Hayes: Mike Leach, the beautiful mind who saw everything differently, including football
The beautiful mind never played college football. And yeah, well, so what?
“It’s not rocket science,” Mike Leach told me a few years ago, when asked to explain the obvious juxtaposition.
He grabbed a piece of paper and pen off his desk and quickly scratched out some X’s and O’s. Crossing routes, of course.
“OK, so you go here, and you go here, and you get here,” Leach continued. “And you, the guy with the ball? You throw it to the guy who’s open.”
He crumbled up the paper and threw it at a trash can about 6 feet away. Nailed it.
“There,” he said, “You’re a football coach.”
We’ve lost an original, everyone. Mike Leach, 61, who turned left for nothing outposts at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State into must-see funhouses, died Monday night after suffering a severe heart attack Sunday evening.
In a hard-charging, win-or-walk profession that functions not by year or month or even week, but by the moment, Leach was cargo shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops strolling down Duval Street.
He once took a call in the middle of a staff meeting at Washington State and spoke with the caller for 5 minutes.
And had no idea who he was.
“It was a Lubbock (Texas) number, so I figured I’d answer,” Leach said. “Good talk.”
Leach was raised a Mormon, had a law degree from Pepperdine and didn’t show up at work until well after most coaches already had 6 hours banked. They were juiced on caffeine and cutups and the process, he was fueled by Himalayan green tea and the latest thing he stumbled upon during 3 a.m. searches on the internet.
He was a voracious reader obsessed with learning. From cultures and their creations to crackpots and their conspiracies.
One moment he’s reciting scripture from the Bible, the next lyrics to 21st-century rap. A free thinker’s thinker.
I once asked him if he believed in ghosts, and admitting that he did was only the first layer peeled from the conversation.
“You get these Satanist types that don’t believe in God. OK, so you realize you don’t get Satan if you don’t get God, right?” Leach said. “Or atheists that want to believe in ghosts. Wait, wait, wait. You can’t have a two-way go on that. You want to be agnostic, be an atheist, fine. But you don’t bring ghosts along with you.”
That’s is how I’ll remember Leach, not as the innovative football coach who won nearly 60 percent of his games (158-107) while coaching at places that were either stepping-stones or tombstones.
Not as the narrative formed about him over the years: a quirky, odd dude who got away with being eccentric because he was such a good ball coach.
There’s nothing quirky about knowing where you had the best hamburger in your life (a steakhouse in a casino in Spokane), or using specific movie scenes to motivate young players (Tombstone: “You gonna do something, or just stand there and bleed?”).
Or knowing how to consistently get receivers open against quarters coverage (“Move the safety, and don’t be afraid to throw deep.”).
Or a playbook that has all of 7-10 plays, from more than 70 formations.
“You know what’s coming,” Mike Stoops once told me about Leach’s offense. “You just don’t from where.”
Everyone watches game tape. Everyone knew Leach’s playbook was limited, and that his goal was to use formation and motion to get defenses to commit — and then, in the simplest of terms, throw it where they ain’t.
“If the receiver goes 10 yards — and not a step more — on a dig, and the quarterback throws it on time, with anticipation, it can’t be stopped,” Leach said. “We practice those things over and over and over, until it’s second nature.”
Translation: It doesn’t matter what play is called, we’re going to run it perfectly — and as long as pass protection holds — we are bulletproof.
That’s why Leach’s quarterbacks were among the nation’s passing leaders year after year, producing gaudy numbers for an offense built around the passing game.
Why Leach could take a 5th-year senior transfer (Gardner Minshew) or a true freshman (Will Rogers) and win games of significance with an offense that years ago was deemed a “gimmick.”
Now that “gimmick” offense is all over college football, and its principles are spread throughout the NFL.
Andy Reid won a Super Bowl with Air Raid principles at Kansas City, and the NFL was so interested in Leach’s offense, the Arizona Cardinals hired former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury in 2019 — after a losing season in Lubbock.
Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray ran the Air Raid offense at Oklahoma, won the Heisman Trophy and were selected No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft.
TCU is in the Playoff this season because first-year coach Sonny Dykes — a Leach disciple — changed everything for his quarterback (Max Duggan) and his team with the Air Raid offense.
USC coach Lincoln Riley, a former walk-on quarterback for Leach at Texas Tech, has used the Air Raid to develop 3 of the past 6 Heisman winners — including this year’s winner, Caleb Williams.
Decades ago, Hal Mumme, then the coach Iowa Wesleyan, took his offensive line coach, Leach, on a trip to Florida. It was a brutally cold Iowa winter and they needed to find sunshine.
They would eventually see CFL coaching legend Don Matthews running a drill with the Orlando Thunder of the World League of American Football, and that “Bandit” drill was the beginning of the Air Raid offense.
To this day, Mumme — who is credited as the creator of the offense — says Leach was always the mastermind behind the system.
“But you know what? Mike was always late, everything he did,” Mumme told me a few years ago. “On the morning we were flying to Orlando, early morning, he was late again. So late, that I remember thinking, if he doesn’t get here in 10 minutes, we’re not going. He shows up just as I was locking my door to go back to bed. That’s how close we were to never seeing that drill.”
Something tells me the beautiful mind would’ve figured it out.
After all, it’s not rocket science.