When Mississippi State head football coach Mike Leach died last week at the age of 61 due to complications related to a heart condition, it sent shockwaves through the football world. “I can’t imagine college football without him,” Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin said in a tweet upon hearing the news. Many others shared that sentiment.
Leach was a larger-than-life figure in the sport for countless reasons. Perpetually the quirkiest man in the room, he was a singular personality in a sea of coachspeak, eager to dispense wide-ranging insights about everything from American Indian lore to mascot combat hierarchy. He was also consistent in his success — and even more consistent in adhering to the principles that beget the success. Over 21 seasons, Leach led three different power-conference teams to 19 combined bowl appearances1 and a 158-107 overall record. At each stop, Leach was entrusted with the direction of programs that were, at best, second-rate within their own state by both pedigree and support — and then outperformed his neighbors who traditionally served as regional headliners.
But most notable of all was Leach’s far-ranging influence on the style of the game. By the time of death, the framework employed by college football’s ultimate mad scientist and champion of unorthodoxy made to look fairly orthodox. By Leach’s final seasons in Starkville, coaches at all levels of the sport had adopted and implemented the principles that Leach popularized over decades.
The air raid offense mentioned early and often in Leach’s obituary. He synonymous with a philosophy he neither invented nor was the first to deploy on a college campus. But it’s largely why so many know of the man who fashioned himself a pirate and brought the scheme to the mainstream.2 Between the expansive coaching tree that bloomed under his tutelage and the increasing grip his concepts have on the modern game, Leach’s fingerprints are everywhere in the sport.
As an assistant coach at BYU,3 Leach had a front-row seat to the pass-heavy concepts implemented by coach LaVell Edwards to rewrite the school’s (and the nation’s) record books. A relentless downfield strategy helped Jim McMahon become the first modern major-college QB to eclipse 4,000 yards passing in a season in 1980. Leach took that into the lab, melding the BYU spread offense with Houston-fueled run-and-shoot principles and air raid innovations he learned under his mentor Hal Mumme (who himself drew from Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense) to build a foundation that punished opposing defenses for decades.
Sideline-to-sideline space and simplicity prioritized. In an era where playbooks have the thickness of George R. R. Martin epics, Leach’s list — mesh, Y cross and four verts, mostly — could fit on a notecard. “If we adopt a new play, I’ve always tried to cut one that have so can control the package, practice and execute it, because execution is the most important,” Leach said. “Better having too small of a package than too big of one.”
When coaches imported small-scale billboards to sidelines to relay plays, Leach merely held up a finger or two. When traditionalists demanded that the ball snapped from under center, Leach relied on the shotgun for more than 98 percent of his plays in Pullman and Starkville. And in a complete rejection of conservative coaching, which often scripts and constrains arguably the most important position in sports, Leach’s quarterbacks were entrusted with the complete freedom to adjust every play at the line of scrimmage.
In many ways, Leach’s offensive ethos stood in direct opposition to the status quo. And like many things that misunderstood, that contrast led to derision of Leach for using gimmicky ploys in a sport that has long prioritized traditions like repeatedly running headlong into a wall of humanity. Leach didn’t much care for that tradition, either, so his teams finished each of the final 12 seasons he coached last in rush rate.
Who needs to run the ball? Not Mike Leach.
Share of offensive plays that were runs*, for teams coached by Mike Leach versus all Football Bowl Subdivision teams, 2004-2022
Naysayers would say that radicalism was why Leach failed to ever reach a conference championship game, much less win a conference title. But as we mentioned earlier, there were inherent disadvantages to the positions he held: Mississippi State, Texas Tech and Washington State have never won a conference championship outright in the modern era. And it wasn’t as though Leach never won big games — perhaps his signature coaching victory was the Red Raiders’ iconic last-second win over No. 1 Texas in 2008:
More importantly, the big picture of the college football landscape looks fundamentally different now than it did when Leach earned his first head coaching job in 2000. Points and pass attempts have skyrocketed. That alone is at least partially attributable to Leach, who came to Lubbock and immediately tasked quarterback Kliff Kingsbury with throwing the ball a nation-leading (and then No. 2 in a season all-time) 585 times. From that point onward, the game’s all-time passing leaderboards have never been the same. Ninety-two of the 100 most prolific passing-yardage seasons since 19564 have taken place since 1998, when Leach — as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator — helped Tim Couch throw for 4,275 yards. (At the time, that mark ranked eighth on the list; now it ranks 77th.) Quarterbacks coached by Leach account for four of the 11 highest single-season passing totals in Football Bowl Subdivision history.
The success of Leach’s philosophy was on full display this season. Pass rate (as a share of all offensive plays) reached an all-time high of 53.2 percent, and three of the top five Heisman vote-getters played for Leach disciples.5 Had USC not face-planted in the Pac-12 Championship Game, half of the field in the College Football Playoff would’ve been running a version of the air raid.6
It’s not just the college game, either: Many of the core plays Leach relied on now come standard in the NFL, too. To take just one example, look at the depth of throws from today’s quarterbacks. Leach-led teams consistently threw the ball at or behind the line of scrimmage, ranking near the national lead most of the time. “We want to throw it short to people who can score,” he once said. That checkdown mantra has taken hold both in college and the pros. Like in the NCAA, the NFL has reached an all-time high in short-pass proliferation.
It makes a lot of sense when you consider that at least a handful of the league’s starting quarterbacks came up under air raid coaching.7 Patrick Mahomes played under Kingsbury at Texas Tech before exploding onto the scene in 2018 and establishing himself as an all-time great. What once seen as a trick offense that only worked in college is now a staple at every level of the game.
“Three of the last four teams that won the Super Bowl have run [the air raid], so I guess it’s doing pretty good,” Leach told the AP in August.