Sunday, January 15, 2012

Swing Your Sword

During his time at Texas Tech, I really grew to love Mike Leach and his "Air Raid" offense. Having grown accustomed to Ohio State eking out cardiac-arresting wins with its conservative Tresselball offense, Texas Tech's aggressive spread attack was quite the antithesis. And as college football offenses evolved in more creative, wide-open ways in the mid-2000s, I only grew to appreciate it more.

I've always been envious that Ohio State hasn't had an offensively minded coach like Leach who could strategically create mismatches and make teams pay. Too many times throughout Tressel's tenure, OSU either lost close, winnable games, or won games that shouldn't have been so tight by allowing lesser teams to hang around. Either way, the conservative approach has handicapped Ohio State for years, with the players having to rely on their athletic ability to compensate for the poor position the coaches put them in. With an offensive philosophy like Leach's, there would have been higher scores, more wins, and much fewer palpitations.

Leach has had success everywhere he's coached. The before-and-after statistics at Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech are dramatic. He's developed ordinary players into stars, whether it's once walk-on Wes Welker or quarterbacks Josh Heupel and Tim Couch, both Heisman Trophy finalists. And even though his oddly named quarterbacks at Texas Tech have earned reputations as system QBs, you can't ignore their success, throwing anywhere from 3,000 to over 6,000 yards a season. If those are system QBs, those are QBs I want in my system.

Leach's recently published biography, Swing Your Sword: Leading the Charge in Football and Life, gives great insight into his coaching philosophies. I've never played organized football, but if I coached it, the armchair quarterback in me would adopt many of them. What follows are the excerpts from Leach's book that I identified with the most.

A Balanced Offense

To me, a balanced offense is one where each skill position touches the ball, and every position contributes to the offensive output. There is nothing balanced about running it 50% of the time and throwing it 50% of the time if you are only utilizing two or three offensive skill positions and only attacking part of the field. A good offense has the ability to attack as much of the field as possible with as many people as possible. You want to put as much pressure on the defense as you can while utilizing all of the space and personnel that you have.

Attacking the Field

I'd always been surprised at how little most teams threw the ball and how even fewer offenses seemed committed to attacking the entire field. We did a lot of things that most other teams on our schedule wouldn't dream of trying. We ran a no-huddle offense. We believed if you gave the defense less time in between plays to get refocused, they'd get frazzled. Plus, the pace would tire them out faster. The no-huddle would drain them as much mentally as it would physically.

The other programs we faced had their offensive linemen wedged together, shoulder to shoulder. We wanted our guys to have wider splits with a three-foot gap between each man. It was an approach we'd seen BYU use successfully. If that was working, we'd widen out the gaps even more. Most people assumed those gaps left your quarterback more vulnerable. For us, it actually did the opposite. It forced the defensive line to stretch so that their defensive ends, who are their best pass rushers, would begin the play even further away from our QB than normal. The wider splits created running lanes and throwing lanes, reducing that glut of traffic you typically have in the middle of the line of scrimmage. And it made it harder for the defense to run stunts that would have otherwise lured our offensive linemen into picking up the wrong man once the ball was snapped.

We were changing the geometry of the game.

We didn't approach the offense with some bunker mentality, "Oh, they're doing this, we have to protect ourselves!" Instead, it was about how we could best attack them: "OK, they're blitzing from our left side. Good, good. Then let's throw a slant right behind it."

We knew that would give our team the flexibility to attack instantly. There's a blitzkrieg quality to it.

Going for It

About 10 years into my coaching career, I was the offensive coordinator for the University of Kentucky. We'd go for it on fourth down about 40 times a year. That's nearly double the amount of everyone else in the SEC. Statistically, the times we picked up that first down led to touchdowns between two and three times more often than our opponent's touchdown rate if they took the ball over on downs.

The aggressive attitude that you're stroking within your players is key, especially if you're coaching at a program where most of the recruits have repeatedly heard how they're not as talented as their opponents. When we're going for it, we're making a statement: You have to stop us. The team philosophy becomes, "We're going for it." The guys take a lot of pride in that spirit. They also know that if they're unsuccessful too many times, you're not going to keep giving them the chance. Almost every player wants to go for it. They don't want the privilege taken away from them. In their minds, they know that if they don't make it, they're responsible. They're determined to find a way to make it work.

