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Air Raids On and Off the Field

Remembering Mike Leach (1961-2022), the eccentric coaching maverick always on the offense.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Mississippi State at Texas A&M
Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

I am probably the only football fan under 30 who hated Mike Leach’s offense.

Most people found it exciting. I thought it was like watching basketball on grass. His quarterbacks operated almost exclusively out of the shotgun. He never used a fullback and preferred deploying four wide receivers over even one tight end. His teams almost never huddled, and tried to play as fast as possible. Leach called plays from a napkin-sized play sheet, and as a rule, didn’t move players around much before the snap. He wanted to spread you out, run you ragged, and beat you with the small rolodex of plays his players had practiced all season.

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It was a matter of taste. I liked watching teams run the ball and then execute the coldly precise West Coast offense. Leach’s offense was predicated on the pass and abandoning the huddle. I liked watching a chess match, and he wanted a shootout.

But it was impossible not to like Mike Leach, who unexpectedly died this week of a heart attack. He was arguably the most consequential coach in any sport in the last fifty years. His larger-than-life personality attracted journalists from across the country to profile him and his innovative offense, which changed the way football was played at every level from Pop Warner to the pros.

His story is remarkable. He always wanted to be a coach, and started coaching baseball at age 15 near his hometown of Cody, Wyoming. Leach loved strategy—whom to play where, how to structure a lineup. He wasn't much of an athlete, even in high school. Leach went to BYU as an undergraduate, which he said was “like Disneyland, only without rides and merchandising.” He graduated and went to law school to become a personal-injury lawyer. A few years in, he decided on a whim to try his hand as a football coach despite having never played a snap of college ball.

He took an assistant coaching gig with the Cal Poly Mustangs in 1987 and took a head coaching job in a Finnish football league in 1989. When he returned to the States, he took a job at a small Iowa school with coach Hal Mumme, one of the architects of the “Air Raid” offense that Leach would help to popularize. Under Leach’s tutelage, Iowa Wesleyan broke 26 national passing records, and its quarterbacks passed for more than 11,000 yards over three seasons.

Leach climbed the ranks and took a job as the University of Kentucky’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 1997. His prolific offense caught the attention of Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, who poached him to serve the same role with the Sooners in 1999. His offense put up impressive numbers, with quarterback Josh Heupel throwing for over 3,400 yards and the Sooners finishing in the top 25. Leach departed for Texas Tech in 2000, and the Sooners won the national championship the following year adhering to Leach’s Air Raid scheme.

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In each of Leach’s next three stops as a head coach—Texas Tech from 2000 to 2009, Washington State from 2012 to 2019, and Mississippi State from 2020 to his death this year—he took programs with shoestring budgets and little top-end talent to the heights of college football. His teams made 19 bowl appearances and won six NCAA passing titles, beating out heavyweights such as LSU, Alabama, and other marquee programs. He was a two-time coach of the year, and set a school passing record at Texas Tech in 2013 with a relative non-entity at quarterback. His Mississippi State team upset third-ranked LSU in the first game of the 2022 season.

On the field and off, Leach was an eccentric. In press conferences, he made references to pirates and swords, and went on long rants about Bigfoot, marriage, and coffee. He lamented that his coaching points were not "more compelling than” his players’ distracting “fat little girlfriends.” (He conceded that “their fat little girlfriends have some obvious advantages.”) When a reporter called him “a sideshow,” he said, “I don’t have any disagreement, really.”

Leach’s offensive philosophy was similarly transgressive. His emphasis on wide line splits—spreading his linemen out to maximize the distance pass rushers had to travel to get to the quarterback—was revolutionary, and percolated up to the professional level. He eschewed the conventional wisdom on time-of-possession, that holding onto the ball for longer than your opponent was a sure path to victory, and insisted that he wanted to score, and fast.

“The greatest time of possession in the world is a touchdown,” Leach said.

