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Why Mike Leach would get rid of ‘targeting’ and other insights from college football’s most interesting coach

The gospel of curiosity, innovation and simplicity from the man facing the Utah Utes this weekend

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Washington State coach Mike Leach stands along the sideline during the second half of the Cougars’ early-season college football game against Houston, Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, in Houston.

Eric Christian Smith, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Mike Leach had a strange resume for an offensive line coach. He’d been an assistant at two small schools and head coach of a club team in Finland. He hadn’t played a down of college football. But he did graduate from Brigham Young University and that caught Hal Mumme’s eye.

In 1989, Mumme, then head coach of Iowa Wesleyan, was creating a new offense inspired by LaVell Edwards’ passing attack, but his aerial attack required unconventional blocking schemes. Conventional coaches weren’t interested. “They’d look at you like you were crazy,” Mumme said. “I decided to just hire the smartest guy I could find.”

That man was Leach, a pirate-loving, raccoon-naming, wannabe garbage man. Raised in Cody, Wyoming, he was brought up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and didn’t decide to pursue coaching until after finishing law school at Pepperdine.

From 1989-1998, Leach helped Mumme develop the “Air Raid” offense, an explosive, free-wheeling system that relies on precise execution of a few plays from multiple formations, isolating playmakers and forcing defenses to cover every inch of the field. Later, he took the offense to Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Washington State, which faces Utah this Saturday, but its influence is all over the sport.

Air Raid principles permeate college football. Some of the NFL’s most dynamic young quarterbacks, like Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, Arizona’s Kyler Murray, and Jacksonville’s Gardner Minshew — a Leach recruit at WSU — all developed as Air Raid quarterbacks. Another Leach protege, Kliff Kingsbury, now runs the Air Raid as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

“It’s staggering,” said Bruce Feldman, a longtime college football reporter now with The Athletic and ghost writer of Leach’s autobiography. “It’s been as big a shift in football as anything we’ve seen in the last 25 years.”

But, as Texas Monthly’s S.C. Gwynne observed in 2009, it isn’t just the offense that makes the “pirate-in-chief” so interesting. Leach is inventive, iconoclastic and straightforward — a rarity among college football coaches. His candor has caused some turbulence, but that never slowed him down. He recently spent nearly three minutes pondering who would win a battle between the Pac-12’s mascots. While many coaches “don’t allow themselves to drift,” per Feldman, Leach drifts like a cork in a hurricane.

He recently co-taught a class titled “Leadership Lessons in Insurgent Warfare and Football Strategies,” with Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner. They developed the class together while visiting Cambodia.

“He’s just a certain kind of genius.”

“It’s almost like his brain is wired a little differently than most folks,” Baumgartner said. “He’s just a certain kind of genius.”

The Deseret News caught up with Leach ahead of this weekend’s game. Questions ranged from problems facing football to his personal philosophy — about both of which Leach has plenty to say.

Deseret News: What do you like about football? What makes it special?

Mike Leach: Football is still the best game in the world. First of all, consider all the different demographics that people come from that can play football. And the soccer guys are gonna say, “We cover more countries,” which is true. But look at all the different sizes, shapes, speeds of people that play football and play it well. It blends old tradition and technology, because technology’s always had a significant role in football. And then I think there’s the dimension of so many people, so involved, so often.

DN: What makes football fun to watch?

ML: Every infant I’ve ever seen is fascinated by football. I’m the oldest of six and I’ve had four kids; you can set an infant — maybe one that’s crying or whatever — in front of a TV where football’s going on. My theory is it’s all the colors flashing around and across the screen. I’ve found that they’ll watch football in a way that they don’t watch other sports. Similar to cartoons, to be honest with you. I think there’s an explosive nature to it and a combination of sights and sounds. We’ve amused kids for years by setting them in front of a football game.

DN: What first drew you to football?

ML: Well, I don’t remember the infant part because I was an infant. I didn’t have as good a memory back then. I don’t know. It’s just an exciting game. And again, everybody — no matter how tall, short, thick, skinny you are — you can relate and see yourself having a role in it. It’s not just for the fast guy or the big guy or the tall guy or the short guy. Football’s for everybody.

DN: Is there anything you would change about college football, and how has the sport changed in your years of coaching?

ML: I’d get rid of the targeting rule because I don’t think it’s fairly administered. I think it’s too tough to pick up, and it’s too difficult for them to identify it and adequately administer it. And I’ve never seen any evidence that it’s made the game safer, either. It’s become quite bureaucratic. Nobody’s in love with rules like football is. I’d like to see the rulebook reduced to a pamphlet.

DN: Have players changed since you started coaching?

ML: Well, it was heading this way, but more than ever they train year-round.

DN: Is that good or bad for the game?

ML: I think it’s good. I mean, you don’t want to overdo it. In high school, it’s important to play all the sports, or as many as there’s an interest in. In college, you come to school on a football scholarship to be the best you can be and dedicate a lot of time to it.

DN: What are the biggest adjustments you’ve had to make as a coach?

ML: You’re always adjusting around this team or that team, you know? Or the nuances of their defense or that guy’s defense. The biggest thing — and this isn’t an adjustment — you just want to have a philosophy that attacks the whole field. You know, have a method that’s gonna get it in a lot of people’s hands. I think that’s what’s always been a good offense and always will be.

