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Mike Leach Was So Much More Than a Sound Bite

Leach was beloved in college football because of his quirky personality, but his lasting legacy is how his Air Raid offense changed the sport forever

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Mike Leach had a philosophy on everything. Pirates were a favorite topic, as was romance, but he was willing to go on tangents about pretty much anything: candy, which mascots could kick the crap out of other mascots in a fight, even dinosaur evolution. Sometimes, he’d even talk about football. Other coaches love to broadcast to the world that they eat and drink and sleep and dream football every second of every day, projecting intensity into every interaction. But Leach was eager to discuss literally any topic at literally any point in time. He was willing to do weather reports or cameos or Cameos. He’d talk to journalists for so long that they had to hang up on him. After Mississippi State’s high-flying win over Texas A&M in October, SEC Network reporter Alyssa Lang asked Leach for wedding tips. While Nick Saban or Bill Belichick would’ve stared daggers through Lang for asking a non-football question during football hours, Leach happily went into great detail about why Lang and her fiancé should elope.

Leach was curious about all things, and spent his entire life diving into new topics to determine how he felt about them. He researched and wrote a book about the Native American warrior Geronimo, and taught a class at Washington State about “insurgent warfare and football strategy.” An NFL Films crew found him trying to figure out whether coffee did a better job killing ants than water. In an iconic New York Times profile, Michael Lewis explained how Leach decided to rollerblade, sought out the flattest, smoothest piece of asphalt in Lubbock, Texas, and spent hours skating up and down that strip. I guess Leach couldn’t have figured out how he felt about rollerblading if he’d been on a bumpy surface, and needed to give it a fair shake to really make up his mind. And once Leach decided on something, well, that was that. As waves of stories about Leach’s eccentricities flooded the internet this week, NFL reporter George Stoia shared how Leach had once gone on a lengthy diatribe to Stoia’s father about apartment complexes, then repeated the same speech, nearly verbatim, to Stoia over 20 years later.

The same thing happened with football. Leach had an unwavering belief in how offense should be played, and stuck with it. His teams would run a few pass plays, and simply run them better than anybody else. Much like his opinions on candy or weddings, he came to that conclusion one day, and believed it for the rest of his life. But unlike his opinions on candy or weddings, Leach’s football philosophy would go on to shape the sport forever.

Leach died Monday night as a result of complications from a heart condition at the age of 61. It’s stunning, because up until a few days ago, Mike Leach was just being Mike Leach. On Saturday, Leach coached a practice ahead of Mississippi State’s ReliaQuest Bowl game against Illinois, then attended a party where he debated a child about Bigfoot. Now, he’s gone. It had been 16 years since an active FBS coach died on the job. Luckily, Leach also left words of wisdom for his obituary writers: “Well, that’s their problem, they’re the one writing the obituary … what do I care, I’m dead!

Scanning Leach’s Wikipedia page won’t tell you his impact on the sport. He coached at Texas Tech, Washington State, and Mississippi State, none of which is the most prominent program in its own state. He never won a national championship or a conference championship, or even reached so much as a conference title game. But Leach won a hell of a lot of games running an offense others said couldn’t work—the Air Raid, a pass-first, pass-second, pass-third system as revolutionary and iconoclastic as its name sounds. In doing so, he emboldened a generation of coaches and quarterbacks to explore new ways to win games.

Football does not look like it does now without Mike Leach. Without Leach, Patrick Mahomes does not play the way he does, nor does the quarterback of your local high school team. Without Leach, a long line of Heisman Trophy winners and no. 1 NFL draft picks vanish. If you played Six Degrees of Mike Leach, you’d reach damn near the whole sport. His football legacy is measured not in championships won, but in the ways he changed the sport forever.

Unlike most coaches, Leach wasn’t a football lifer. He played rugby at BYU and earned a law degree from Pepperdine. But he couldn’t shake the desire to coach. He started out at community colleges and took a job in Finland. Eventually, he linked up with Hal Mumme, the Air Raid’s inventor, and the two coached offenses that put up ridiculous numbers at schools like Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State. Before the 1997 season, Mumme was hired as head coach at the University of Kentucky, and Leach became his offensive coordinator. Their offense was so successful that it tricked the Cleveland Browns into taking Kentucky’s quarterback, Tim Couch, with their first pick after the franchise was reborn in Cleveland. In 1999, Leach joined Bob Stoops’s staff at Oklahoma; the Sooners jumped from 101st to eighth in scoring in Leach’s only season there.

In 2000, Leach took over as the head coach at Texas Tech, a middle-tier program seemingly doomed to permanently look up at Texas. But it was a chance, finally, for this eccentric weirdo to do things fully his way. He spread offensive linemen so wide that defenders could run right between them if they wanted to. But it didn’t matter, because Leach’s teams didn’t run the ball, and the quarterback’s passes got out so quickly that there weren’t a lot of sacks. Leach installed only a handful of plays—simple ones like Four Verts and Mesh. But his teams repped them over and over and over and over again until they were perfect, until every QB knew how every WR on their team ran every route; until everybody knew which options on which routes worked against which defenses. He gave the QB the power to change plays as they saw fit, ceding power from a millionaire coach to a 20-year-old college player.