He tried to snap the ball at least 70 times a game, while most teams snapped it about 50. His quarterback, instead of being tied to an elaborate play call, was given total freedom to change the play at the line of scrimmage. He wanted to throw the ball at least 65 percent of the time. It was a spacing-based offense, not a downhill rushing scheme, with Leach telling his players to “attack grass”—find the open spot on the field, and get the ball there. Former quarterback Joel Klatt characterized Leach’s attack as a blend of Don Coryell’s vertical-passing scheme with the all-hands-on-deck approach of the triple-option. And where other coaches insisted on complicated play designs, Leach called derivatives of the same four or five “concepts” (route combinations) for most of his career.

While his approach has influenced NFL coaching, it remains a stark contrast to the way many professional offenses operate. Where Leach wanted simplicity, professional offenses insist on precise timing and spacing, and use a large universe of formations. Take Kyle Shanahan, the NFL’s leading devotee of the traditional West Coast offense. Shanahan might have two shifts and a player in motion before the ball is snapped. He might have a fullback lined up in the slot and a wide receiver in the backfield to confuse the defense. He might use elaborate misdirection after the snap—the line blocking one way, a fake handoff going another—to move the defenders just so, and open a window for his quarterback. In the West Coast offense, the coach is playing chess, moving his men and their defenders like pieces on a board.

Leach eschewed that kind of strategic precision. His former quarterback Graham Harrell said, “In Mike Leach’s mind, coverages don’t exist.” Leach hoped to out-execute, rather than out-scheme, his opponents.

“There’s no such thing as a perfect game in football,” Leach said. “I don’t even think there’s such a thing as the perfect play. You have 11 guys between the ages of 18 and 22 trying to do something violent and fast together, usually in pain. Someone is going to blow an assignment or do something that’s not quite right.”

A study in contrast: a play call in Kyle Shanahan’s West Coast offense might be “Y Short to Strong Right Clamp Ace, H2 Y Bingo X Comeback, can to Roll Right Z Shallow.” In Leach’s Air Raid scheme, it might be “Ace 92 Z Post.”

Football coaches, Shanahan included, are notoriously conservative. But Leach’s offense changed the way football is played at every level, and its emphasis on "attacking grass" influenced the way even traditional West Coast teams execute their offense. Coaches were skeptical in the early 1990s when Leach first suggested emptying the backfield and trading tight ends for receivers, but he has since won the argument, not only at Mississippi State, Washington State, and Texas Tech, where he coached, but across the football landscape. Go watch a high school football game anywhere in the country today and count how many snaps feature a fullback, and chalk your single-digit number up to Mike Leach's influence.

Whether his approach can work at the highest levels of the sport is debatable. One of his former quarterbacks, Kliff Kingsbury, now operates a version of the Air Raid as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. Kingsbury’s teams have led the league in the use of “10 personnel”—one running back, no tight ends, and four wide receivers—for years, and have been among the league leaders in the use of shotgun formations. In 2021, the Cardinals ran a quarter of their offensive plays out of 10 personnel, an Air Raid staple, while the league average was 2 percent. Kingsbury's career record is seven games under .500, and his teams have finished 14th in expected points added during his tenure.

The triumph of Leach’s philosophy might better be understood as a supplement, rather than a successor, to more traditional offensive schemes. Leach’s anarchic play-calling approach, using hand gestures to signal a few basic concepts to his quarterback in lieu of a traditional huddle, couldn’t survive sustained exposure to professional defenses, whether with Chip Kelly’s Eagles or Kliff Kingsbury’s Cardinals. But while no team has successfully abandoned the huddle altogether, almost every NFL team today at least occasionally operates without a huddle to stay in rhythm or prevent the defense from substituting. And the Kansas City Chiefs, who like to take pages out of almost every system's playbook, have incorporated Leach's emphasis on passing and on simple route concepts to great effect.

Leach appreciated the schematic diversity of the game. The most endearing thing about him to even this traditionalist fan was his emphasis on the different ways to play the game of football. “There’s a lot of different methods to attack the whole field,” Leach said. “And that’s kind of what’s exciting right now, is a lot of them are surfacing that are pretty cool.”

That will be part of his legacy. As for the rest, Leach wasn't concerned when asked about it in 2018.

“What do I care? I’ll be dead.”

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