When the Illinois Fighting Illini were selected to play the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the ReliaQuest Bowl, I was elated because it meant that the long-awaited resurgent Illini season would also be a part of the epic tale of my personal favorite college football coach, Bulldogs helmsman Mike Leach.
That story has tragically come to a sudden end today, and the college football world is worse off for it.
Mike Leach was well-known for viral rants, off-topic tangents at press conferences and wide-open passing attacks. His path to becoming a legendary college football coach was perhaps the most unconventional anyone’s taken in his age. He was one of an astronomically small number of head coaches in his era that did not play college football; he was recruited by BYU but retired due to an ankle injury in high school.
With his playing days behind him before his collegiate career began, he nevertheless made a hobby out of staying close to a Cougars football program that dared to throw the ball in the 1980’s. This was as close as he got to college football as a college student.
Leach earned his J.D. before instead deciding to coach football, where he would go from Cal Poly to Finland to Iowa Wesleyan and eventually end up under Kentucky head coach Hal Mumme, who collaborated with him to develop the modern air raid offense. This is one pillar of Leach’s legacy.
Mike Leach Innovated A Style That Was Effective AND Fun
Every sports tactician is trying to mathematically solve their game. While the leagues make money entertaining the fans, the coaches have a sole focus on winning. “Innovative tactics” in high level sports often look like the stifling 1-3-1 formation deployed by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2000s which took hockey to a virtual stalemate, or Dean Smith’s “Four Corners” offense from the pre-shot-clock era of college basketball that amounted to a game of keep-away. The most recent tactical innovation in baseball is the shift, which has been highly effective at preventing runners from reaching safely. Do you remember when Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide took the SEC by storm playing a power running game with stifling defense? This culminated in the #1 vs #2 Game of the Century with LSU in 2011: a 9-6 overtime win for the Tigers.
Mike Leach did just the opposite. The Air Raid was sort of a love child of the Run & Shoot offenses found at BYU and Houston in the 80’s and the West Coast Offense made famous by Bill Walsh’s 49ers. Leach combined the high-percentage short passing concepts of the West Coast offense with the up-tempo attacking style of the Run & Shoot to create a new paradigm. The world first saw this with Kentucky’s high-flying offense that propelled quarterback Tim Couch to the top spot in the NFL draft. Leach then went to Oklahoma as the offensive coordinator and improved their offense from second-to-last in the Big 12 to #1 in the league in his first and only year in Norman.
Leach took the head job at Texas Tech in 2000 and later coached at Washington State and of course his most recent position at Mississippi State. His offensive concepts spread like wildfire, with most of the Big 12 adopting some variation of it by the end of the decade. Texas Tech quarterbacks were putting up ridiculous passing numbers. From 2002 through 2004, a Red Raider quarterback led the nation in passing yards. B.J. Symons’ 5833 yards in 2003 was a record that stood until last year.
It is difficult to overstate Mike Leach’s impact on the last 25 years of college football. Oklahoma won a national title the year after he departed, and Jason White, Sam Bradford, Robert Griffin III, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Caleb Williams have all won the Heisman Trophy running what is essentially Leach’s offense.
Former Leach assistant Sonny Dykes has TCU in the college football playoff, and former Leach assistant Lincoln Riley narrowly missed the field. Leach’s former graduate assistant Dave Aranda won a Big 12 title at Baylor last year. Former Leach quarterbacks Josh Heupel and Kliff Kingsbury have also had an impact, with Kingsbury developing Patrick Mahomes in an air raid system at Texas Teach.
The Mike Leach Air Raid produces more than wins; it produces fun. Mahomes is one of football’s most fun players. Remember Gardner Minshew? He quarterbacked Leach’s Washington State Cougars at one point. Remember Tennessee’s 52-49 win over Alabama this year? It’s a rare thing to see a sports tactic developed to win games have “fun to watch” as a side effect, but Leach did just that.
The Most Interesting Man In The Sport
Leach would be a celebrated legend even if the Air Raid was all he ever contributed, but there was so much more to the man than that. He has always found the task of answering the same type of questions from the media somewhat tedious and never really liked having to go into detail about his team in postgame pressers. Rather than clam up like Lovie Smith or lash out at the media, he took a completely different approach: being open to talking about absolutely anything else.
Here’s an early one on dating advice:
In this one, he predicts the future:
As he became renowned for his tactical prowess, he applied a tactical approach to an increasing number of non-football situations, such as a PAC-12 mascot battle royale.
Leach was also known for some darker, more incisive rants that directly challenged his players. I’m choosing not to celebrate those here. Leach had an intensity that occasionally exploded into toxic behaviors. This is in no way unique to Leach among college football head coaches, but like everything he did, he did this in a unique and memorable style.
His tactical exploits knew no bounds. Read here about how he planted a fake play sheet to fool a rival into losing a huge game:
College football is a much more interesting sport with a character who will do that; a man who will see a hilarious photoshopped image of himself on College GameDay and track it down to mount it in his office, a man with a law degree who wrote a book about Geronimo, a man with a fixation on pirates and pirate affectations and strong opinions on candy.
The Legendary Pirate King
By defeating Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl despite the rainy conditions, Mike Leach advanced his record at Mississippi State to 19-17. As that was his final game, his final record stands at 158-107. He left every head coaching job he had with a winning record despite coaching at remote programs with long histories of prolific losing.
Illinois has seen legendary coaches in bowl games before. The Fighting Illini were Bear Bryant’s final opponent in 1982 and met up with Nick Saban in the 2001 Sugar Bowl. With one more entry in the story of Illinois’ resurgent 2022 season, Mississippi State was selected as the bowl opponent and the story gained the most interesting character possible on the opposing sideline. Just look at this clip from a Holiday Bowl presser a few years ago:
Covering Mike Leach was funny because he’d refuse to offer anything worthwhile about his team one minute, then give a thorough account of life with a pet raccoon the next.— Darnay Tripp (@DarnayTripp) December 12, 2022
There is no mind like his, and I’m praying we get to enjoy his musings again soon.pic.twitter.com/MQkSVnRFz4
Personally, I thought we were truly blessed to get the opportunity to go watch this legend of the game coach in person and compete against him. The Internet was eagerly anticipating a joint Leach/Bielema press conference. With Coach Leach’s passing, the Fighting Illini and their fans have lost a historic opportunity, but of course there is so much more than that lost. I simply wanted to make sure our fans understand the gravity of the man who was supposed to be our opponent in Tampa as we join the college football world in mourning a one-of-a-kind icon.