Almost immediately, Leach’s teams started setting records. In 2002, Red Raiders QB Kliff Kingsbury broke Texas Tech’s single-season passing yardage record, his season highlighted by a 473-yard, six-touchdown performance to beat no. 4 Texas. In 2003, B.J. Symons broke Kingsbury’s single-season passing yardage record. Leach is probably best remembered for the 2008 win over no. 1 Texas, capped by Michael Crabtree’s spectacular game-winning touchdown with one second remaining. It wasn’t the biggest upset in college football history, but it holds a special place in the sport’s lore because of what it represented: This radical offense, these wild ideas, had a true place in major college football.

Leach was controversially fired at Texas Tech a year later over player abuse allegations involving Adam James, son of longtime broadcaster Craig James. Leach never really had another breakthrough moment like the Texas win—his 2018 Wazzu team started the year 10-1 and reached the top 10 of the College Football Playoff poll, but lost their last game of the regular season to miss out on the Pac-12 championship game. But even without the titles, Leach was among the most successful coaches of his generation. In 21 years, his teams qualified for 19 bowl games, only missing out in his first and third seasons at Washington State. His offensive strategy might have at first seemed like a crazy gamble; after two decades, it was steady and reliable.

You can track Leach’s influence through the people who played for him and coached under him. Leach’s quarterback at Oklahoma in the late ’90s, Josh Heupel, now coaches the top scoring offense in college football at Tennessee. This year’s Heisman winner (Caleb Williams) and runner-up (Max Duggan) are coached by former Leach assistants, USC’s Lincoln Riley and TCU’s Sonny Dykes. So were five of the last 10 Heisman-winning QBs—Williams, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, Johnny Manziel, and Robert Griffin III. So were seven of this past week’s 32 NFL starting quarterbacks—Mahomes, Murray, Mayfield, Jalen Hurts, Geno Smith, and Jared Goff. (We could hypothetically add Joe Burrow to these lists on account of LSU’s former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, but that’s a stretch.)

But it’s more important to track Leach’s legacy in the way football looks. Leach didn’t invent the Air Raid, nor did he invent the plays he most commonly ran. When I wrote about how the Air Raid fit into the NFL a few years back, Leach commented that “the NFL has been running Air Raid concepts for a long time, going back to Sid Gillman.” But football had long been billed as a game of brawn and complexity—you could tell whether a team was good by the size of their players, and whether a coach was good by the length of his plays’ names. But Leach knew he wasn’t going to get the biggest players, and didn’t see the point in coming up with more complicated plays when the ones he had worked just fine. His offense was viewed as a gimmick for years even after he succeeded with it, and teams still debated whether to hire Air Raid coaches or draft Air Raid QBs up until relatively recently.

Now look at this sport. At all levels, it’s freer, higher-scoring, and more fun. It’s easier to win more games with fewer big-name guys. There’s barely a team in football—NFL, college, or high school—that doesn’t spread the offense and run at least some of the Air Raid’s staple plays. Perhaps some of these changes would have happened eventually, but Leach made them inevitable.

Much in the same way Moneyball worked when the Oakland A’s adopted it, only for the Yankees and Red Sox to gain a better understanding of which players to spend money on, Leach’s Air Raid ideas were soon adopted by programs with bigger budgets and better players. Leach believed the schematic advantage provided by the Air Raid could help Tech beat programs like Oklahoma; 20 years later, Oklahoma was coached by Riley, who had been a walk-on quarterback and eventually became an assistant coach at Tech under Leach. Meanwhile, as Leach moved from Tech to Wazzu to Mississippi State, he remained a proponent of the original Air Raid in its purest form. Leach’s final Mississippi State team led the nation in passing attempts and was dead last in rushing attempts. While Riley’s teams often have very productive run games built into the Air Raid scheme, and many teams integrate Air Raid concepts without fully committing, Leach did mostly the same things he’d done 20 years ago. He helped revolutionize football, but never reached the pinnacle of the sport.

If Mike Leach only cared about Mike Leach, this would be a sad story, where Leach was a victim of his own success, doomed to watch the schools he tried to beat build better teams off of his strategies. But Leach wanted his ideas to thrive. He didn’t seem to have a problem sharing anything with anyone. He couldn’t even keep his candy opinions to himself. He never tried to hide his opinions about this offense, the very thing he believed in the most of all.

Leach’s death means we’ll never hear any more of his random philosophies on random topics. Surely, he must have had strange, fascinating opinions on all sorts of topics we never even got around to asking about. But we’ll never have to worry about missing out on his philosophy on football. We’ll see it every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for the rest of our lives.