Mike Leach; A once in a lifetime coach and person
The phrase “American original” is overused and overpriced, but it perfectly describes the late Mike Leach, who died Tuesday as a result of complications from a heart problem. There has never been a college football coach like him, and there will never be another after him.
Leach was eccentric, intelligent, brave, humorous, at times harsh, and always out of the ordinary. In an era when coaches are becoming increasingly (and boringly) uniform, he emerged from an unusual mold that was quickly broken upon his arrival. Only Leach could have paved a path from playing rugby (rather than football) at BYU to receiving a law degree at Pepperdine and eventually becoming possibly the most prominent offensive coach of the twenty-first century.
He was an unrepentant maverick who spoke differently, coached differently, and marched to a different rhythm. During his stay in Washington State, he walked almost seven miles round-trip to work every day, frequently spending the time on the way home to make rambling late-night phone calls to reporters. His mind was an endless conversation generator.
Coach talk was something that Leach didn’t just do. During the week, he was known as the go-to expert in his field when it came to pirates, gave out free wedding advise, and talked at length about hypothetical animal battles. Then on Saturdays, he called more passes than any coach in the history of college football.
What precipitated college football’s shift from “Thou Shalt Establish the Run” to “Spread It and Chuck It?” When Mike Leach began to win games in this fashion.
The Air Raid offense was developed between 1989 and 1996 by then-offensive coordinator Leach and his boss Hal Mumme at the relatively unknown tiny colleges of Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State. Within a few decades, it would completely alter the landscape of sports.
Some of Leach and Mumme’s offensive ideas came from BYU’s playbook when LaVell Edwards was the head coach, but their underlying philosophy was more radical and subversive. The old guard scoffed at The Air Raid because it was just a gimmick, but it was effective, and its inventors took great pleasure in annoying the skeptics.
In 1997, Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton was so anxious for a style that would put butts in seats and provide star quarterback recruit Tim Couch a vehicle to flourish that he took a chance on the two radicals. Coaches took notice of that strategy after it helped Kentucky to its first winning season since the 1980s and made Couch the first overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft.
Oklahoma signed Leach to be offensive coordinator under new head coach Bob Stoops, and he transformed Josh Heupel into a 3,000-yard passer. After one season at the University of Oklahoma, Leach accepted his first head coaching position at Texas Tech. From that point on, he significantly altered how offenses were built and plays were called.
While Heupel was helping Oklahoma win the national championship in 2000, Leach was in Lubbock instructing sophomore Kliff Kingsbury to throw the most passes in the nation. This would be a reoccurring motif. Today, the four quarterbacks who attempted the most passes in a single season were all coached by Mike Leach: Kliff Kingsbury (712 attempts in 2002), Graham Harrell (713 attempts at Tech in 2007), Connor Halliday (714 attempts at Washington State in 2014), and B.J. Symons (719 attempts at Tech in 2003).
This is the eleventh consecutive year that a Leach team has led the country in pass attempts. His teams hold FBS records for the most passes thrown in a game (Washington State threw 89 against Oregon State in 2013), the most passes attempted and completed per game for a season (64.3 and 42.5, respectively, at Wazzu in ’14), and the most passing first downs per game (23.5 at Texas Tech in 2003) A man who did not model himself after anyone else ended up inspiring a whole generation of copycats as he rewrote the record book. Take a look at the coaching ranks at the moment and tally up the number of Leach disciples who either played for him or coached under him: Kingsbury, who is in his fourth season coaching the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals; Heupel, who led Tennessee to 10 wins this season. Harrell, who is the offensive coordinator at West Virginia after a stint in the same job at USC; and Sonny Cumbie, the coach at Louisiana. USC coach Lincoln Riley, who has mentored three of the last six Heisman Trophy winners and TCU’s Sonny Dikes. Yeah, he mentored some pretty huge names in the world of college football.
There are a great number of other people who have just taken parts of the Leach playbook and implemented them without working for him. His ideas and strategies are now widely utilized across all levels of competition in the sport. It is not a coincidence that the FBS average for team pass attempts per game reached 30 for the first time in 1999, which was Leach’s season at Oklahoma. That number peaked at 33.6 in 2007, as the Air Raid effect continued to spread throughout the college football landscape.
The only snag was that Leach was never able to put everything together to the point where they could win a championship. He had two opportunities, ten years apart, at two different schools, and he came very near both times. His Texas Tech team from 2008 went 11–2 and won a share of the Big 12 South Division title along with Oklahoma and Texas, but they had to watch Oklahoma advance to the league championship game and then the BCS championship game instead. In 2018, Washington State finished with an 11–2 record and matched for the title of Pac-12 North champion, although they were defeated by Washington in the tiebreaker.
The trait of persistence that made Leach so successful also worked against him. Because he was indifferent to defense, disdained the running game, and was fixated on recruiting individuals to match his obscure system, he rarely fielded teams with all of their necessary personnel.
And to tell you the truth, Leach’s personality just didn’t mesh well with blue blood programs. He was a fantastic coach for difficult jobs, but he was just eccentric enough that he never got the simple ones.
Leach, the winningest coach in school history, was fired in 2009 amid controversy about how he handled a player with a concussion. This undoubtedly had a chilling effect on Leach’s ability to obtain another position during the subsequent hiring cycle. In 2012, he took over a Washington State program that had endured eight consecutive losing seasons. By the time he left, Leach had the highest winning percentage of any Wazzu coach who had been there for more than two seasons since before World War II.
At Mississippi State, the steady progress looked familiar, improving from 4–7 to 7–6 to 8–4. But there were health issues during this 2022 season, eliciting quiet concerns that the 61-year-old might have to retire. He seemed to bounce back in recent weeks—then came the stunning news Tuesday.
Mike Leach was a man who made the game of college football better for everyone. He changed the way the game was played and influenced so many people in his lifetime. My condolences go out to Leach’s loved ones and friends, and really the entire college football world. We lost a hell of a coach yesterday.
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