Farewell to Mike Leach, the most influential football coach this generation

Mike Leach proved you could take a unique offense to big-time college football. 

Mississippi State University announced Monday that head football coach Mike Leach has passed away after complications due to a heart disorder. Leach was 61 years old. To say that coach Leach was unique among his peers undersells the type of character that he was. Journalists and college football media people loved him because he was always suitable for a sound byte.

Leach was unique because he was open and honest about his interests outside of football. Unlike many of his peers, Leach did not play college football. A high school ankle injury prevented Leach from playing college football, and he played rugby instead. Leach stayed close to legendary BYU football coach Lavell Edwards, offensive coordinator Norm Chow, and their unique passing attack.

Watching Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, and Steve Young during their careers in Provo would prove influential as Leach pursued a career in coaching.

After earning a Juris Doctor from Pepperdine University and coaching football in Finland, Leach joined Hal Mumme’s staff at Iowa Wesleyan University in 1989. That partnership would change his life and put him on the path of becoming his generation’s most influential football coach.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

The partnership between Leach and Mumme would last eight seasons with three teams. First, it was Iowa Wesleyan, then Valdosta State, and finally Kentucky. He and Mumme developed an offense predicated on throwing the football by spreading the wide receivers wide, taking advantage of the wide hash marks of the college field.

The quarterback would be in the shotgun all game, never taking a snap from under center, and the team would rarely — if ever — huddle. The offense itself would be simple; plays would be based on repetition more than volume, and the quarterback would have to find the open receiver based on the defensive coverage. This offense would be known as the Air Raid.

When legendary Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops left Florida to take the job in Norman, he hired the offensive coordinator that gave him the most fits, Mike Leach.

Some coaches are the Beatles; Mike Leach is Led Zepplin.

Mike Leach never got his shot to use his offensive scheme at a high-profile job. He didn’t leave Oklahoma for Texas; instead, Lubbock came calling. After his time at Texas Tech, Leach didn’t go to USC or Washington; it was Washington State. This last stop wasn’t Tennessee or Florida but Mississippi State.

We’ll never know if you can win a National Championship running the purest form of the Air Raid, but Leach’s influence is all over college football. Looking at his coaching tree is low-hanging fruit but should still be acknowledged:

  • Neil Brown, head coach of West Virginia
  • Sonny Cumbie, head coach of Louisiana Tech
  • Dave Arranda, head coach of Baylor
  • Josh Heupel, head coach of Tennessee
  • Kliff Kingsbury, former Texas Tech head coach, current head coach of the Arizona Cardinals
  • Dana Holgorsen, head coach of Houston
  • Lincoln Riley, head coach of USC

Those are some of the coaches who either coached with, played for, or both under Mike Leach. His coaching tree — one of the most extensive in college football history — does not even begin to tell the story of Leach’s influence. The next time you watch college football, observe the number of teams that snap exclusively from the shotgun, don’t huddle, or split their offensive linemen wide.

Those are all Air Raid principles pioneered by Mike Leach.

So long to the man who loved to talk about pirates and give marital advice during post-game interviews. He knows a bit about marriage; he was married with kids and grandkids. So long to the man who walked to work every day while coaching in Pullman and living in Moscow, Idaho.

Coach, you’ll be missed, but we’ll see your legacy every Saturday afternoon.