Mike Leach: His “Air Raid” Offense Revolutionized Football

From a Wall Street Journal obit by Andrew Beaton and Laine Higgins headlined “Mike Leach, Coach Whose ‘Air Raid’ Offense Revolutionized Football, Dies at 61”:

Mike Leach, the oddball college football coach whose embrace of the unorthodox and explosive “Air Raid” offense was derided as a gimmick before it proliferated and revolutionized the sport, died at the age of 61. The cause of death was complications from a heart condition.

“Coach Mike Leach cast a tremendous shadow not just over Mississippi State University, but over the entire college football landscape,” said Mississippi State President Mark Keenum. “Mike’s keen intellect and unvarnished candor made him one of the nation’s true coaching legends.”

Mississippi State defensive coordinator Zach Arnett on Sunday was named interim head coach as the Bulldogs football team prepares for the ReliaQuest Bowl on Jan. 2.

Over the course of several decades, Leach went from coaching in college football’s hinterlands to seeing the ideas he espoused become cutting edge in the National Football League. Leach became the pre-eminent advocate of the so-called “Air Raid” offense, which relies on throwing the ball at an abnormally high rate out of the shotgun formation.

“There are Air Raid concepts all over the NFL,” Leach said in 2018. “Go back to when we were at Iowa Wesleyan. It looks quite similar.”

Leach became one of the most polarizing figures in college football—and not just because of his ideas about how to run an offense. He was adored by some for quirks that included a fascination with military history and pirates and a hatred of candy corn. While coaching at Washington State, he even taught a class called “Insurgent Warfare and Football Strategies.”

His actions and irreverence at times also landed him in hot water. In 2009, he was fired from his longest-tenured gig, at Texas Tech, over how he dealt with a player with a concussion.

However, his lasting legacy is on full view inside football stadiums everywhere, where his schemes have become commonplace. A long list of coaches at every level are now steeped in the Air Raid. That includes the NFL, where offenses increasingly reflect the ones Leach pioneered. One of Leach’s former quarterbacks, Kliff Kingsbury, is now the coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

Leach’s formative football education happened at Brigham Young University, where he watched the school’s coach, LaVell Edwards, run a famously pass-heavy offense. But Leach took nothing like a normal path to a coaching career. He didn’t play college football. After graduating from college, he went to law school and later he got a master’s degree in sports science.

After a couple jobs as assistants at small-time programs, and coaching a team called the Pori Bears in Finland, he got the call that changed his life. A coach named Hal Mumme wanted to know if he would be interested in being an assistant at Iowa Wesleyan.

Their life in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, wasn’t glamorous—Leach lived in a filthy trailer with a toilet that constantly overflowed—but that tiny college became an incubator for these two little-known coaching savants. Leach and Mumme both revered the offense Edwards ran at BYU, and eventually decided to supercharge it. They wanted to play fast and exploit all the space available to them on a football field. Which meant they wanted to throw the ball. A lot.

To them, it was basic math. Passing plays averaged more yards than running plays. In their minds, it was crazy not to throw the ball more. That was the birth of the Air Raid.

Mumme and Leach went to Valdosta State and then the University of Kentucky, where quarterback Tim Couch broke records and eventually became the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. But when Couch flopped in the NFL, it was another bit of evidence to the Air Raid naysayers that such extreme ideas wouldn’t work at the highest levels of the game.

Leach then became the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops. That’s where he lured a young community college quarterback with a rocket for an arm to join him. That player was Josh Heupel, now head coach of Tennessee, who finished the year as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 2000. The duo’s performance launched Leach into his first head coaching gig at Texas Tech.

Over nine seasons with the Red Raiders, Leach honed his pass-heavy scheme and became the winningest coach in Texas Tech history. He shaped a generation of players and assistants who then preached the gospel of Air Raid over the next decade at nearly every level of major college football. Southern California coach Lincoln Riley played quarterback for Leach, as did his younger brother Garrett, now offensive coordinator at TCU. Former Leach assistants now coach at Baylor, Syracuse and TCU.

After getting fired amid controversial treatment of a player following a concussion, Leach took over the football team at Washington State in 2012. Wins weren’t immediate for the Cougars, but his offenses continued to put up gaudy numbers. Again, Leach lured a talented quarterback to run his scheme. With Gardner Minshew under center, Washington State recorded the fourth 10-win regular season in program history.

As his gridiron schematics were winning favor across the country, Leach pursued passions outside of football. He taught courses on military history and published a detailed book on Geronimo, the Apache warrior.

By the time Mississippi State hired Leach in 2020, it was the ultimate concession that Leach’s ideas had won out. A big-time school in the SEC—the proudest, most orthodox conference in the sport—had pivoted in Leach’s direction. By that time, it was even impossible to look at Nick Saban’s teams at the University of Alabama without seeing the influence of the Air Raid.

Leach finished his career with a 158-107 head coaching record in Division I, which included an 8-4 finish with the Bulldogs in 2022. The team steadily improved during his three years there.

But just how much football has pivoted around Leach is most obvious by simply watching the NFL these days. Air Raid quarterbacks are no longer doubted. They’re prized.

Patrick Mahomes played in the Air Raid in college. Now he’s considered the best quarterback on the planet.

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