Certainly any decision needs to be evaluated, but just because "conventional wisdom" suggests something is too risky doesn't make it so. You think it through, and if you believe the benefit outweighs the risk, then you need to do it.

Running Up the Score

I've been accused a time or two of running up the score. People say "Well, the game's already been decided. Just kneel on the ball and call it a day." Screw that. I don't want the guys I send into the game thinking that way. Next year those third-team guys might be my starters. Heck, if we have an injury or two, they might become our starters next week. Running a team is an ongoing process. Even if it's the last game of the year, you still have another one next season. Regardless of the score, you've spent a long time teaching technique and lifting weights, and if there's some number-three left guard in the game out there yucking it up, I will rip him.
This last one I especially like from a player's perspective. Because after all the blood, sweat and tears a team puts in year-round, they only get to play a dozen games or so. So if you're winning by a large margin, why not give those third-stringers some snaps? If you're getting blown out, why not run your two-minute drill, cut the deficit down a bit with a late TD, and end on an up note? Game time should never be taken for granted. Win or lose, finish it out.

Never Give Up
All of these philosophies led Leach to some great victories. I'll never forget checking the score of the 2006 Insight Bowl, in which Minnesota was crushing Texas Tech 35-7 at halftime. But Leach lit a fire under his team in the locker room and the Red Raiders rallied in the second half en route to the biggest comeback in NCAA Division 1 bowl history. The final score: Texas Tech 44, Minnesota 41 (overtime).

And don't forget one of the best atmospheres and endings to a college football game ever, as Texas Teach upset No. 1 Texas on a last-second play in 2008.

Crime Without Punishment
It wasn't until I read Leach's book that I realized how much Texas Tech screwed him out of a job, despite all the success he brought them. The appendix at the end even has all of the e-mails between university officials and third parties who conspired to oust Leach for allegedly mistreating player Adam James, even though James later confessed that he wasn't mistreated. In fact, he found the whole situation kind of funny. What's more, there are damning depositions that debunk what the media has reported while exposing the smear campaign from a PR agency hired by father Craig James.

Most people were happy to see James leave his college football post at ESPN to run as a Texas senator. Politics couldn't have been a more befitting choice.

Leach has proved his innocence in court, but has not been able to win a settlement due to a clause in his contract that prevents him from successfully suing Tech. How convenient.

Moving On

Leach enjoyed a two-year break from coaching, living in Key West and having a radio show with CBS. But being out of the game left him unfulfilled, and with the coaching carousel spinning wildly toward the end of this past season, it was only a matter of time before he returned to his love.

In November he took the head coaching job at cellar dweller Washington State. While I think he'll be a good fit there, I was hoping he'd land at a more prominent program. But writer Stewart Mandel explains why he thinks the two were a good match:

The Cougars just scored their biggest win in years... Just as he did more than a decade ago at Texas Tech, Leach will give fans a reason to pay attention to Washington State football. He will produce high-scoring offenses and 5,000-yard passers, put fans in the stands, keep reporters busy, and, if history repeats itself, graduate players, reversing a problem that helped sink the Cougars several years back.

He's not going to fit at a place where the fans and media demand a more polished, traditional coach. That's why he's a perfect fit in Pullman. The coach that led the Cougars to two Rose Bowls (in 1997 and 2003) was a certifiable oddball (and that was before his infamous strip-club visit at Alabama). It worked out just fine. While no coach operates in anonymity anymore in the age of YouTube and Twitter, there aren't a zillion reporters and cameras camped out at Washington State news conferences. Leach will be free to be himself.

And he'll win... For the first time in eight years, fans beyond the West Coast will tune in to Cougars games. When they do, they'll probably see a revved-up crowd (start stocking up on pirate gear, school bookstore) enjoying another 48-45 shootout. If any of those viewers happen to be fans themselves of struggling midlevel programs, they'll probably ask themselves: Why didn't our athletic director hire him first?
Wazzu a Pac-12/Rose Bowl contender? With Leach at the helm, it's entirely possible. And it all starts with helping the Cougars find their inner pirate.

The Pirate hits Pullman: Mike Leach back on the sideline.

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