How Mike Leach helped start all of this at Kentucky
Saturday night, Mike Leach will be coaching his team in Lexington against the University of Kentucky and footballs will be flying through the air. It won’t be the first time.
Twenty-two years after he was a record-setting offensive coordinator at Kentucky, Leach will return with his new team, Mississippi State. Incidentally, in the list of people who had a role in moving Kentucky out of the SEC football cellar, one name often overlooked is Mike Leach. It shouldn’t be.
In 1996, when Kentucky fired Bill Curry as its head coach, there wasn’t a ton of electricity around the program. Kentucky had not made back-to-back bowl appearances since 1983 and 1984. The Wildcats hadn’t won more than 6 games in a season since that 1984 squad. And Kentucky football lacked any kind of significant identity. On a few occasions, UK had productive passers — Babe Parilli under Bear Bryant in the early 1950s, Rick Norton in the mid-1960s, and steady Bill Ransdell in the 1980s. But the Wildcats were not a program that lit up scoreboards any more than they were a program that lit up Top 25 rankings.
Enter a Division II coach named Hal Mumme, and his hangdog-looking offensive coordinator, an eccentric football outsider with a law degree and a coaching résumé that included coaching linebackers at College of the Desert and being head coach of something called the Pori Bears in the American Football Association of Finland. Of course, that coordinator was Mike Leach. It was actually Leach, who in a rare moment of marketing, suggested the “Air Raid” name for the pass-pass-pass style that he and Mumme favored.
Mumme and Leach did inherit a well-stocked cabinet at Kentucky, featuring a top-flight QB, Tim Couch, who had been the nation’s top QB recruit in 1996, only to spend the season trying to run the triple-option and looking like a remarkably talented fish very much out of water. There were plenty of receivers — pint-sized Craig Yeast, shifty Kevin Coleman and speedy Kio Sanford. Mumme and Leach added whatever talented they could find—guys like JUCO receiver Lance Mickelsen and tight end James Whalen.
How modest were expectations? In 1996, Kentucky had passed for 1,298 yards and scored 12.6 points per game. The best passing season in UK history was 1985, when Ransdell led an offense that passed for 2,318 yards. Kentucky had not topped 25 points per game since 1951, and on 7 occasions in UK history had a passer managed a 300-yard game through the air.
Two Years of Air Raid Glory
Enter Mumme, Leach, Couch and the Air Raid offense. Using a handful of plays that could probably be scripted on a large cocktail napkin, Couch set a school single-game passing mark in Kentucky’s opener with 398 yards. It was one of 9 300 yard games he had during the season.
In the Wildcats’ 3rd game, Couch set a single-game passing touchdown record, with 7 TD passes. In total, Couch passed for an SEC record 3,884 yards and 37 touchdowns. Kentucky averaged 31.6 points per game and became must-see TV in an era before every game was widely televised.
Yes, the Wildcats went 5-6. It felt almost beside the point. In a state where football had long been dismissed as a secondary sport to basketball, the Air Raid offense shifted the culture. Athletic director C.M. Newton had said when he hired Mumme that he wanted a system that would be like full-court pressing and shooting 3-point shots on grass. It was what he got. When Kentucky dominated Louisville and beat Alabama (for the second time ever), the rest were just details.
Couch’s junior season in 1998 was even better. Couch set the single-season SEC passing record with 4,275 yards, a magic number that stood until Joe Burrow broke it last year. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist, and Kentucky earned an appearance in the Outback Bowl. Mumme and Leach were among the most highly-regarded offensive gurus in the nation.
Usually miles behind the trends, Kentucky not only entertained but it shaped SEC culture, too. When the Air Raid arrived, only Steve Spurrier and Florida were similarly preoccupied with passing the ball all over the field. Nearly a quarter-century on, the SEC is a league of passing teams. From converts like Nick Saban to passing gurus like Dan Mullen, Lane Kiffin, and yes, even Mike Leach again, everybody’s throwing the ball.
Of course, things changed in Lexington. Kentucky was so good in 1998 that Couch left school early and was selected with the top pick in the following year’s NFL Draft. Leach got a job offer from Oklahoma, where he spent a season rejuvenating its offense before moving on to a head coaching job at Texas Tech. Two seasons later, NCAA probation ruined Mumme’s tenure at Kentucky.
Kentucky has now found the kind of football success that nobody in Lexington had touched since Bear Bryant. And funny enough, they’ve done it by moving in the opposite direction. Before Leach, it was unthinkable that Kentucky could lead the SEC in passing. Before the past few years, it was equally unthinkable that the Wildcats would lead the league in rushing. Or post an 8-5 season with a quarterback who was basically running a jumped-up Wing T offense.
It might seem like a stretch to thank Leach for a ground-and-pound Kentucky offense that hopes to snag the team’s first win of 2020 on Saturday night. But without the Air Raid, who knows if Kentucky would have moved on to Rich Brooks, or found the commitment to resources and support that have buttressed the Mark Stoops years.
Maybe the best tribute to Leach for 2 amazing seasons that jump-started Kentucky football would be for the Wildcats to run wild on his Bulldogs and stop the footballs flying. But past history has taught the folks in Lexington that it’s a tough business slowing down Leach and his offense. And on some level, they’ll be grateful for that.
COVER PHOTO: Mike Leach, right, and Hal Mumme led Kentucky’s offense to historic heights in the late 199os. Photo courtesy of University of Kentucky athletics.