Sports needs swashbucklers and the football world just lost one this week with the passing of Mike Leach, who died in a Mississippi hospital from complications of a heart condition.
Leach, who was the current head coach at Mississippi State, had a well-known fondness for pirates – he had a talking buccaneer skeleton in his office, given to him by basketball coaches Bobby and Pat Knight. And his trademark phrase was “Swing Your Sword.” It was also the title of his 2011 book that was subtitled “Leading the Charge in Football and Life.”
In Leach’s case, it all fit.
Nicknamed The Pirate, Leach helped hone and popularize a high-scoring offensive style that was breathtaking in its relentless assault on opposing defenses, taking no prisoners, and frequently, savoring the fruits of victory even when seemingly all was lost.
There is no mobile Mississippi sports betting, but fans did have a chance to go to more than 25 riverboat casinos to place a wager on one of Leach’s frequent upsets. The riverboat just seems fitting for Leach, as a pirate and architect of a gambling offense.
Master of the ‘Air Raid’ Offense
Leach was one of the architects of an attacking, passing-oriented style that came to be known as the Air Raid offense. It was so explosive it terrified opponents, regardless of the score.
There was no better illustration of the Air Raid’s devastating potency than in the 2006 Insight Bowl, when Leach’s Texas Tech Red Raiders trailed Minnesota by 31 points with less than eight minutes left in the third quarter. With Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell filling the sky with 55 pass attempts for 445 yards, Texas Tech tied the game in regulation and won, 44-41, in overtime. It was a record-setting comeback.
The victory against Minnesota was hardly a singular event. In 2004, against TCU, Leach and Texas Tech were down, 21-0. The Raiders not only won, they scorched the Horned Frogs, 70-35. Time and again, the Red Raiders would fall behind and then win by a lopsided final score.
Dizzying offensive outputs were common for Leach’s teams. His head coaching career took him through Texas Tech, Washington State and, most recently, Mississippi State. The development of the Air Raid offense had taken shape when Leach, as an offensive coordinator, was teamed with coaching kindred spirit Hal Mumme at Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State and Kentucky.
Master of the Upset
When Leach became a head coach himself, the sudden ferocity his offenses could generate struck terror in reputedly more powerful opponents as Leach’s unranked squads beat AP-poll ranked teams 18 times.
The Air Raid offensive philosophy not only emphasized passing, but it often integrated a no-huddle pace that exhausted defenses as the game wore on. The offensive scheme even spaced the offensive linemen wider, making the route to the quarterback longer for outside rushers while clearing throwing lanes for the passer.
Along the way, a string of quarterbacks were the beneficiaries of the fast-paced passing philosophy that spread the offense – even the linemen – and stretched thin and exhausted the defense.
Tim Couch, the quarterback at Kentucky when Leach was offensive coordinator, became the No. 1 pick overall in the NFL Draft. Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury was Leach’s QB for three seasons at Texas Tech and finished with 13 Big 12 Conference records and seven NCAA FBS records.
The influence of Leach has been evident throughout college football as coaches and players who have been with him have taken what they learned from Leach and incorporated it into their own programs.
It might have been inevitable that a fiery, go-for-broke personality like Leach would run into some controversies, and he did. A rant suggesting officials showed favoritism to the University of Texas in 2007 brought discipline, and despite a gaudy 84-43 record at Texas Tech from 2000-2009, with no losing seasons, he was fired before the Alamo Bowl at the end of the ’09 campaign for the alleged mistreatment of a player.
At Washington State from 2012-2019, Leach had a handful of losing seasons but still finished with a 55-47 record and a Top 10 poll ranking in 2018.
He was currently three years into the job at Mississippi State with the Bulldogs improving each season. This year, they finished 8-4, scored 39 points or more seven times, and earned a bowl bid to the ReliaQuest Bowl in Tampa on Jan. 2, against Illinois. Mississippi State currently is a 2.5-point underdog at FanDuel.
The team has decided to play in the game, with defensive coordinator Zach Arnett standing in as head coach.
Sadly, while The Pirate will not be there for what could turn out to be another offensive fireworks display, it can certainly be expected that his crew will be swinging their swords.