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 community 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.
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.
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.”
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.
This content was originally published here.