, Dan Marino and, of course, Mike Leach.
Monday, with Mississippi State playing its first game since Leach died at the age of 61 after suffering a heart attack, Capt. Tony’s became a place for those to do what Leach did best after walking the half mile from his home to Capt. Tony’s.
And nothing pleased Leach more than telling stories.
“We talked about Geronimo, pirates, the bar being haunted, Shel Silverstein, Hunter Thompson,” said Faber, who has owned the bar since purchasing it from Tony Tarracino, Captain Tony, in 1988.
One thing they rarely talked about … football.
“Anything you want to talk about Mike has the knowledge to pick it up,” said Jerry Hughes, a longtime high school football coach. “Sometimes he just threw me a curveball and I didn’t know what the hell he was saying.
“But we never really talked a lot about football.”
Except of course when Hughes saw Leach sitting on his bike at Key West High. Hughes, then the football coach, was conducting a practice. Hughes approached Leach and invited him to help out. The next day Leach – who was between jobs after being fired from Texas Tech in 2009 – was coaching the Key West High quarterbacks.
Stories about the storyteller at Capt. Tony’s
Capt. Tony’s was filling up by the time Mississippi State kicked off against Illinois in the ReliaQuest Bowl, a game filled with tributes to Leach, who took over the program in 2020 after eight years at Washington State.
At the end, after the Bulldogs’ come-from-behind, dramatic 19-10 win, the place erupted.
With reminders of Leach all around – the barstool, a Mississippi State cowbell, the autographed Washington State and Mississippi State helmets, the four posters sitting under the big screen – the stories flowed as freely as the drinks.
Heather and Chris Baranzyk, Texas Tech grads, made the trip from Austin. They remember the night in 2016 when they first met Leach at Capt. Tony’s. They talked until the bar closed, then walked Duval Street eating a cheesesteak sandwich until the sun rose.
“Seeing them meet for the first time brought me to tears,” Heather said.
Allie and Ty Saathoff were students at Washington State when Leach coached there. Allie worked at the school but did not get to know Leach until meeting him at Capt. Tony’s.
“It means so much to see the people of Key West come out,” she said. “It was a big loss for our community.”
All kinds of people, like Joe Carter, a professional body painter who toured with Ozzie Osbourne, worked Woodstock ’99 and now is the go-to guy in Key West during Fantasy Fest.
Leach once told Carter he wished he could live his carefree type of life.
Carter never slapped a Mississippi State logo on Leach’s body, but he did travel to Starkville this year with Joe Weed and Andrew Lint, all from Key West, for the Arkansas game. They brought Leach a bottle of Papa’s Pilar Rum and watched college football games with the coach from his home that night.
‘Pretty damn crazy cool’
Captain Tony Tarracino was larger than life in Key West. A boat captain, gambler, the mayor of Key West. He could tell stories and connect to people like few could.
Captain Tony died in 2008 at the age of 92. His place, not only in the bar that bears his name but on the streets, was taken by Mike Leach, who lived part-time in Key West for more than two decades.
“We would walk down Duval Street,” Faber said. “A normal walk that would take five minutes would take 45 because he would stop and take pictures and talk to everybody.”
Billy Schott, from Austin, was the kicker at the University of Texas from 1972-74. Wearing a Mississippi State shirt and hat given to him by Leach – and a patch that read ‘COACH LEACH’ with a skull and cross swords – Schott met Leach while he was officiating an Iowa Wesleyan game in the early ’90s when Leach was on the staff.
“He had the white-boy ‘fro and just yapped,” Schott said.
That friendship spanned more than three decades. When asked what kind of things they talked about, Schott didn’t hesitate “We always talked about what’s the best flip flops. We compared notes about flip flops. And we both loved cargo shorts.”
Flip flops. Cargo shorts. Geronimo. Pirates. Gonzo journalists.
No subject was off limits for Mike Leach.
“Everybody came here to see him and take pictures with the stool,” Weed said. “He had a full appreciation for life and other people’s interests.
“He was pretty damn crazy cool.”