Most of the coaches who stand out as singular entities in the big sweep of college football got there because they won, won, and won. Mike Leach did win a lot. But Leach, who died Monday at 61 from what his family said was a heart condition, took his place in the sport’s history not by being better than everyone else, but by being different. College football will always have juggernauts. The game will someday find another Nick Saban, just as Saban showed it could find another Bear Bryant. It won’t find another Mike Leach.
So little in college football is new at this point, especially not in game strategy. Every play we see on Saturday or Sunday, someone has called before. If not, the coach dialing it up today at least borrowed heavily from things other coaches were doing yesterday. Every variation on every formation, every personnel package, and every little wrinkle in pre-snap motion has existed on some other field.
But Leach did not work off the same blueprints. He was a coach all his own. By being relentlessly himself, Leach altered an entire sport. He made countless friends, and as he fought for his life this week, it would have been easier to count the number of his peers who didn’t send public well wishes than to count those who did. Leach made foes in his career, too, and those foes sometimes had compelling points that got buried under a cult of personality around him. The architect of one of the only truly unique offenses in the sport was a person of big contrasts in a sport full of them. His game will miss him.
The offense Leach brought to college football, in conjunction with his mentor and coaching partner Hal Mumme, was that rarest of things: fresh. They called their system the Air Raid. It is what it sounds like: a scheme built on a barrage of passes. Its genius isn’t the volume of throws, but how they come out of a small group of formations and with a small group of route-running combinations for wide receivers and quarterbacks to master. As author S.C. Gwynne chronicles in The Perfect Pass, a tome of the system that Mumme once told me I should read, the Air Raid was a radical shift when Mumme and Leach developed it at an Iowa college in the late 1980s and early ’90s. They gradually matriculated their scheme upward in the sport until they brought it to the sport’s biggest conferences as head coaches.
The Air Raid that Leach conjured was a football lifestyle as much as a playbook. He and Mumme theorized that they could make up for a talent deficit by having their offense get really, really good at just a few passing plays. Then they could call them over and over. Instead of the run plays that historically dominated the game, Leach-coached teams would use passes designed to spread the defense out and create conflicts. The plays would hit quickly, with the QB barely holding the ball before firing. Offensive linemen would stand far apart, but not so far apart that anyone could shoot right through a gap between them. That forced defenders to take long paths to the QB. By the time they got there, the ball would be gone. The plays were so few and so simple that the QB and his receivers could cut processing time.
The plan worked, again and again. Leach—first under Mumme and then on his own—rode the Air Raid from Iowa Wesleyan to Valdosta State to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Texas Tech, where he took his first head coaching job at the turn of the millennium, and then to Washington State and Mississippi State. The Air Raid was not foolproof, and Leach sometimes ran into walls with it. Wazzu’s rivals, the University of Washington, were one such wall. Leach lost his last seven Apple Cup games to the Huskies. At Mississippi State, it took Leach’s offense until the very last play of his third meeting against Saban to score a solitary garbage-time touchdown. But Leach’s Air Raid felled some giants. The high point of Texas Tech’s high point in 2008 was a primetime home win against No. 1 Texas. The Red Raiders won on a Graham Harrell–to–Michael Crabtree touchdown pass with two seconds left. It was a schoolyard play out of Air Raid 101: “four verts.” Four receivers went deep. There were only two safeties. Someone was going to face single coverage. It turned out it was Crabtree, and Harrell fit the ball into a window. It was cartoonish for how simple it was. That play and others called “mesh” and “Y-cross” were Leach’s cornerstones.
The system made a mark beyond Leach’s teams. Leach was at the vanguard of a shift toward spread offenses that leaned on more passing than the sport had ever seen. There is a pretty direct line from the Air Raid to the shotgun option offenses of today, and Leach helped draw it, as Chris B. Brown explains. Leach spawned a sprawling tree of coaches who had played for him or worked with him. Nine of the other 129 Football Bowl Subdivision coaches in 2022 were from Leach’s orbit, along with the Arizona Cardinals’ Kliff Kingsbury. Leach’s fingerprints on modern offense will last for generations.
