- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Texas Tech’s Mike Leach is a bull in a bear market.

While most of the hottest young names in college coaching either are immovably entrenched (see Bob Stoops, Oklahoma), old school defensive disciples (see Mike Stoops, Oklahoma assistant), staid soldiers (see Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz) or all of the above (see Jim Tressel, Ohio State), Leach is an offensive innovator with an ingratiatingly edgy personality and an agile mind open to just about anything, including leaving Lubbock.

He’s Steve Spurrier on steroids. He’s a surfer in a profession populated by offseason golfers. He’s a talker in a field filled with tightlipped, cliche-mongering automatons.

“I feel like I can coach a little, but it’s not really my deal to say so,” Leach said in a telephone interview last week. “If that’s the rumor though, you’re welcome to keep spreading it. Who knows, maybe my AD will hear it.”

Actually, Leach’s status as an offensive guru is far more than a rumor. And now in his seventh season of successfully flogging Division I defenses, Leach doesn’t have to lower himself to self-promotion. In fact, he might as well hand over the NCAA record book the next time a suitor requests a resume.

At Kentucky (1997-98), where he tutored eventual No.1 NFL Draft pick Tim Couch as Hal Mumme’s offensive coordinator, Leach’s offenses set six NCAA, 41 SEC and every meaningful school record.

In one year at Oklahoma (1999), where Leach was Bob Stoops’ first choice to revamp an offense still stuck in Jamelle Holieway mode, the Sooners’ offense improved from 11th in the Big 12 and 101st nationally in 1998 to tops in the league and 11th nationally in 1999, averaging 427.2 yards a game. Leach crafted JUCO transfer quarterback Josh Heupel into the Big 12 newcomer of the year, putting the offensive pieces in place for OU’s run to the 2000 national title before leaving for the head job at Texas Tech.

At Tech (2000 to present) he inherited a 6-5 team that returned 10 starters and averaged 23 points in its last season under Spike Dykes and has posted a 30-19 record while improving the Red Raiders’ offense each season. Last season, in a 9-5 campaign highlighted by a 55-15 rout of Clemson in the Tangerine Bowl and an upset of hated intrastate rival Texas, quarterback Kliff Kingsbury finished with the third-most prolific passing year in Division I history (5,017 yards) and Leach was named the Big 12 coach of the year.

And this season, proving his reputation isn’t based solely on the talents of his proteges but likely the other way around, Leach has first-year starter B.J. Symons on pace to become the most prolific passer in NCAA history. Through 10 games, Symons has thrown for 4,741 yards and 44 touchdowns as the Red Raiders (7-3, 4-2 Big 12) lead the nation in total offense by more than 100 yards (612.98) with the second-highest average in history; Houston averaged 624.9 yards in 1989.

“If it was up to me, B.J. would win the Heisman,” Leach said. “I know he’s my guy, but all the arguments about him just being a product of the system are incredibly weak. What, other guys aren’t in systems? They’re just running around out there arbitrarily making plays? That’s just stupid.”

Perhaps the most dizzying part of Leach’s success is that it hasn’t come against some minor-conference fodder. His record-mocking, scoreboard-taxing mayhem hasn’t victimized the flag football McDefenses that gave us the super inflated stats of Andre Ware and David Klingler; Leach’s Red Raiders are ravaging defenses in the Big 12, arguably the strongest conference in the nation.

“To do what he’s done to defenses in this league in consecutive seasons with different quarterbacks is really remarkable,” said Bob Stoops, whose top-ranked Sooners (9-0) travel to Lubbock next week. “He’s always been a master of breaking down a defense. He’ll scheme you up, boy. I first recognized and admired that back when he was at Kentucky and I was at Florida, and I used to watch his offenses on film. Then, obviously, I got to know him as a friend and enjoy his talents firsthand when he was here. He’s one of the sharpest guys in the business, no doubt.”

Coming from the college game’s unquestioned duke of defense, such a compliment is akin to Bill Russell cooing about your jumper.

But according to the 42-year-old Leach, who references Lavelle Edwards’ BYU teams, Bill Walsh’s 49ers and Lindy Infante’s Packers when asked to name his primary influences, there’s nothing particularly complex about his spread offense.

“There’s really no such thing as new plays in football, only different ways and combinations of packaging them and different levels of execution,” said Leach, who takes his wide-open scheme to archrival Texas (8-2, 5-1 Big 12) this weekend. “Good ideas for plays are everywhere. The difficult thing is packaging them together so that they complement one another while keeping the package simple enough so that you can execute it at a high level.

“I think the biggest problem with most offenses is that they just have too many possible adjustments on the same play. All it takes is one guy to miss the adjustment, and your execution becomes a tragicomedy. Some big bear of an offensive lineman blows an assignment, you get hit in the mouth and then you’ve got a bad deal.”

And the last thing Leach wants is an embarrassed offensive lineman because he considers his hogs the most important unit on the field.

“Somewhere between the chair, the refrigerator, the channel changer and the bathroom, all guys eventually figure out whether they’re an offensive or a defensive guy. And while I admit defense is more important, I’m an offensive guy. So I love offensive lineman,” said Leach, who accordingly lists fellow surfer Kyle Turley’s helmet-chucking explosion against the New York Jets in 2001 as one of his favorite sports moments. “You had to love that, man. I know we kind of coach guys away from losing control. But when I was watching the Saints coach yelling at Turley and poking his finger into his facemask, I was wondering if he was saying under his breath, ‘Nice job, man. I’ll remember that the rest of my life. That was so cool.’”

Perhaps Leach’s appreciation for football’s oft-overlooked trench grunts stems from his own unheralded climb to the top of the coaching fraternity. After graduating from BYU with honors and Pepperdine law school in the top third of his class, he decided he wanted to coach. He took his first job in 1987 coaching offensive linemen at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. The position paid $3,000 annually with no benefits, forcing him to moonlight as a substitute teacher at the local high school. He made subsequent stops at the College of the Desert (Palm Desert, Calif.), Iowa Wesleyan (1989-91) and Valdosta (Ga.) State (1992-96) before accompanying Mumme to Kentucky.

But his most outrageous coaching gig might have come in the summer of 1989, when he coached a team in the Finnish American Football League in Pori for room and board.

“Finland was great,” Leach said. “I got to take trips all over Europe when we weren’t playing or practicing. From a football perspective, it was pretty wild. I mean, we had some older guys on the team who would stand there and smoke cigarettes on the sidelines when they weren’t in the game. And I can’t tell you what our record was because nobody really cared. But it was an experience. I think I came home with like $43, so that tells you what kind of deal that was.”

While employee benefits and pocket money are no longer a concern for Leach, he is still receiving a relatively raw deal from Texas Tech. Leach will earn $602,500 this season, making him the lowest paid coach in the Big 12. That situation is almost certain to improve with Arizona, Clemson and Mississippi State all rumored to be vying for his services.

Should he decide to stay at Tech, however, he already has verbal commitments from more than a dozen blue-chip recruits promising enough to have the Red Raiders virtually guaranteed a top-10 recruiting class. In the meantime, he has Texas and Oklahoma on the docket, a Heisman Trophy candidate under center and offensive records to break.

“No one knows what the future holds,” Leach said. “The only thing I’m sure of is the forward pass.”

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