Eccentric Pirate, Offensive Innovator: Remembering the Genius of Mike Leach
Reflecting on the legacy and impact of one of modern college football’s most fascinating minds
Parity is a term that you hear in the sports world all the time. The idea is that any team could become a winner, where the roadblocks to becoming dominant and great can be overcome. This is the case in professional sports such as the NFL and NHL. But then other sports operate oppositely, college football is such a sport. College football, particularly at the highest level, is a sport of haves and have-nots. You can count on one hand the truly dominant schools in the sport. And these dominant institutions will often get the best players ensuring their continued success.
But sometimes, some players and coaches end up at smaller schools and they have a spark that puts the smallest of dents in the armor of the giants of the sport. Mike Leach was one of these people. A pirate in a sport dominated by entrenched monarchies. An innovator that took the football world by storm with his offense, and in the process changed the way the game was played. He was forever a plunderer of the modern football idea, and losing him is indeed a huge loss for the game of football as a whole.
The Impact of the Air Raid
For many years, the game of football was predicated on the running game. The key was to have strong interior line play and a running back that can easily navigate the holes that those linemen created. In the college ranks, the option run scheme was a staple until the 1990s and is still in use by a few schools today. Football can be at times a conservative sport, so it makes sense that many of the coaches and coordinators in the sport would opt for more reliable and less turnover-prone running plays.
The forward pass has always been the great equalizer for schools in college that didn’t have the talent in the trenches to compete with the elite programs. Defending multiple complex passing routes becomes difficult and can be easy to exploit with scheming. This started with the west coast offense that was predicated on short passes instead of runs to move the ball down the field. This idea was then turned on its head by Hal Mumme, one of the founders of the air raid offense. And one of Mumme’s disciples was Mike Leach.
The air raid is a variation of the spread offense that is run almost exclusively out of shotgun formations with four wide receivers and one running back. As the name would imply, this system is heavily reliant on the passing game with nearly 70% of the plays called being passes. The system also uses the trips formation heavily which stacks three wide receivers on one side of the field, allowing the routes run by receivers to confuse defenses and create openings to operate in space. While Mumme was an architect of the air raid, Mike Leach took it to new heights.
During his time at Texas Tech and Washington State as head coach, Leach produced prolific offenses. 6 of the top 25 passing yards seasons in college football history are held by quarterbacks that played in Leach’s system. The most notable moment came in 2008 with the combination of quarterback Graham Harrell and star wide receiver Michael Crabtree (who would go on to play in the NFL). Texas Tech finished that year 11-2 and showed the world that the air raid could be a winning system. Leach left every program that he was a head coach at with a winning record (84-43 at Texas Tech, 55-47 at Washington State, and 19-17 at Mississippi State). It is a feat made even more interesting when you consider the state of those three programs historically. All three were second fiddle (and even fourth or fifth fiddle in Texas Tech’s case) to the more dominant schools in their state.
The Champion of the Small School
In college basketball, there is a term called “mid-major”. It is used to describe schools that are not from the Power 5 conferences of college basketball (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, and SEC). These schools find success in the NCAA tournament and become national darlings. This sort of dynamic does not truly exist in college football as there are fewer teams, fewer conferences, and a much narrower playoff system. But if there was ever a mid-major college football coach it was Mike Leach.
Leach was never going to be in the top 10 of recruiting classes when going against programs like Texas, Oklahoma, and LSU. But he cracked the top 40 multiple times at Texas Tech and the top 50 a couple of times at Washington State. Leach was a master of taking less than elite talent and putting it together to be able to win games. He made unheralded names such as Kliff Kingsbury, Graham Harrell, Gardner Minshew, and Connor Holliday household names.
It is impressive what he was able to do at these schools considering their history. Mississippi State joined the SEC in 1933 and since then had winning seasons 45% of the time. Washington State only had winning seasons 22% of the time since it joined the Pac-8 up until Leach arrived there. And at Texas Tech, from 1960 up until Leach was hired in 2000 had winning seasons 62% of the time, which paled in comparison to other schools in Texas (most notably Texas and Texas A&M). Leach took these schools that were afterthoughts and made them competitive, almost immediately. Leach only experienced a losing record in 5 of his 21 years as head coach of these three schools.
To understand Leach’s impact we need to look no further than his time at Washington State. The Cougars historically have always played second fiddle to Washington. Before Leach arrived, the program had not been to a bowl game in 8 years. He got them to the New Mexico Bowl in his second season and to six total bowl game appearances in his 8-year tenure in Pullman. Additionally, he made a bowl game in all of his seasons at Texas Tech and Mississippi State, which is the barometer of success for many middling programs. Through his offense and unique coaching style, Leach was a winner at schools that many deemed too challenging to win at.
The Legacy of a Pirate
Leach was known to have a fascination with pirates, and often had his office filled with pirate memorabilia. His interest in the pirates of the sea feels incredibly apt considering the sport that he was attempting to plunder. Leach entered a college football world that was steeped in the traditional teams that had always been there. He was a challenge to the norm and every victory felt like a successful plunder. Every loss to a more established team was the almighty monarchy showing its might.
Pirates often had to get crafty in the way that they obtained their goods and won their battles, and Leach was no different. The air raid offense was his weapon, one that the monarchs of college football did not have a proper answer for. It led him to success, but his pirate ways also were his failing at times. There is a ruthlessness to the ways of a pirate and this was never more evident when Leach was accused of putting a player in a dark shed for faking a concussion. This moment led to his firing at Texas Tech, and he had another moment at Washington State where a wide receiver quit the team due to verbal abuse from the coaching staff. In the good ways and the unscrupulous ones, Leach was a pirate through and through.
In many ways, Leach has forever changed the way that offense is played in both the college game and the pro game. In the NFL today teams pass an average of 33 times per game, with the leaders of this being the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Chargers who average 44 passes per game. This sort of reliance on the passing game would not have happened without Leach’s innovation and success using the air raid.
Many coaches are judged based on their coaching tree of assistants and players that go on to make their impact on the sport. And Leach’s tree is an impressive one. Notable assistants under Leach were Dave Aranda (head coach at Baylor), Sonny Dykes (head coach at TCU), and Lincoln Riley (head coach at USC). Leach has also had players go on to become head coaches in Kliff Kingsbury (head coach of the Arizona Cardinals), Josh Heupel (head coach at Tennessee), and Neal Brown (head coach at West Virginia). All of these coaches have taken what Leach taught them and molded it into their vision of the air raid offense.
Mike Leach was a renaissance man, an innovator of football offenses. He was a flawed man, which made him so relatable and likable. But for people like me that love rooting for underdogs, he was one of my favorite coaches. He was always up for the challenge and played in conferences with national powerhouses like Oklahoma, Alabama, and Oregon. His coaching career is defined by changing the landscape of offense in football to become more dynamic and quite frankly, more fun. A final goodbye and final thank you to a football innovator, may the swords stay swinging forever.