Leach had a starring, hotly debated role in the first big college football scandal of the social media era. In 2009, a Texas Tech player got a concussion. When he returned to the team, he was suffering the effects of what Leach called, in parlance that was still common, a “mild” concussion. The player wound up in an electrical closet, a garage, or a shed during practice. (Different witnesses described the space differently.) Leach forcefully denied ordering that he be put there. The player’s family saw it differently. Texas Tech fired Leach. It became an all-time hellstorm in part because the player’s father was an ESPN analyst, and Leach thought the analyst, Craig James, was trying to leverage him into playing his son more. On that point, Leach was likely correct, and the testimony that emerged in ensuing court cases generally favored his version of events, at least on the worst allegations against him. Leach dogged Texas Tech for years for $2.5 million in buyout money that he said he never received.
If Leach didn’t throw his players into dark rooms, he did sometimes throw them under the bus and occasionally back said bus over them. In a 3-point loss in 2021, his kickers missed three field goals, and Leach went right to the postgame microphone and advertised open tryouts to replace them. Left unsaid was which coach didn’t recruit better kickers but did try a third doomed field goal after two misses. He reached for attacks on his teams’ collective character not in the locker room, but at the podium. There, he had a recurring bit about players’ “fat little girlfriends” distracting them.
Leach was a reader and historian. He became fascinated by the democratic and disciplinary practices of old pirates, told Michael Lewis about his findings in a New York Times Magazine profile, and became known in time as college football’s Pirate, flying under his own black flag of the Air Raid. He taught a class at the intersection of insurgent warfare and football strategy.
Not everything Leach read or allowed to take up space in his mind was so insightful. In 2018, amid his best year at Washington State, he tweeted doctored footage of a Barack Obama speech and dug his heels in about “free speech” when challenged. In 2020, a few weeks into the pandemic and having just taken a job coaching mostly young Black men in Mississippi, Leach decided to tweet a meme portraying COVID restrictions as the knitting of a noose. “I sincerely regret if my choice of images in my tweets were found offensive,” he said after many had indeed found the image of the noose offensive. “I had no intention of offending anyone.” He had to visit a civil rights museum as part of his penance.
Much of the college football press rarely broke from covering Leach glowingly. In his lesser moments, reporters who overwhelmingly looked like Leach treated him as a cantankerous side show, or a lovable crank. They acted as if his countercultural approach to offensive schemes should extend to all he said. That was usually fine, but its shortcomings showed when Leach was ungenerous to his own players. In 2016, he compared his players to “a JV softball team” and tied it to “all this stuff that’s contaminated America where they give every kid a trophy and they don’t keep score in Little League anymore.”
Mainly, it was boring. A typical Leachian headline followed at one college football website: “Video: Mike Leach’s epic rant explains what’s wrong with America today.”
To be fair to the reporters, Leach was often as funny as they said. He had the objectively correct view of candy corn as a scourge of Halloween. His brief dissertation on the benefits of eloping rather than planning a big wedding had its points. He once gave Scott Pelley a better deadpan response than 60 Minutes has ever gotten out of a guest. He never broke kayfabe in his advocacy for a 64-team college football playoff, an idea whose time will never come but that demanded a messenger.
He had a directness about him. Every summer, Leach and his fellow coaches traveled to conference media days in some hotel ballroom. These ritual press junkets are boring. While there, coaches have to give Q&A sessions, and they usually begin with several minutes of a meandering statement about their program culture, their philosophy, and how their new nickel cornerback is doing in fall camp. (Very well, it turns out.) Leach would skip such things and open with: “I appreciate that. Any questions?”
Leach did not care to waste words at press conferences, in the same way he didn’t care to diagram more plays than the Air Raid staples he thought his offenses needed in order to score points. For whatever he didn’t understand, he grasped that time was of his essence. College football is a more interesting place for having gotten so much of Leach’s.
Correction, Dec. 14, 2022: This article originally misidentified Iowa Weslaye