DN: Are people better able to adjust to your offense now than at the beginning?

ML: Oh, I think so. They’re able to get more speed on the field, and there’s more people that do it. Because there was a time when you could go out there and you’d be the only one they’d face that season that did what we did. Now, half the teams do it. And if you’re planning to play in a Super Bowl, all those guys do. So there have been more people adopting it than any other offense — or at least at the (same) rate. But still within that, I think there are good offenses and bad offenses.

DN: What forms the foundation of an effective offense?

ML: Offense has always been about first execution. A lot of people think it’s scheme, and I get that from reporters a lot. They think every play in a football game is something like Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, where you’re just trying to trick and snare the other guy the whole time. Which if you do, that’s fine. But you’re not gonna do that very often; you’re not going to be able to, because they’re coaching too. And they’re trying to be really sound about what they’re doing. And all that being the case, football’s always been about execution. So there’s the value of teaching and coaching and drilling and executing with precision; that’s never changed, and the importance of it has never diminished.

DN: How do you feel when looking around football, seeing how common your offense has become? Do you feel pride? Some element of being ripped off?

ML: Probably a little of both. But I try to keep an eye out to see if somebody’s doing something good that we ought to look at, or adopt. I see something and think, “Man, I should’ve thought of that.” And sometimes you get the idea that they’re missing the point entirely.

DN: What was the biggest lesson you learned from LaVell Edwards?

ML: It’s hard to pinpoint because a lot of people, in bits and pieces, have been throwing it for a long time. You can go clear back to Sammy Baugh — he was throwing quite a bit. Bill Walsh talked about it back with the Cincinnati Bengals. There was a guy named Sid Gillman, who was a very sharp guy. And working with Sid and Doug Scovil and Bill Walsh — and Bill Walsh goes on to develop the West Coast offense, which has several concepts in it similar to Sid Gillman’s. And then Doug Scovil goes to BYU and ends up developing a lot of schemes that are similar to Sid Gillman’s. So BYU was where I sorta got to witness it firsthand: a controlled passing game, where you put the ball in play and you’re not afraid to throw short routes. So they ran that controlled passing game, and they did a great job of it. Just a tremendous job. And I think that opened the door for other people to throw it. And then when I got in, you had the West Coast Offense with Bill Walsh; you had the BYU stuff; a guy named Don Read was doing some interesting stuff up at Montana; you had the run-and-shoot crowd; you had that three-step passing game that Jack Elway and Dennis Erickson and Mike Price were doing. So it was a great time to borrow and check out offensive ideas.

DN: Three historical figures you most admire?

ML: That’s a tough one. There’s too many to mention. Nobody’s perfect, but you can learn something from everybody.

DN: Have you always had a natural curiosity?

ML: I have. My mom was a lot like that too. My mom always stayed up late and was always reading something. She was a curious person too. My dad was a knowledgeable, well-read guy, but — yeah, I always have been.

DN: Do you ever get tired of getting asked oddball questions, or do you like embracing the fun of it?

ML: It depends. If they’re any good, I like ‘em.

DN: What are your guiding philosophical principles?

ML: I think you want to be curious about everything. And then, I think you want to have a good discussion of your ideas or someone else’s ideas, whether they’re good or bad. And then if they hold up under scrutiny, they’re probably a good idea. If they don’t, they’re probably a bad idea. And in the end, most ideas are carved and chiseled away until they become a better idea and have a chance to be a good idea. And I think that helps and benefits everybody and should be encouraged. That’s why we have freedom of speech to begin with. Or at least we did at one time.

DN: Have you ever felt pressure the rein in your loose approach amid an increasingly tight-lipped college football landscape? Has anyone ever tried to rein you in, and is it difficult for you to maintain the lightheartedness?

ML: You just have to sort out whether what they’re trying to rein in is any of their business or not. But locker-room stuff, I mean, you don’t just open up and start running your mouth on what’s going on in your locker room because the locker room’s got to be a kind of sanctuary for coaches and players. Like, everybody wants cameras in the locker rooms. I almost never let ‘em in, and if they are in, they snuck in.

DN: Would it be good for college football if more coaches embrace personality like you have?

ML: They ought to just do whatever they feel good about. I think you do want to resist being too institutionalized. If you’re too institutionalized, it’s really boring. And then I think it also stifles independent thought. And you don’t come up with any better ideas without independent thought. Now, not all independent thought is good, but independent thought and the exercise of looking at ideas and scrutinizing them lead to better thoughts. So I think this era of mind control and political correctness is extremely destructive in a lot of ways. And I think it’s made people less happy and more robotic.

DN: Do you think that’s been particularly problematic in college football?

ML: Oh absolutely I do. I definitely do. It’s really the same as everywhere else, but you know, all the sudden, they think there should be more rules and you should legislate everything. That’s one of the worst things. College football thinks there should be a rule for everything. Yeah, that’s what we need is a whole bunch of rules. Part of it, I think, is just the guilt complex that exists with some of the rule makers. They go to some resort, sit around there for a week and golf, and then feel like they have to come up with a rule to justify why they’re there. No. What you should do is cut rules and get rid of as many of them as you can, and then everybody would be better off.