‘Basketball on grass’: The origin of Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense

On Monday afternoon, Mike Leach story time started. This week’s subject: How the Air Raid offense bought its identify.

Like many Leach monologues, he meandered off subject. Requested about his time at Kentucky and the offense’s growth, Leach started telling tales a couple of decrepit Hoosiers-esque gymnasium, Davey Lopes and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. However when he discovered his method again to the subject at hand, Leach defined.

Somebody introduced an genuine air raid siren to play after Iowa Wesleyan touchdowns at house video games, which is the place he first discovered the offense underneath Hal Mumme.

For good measure, Leach, now the Mississippi State coach, mimicked the sound himself as he lurched his head towards the microphone. “BWUUUUP, BWUUUUP.”

“From there, they kinda started calling it the Air Raid,” Leach stated in the course of the information convention. “And I’m kinda credited with the idea to call it that because I said, ‘Well, hey, we could call it the Air Raid.’

“And so it kinda caught.”

The name did, primarily because the offense did, too.

For the first time since he was an assistant there 22 years ago, Leach will return to Lexington on the opposing sideline, as the Bulldogs visits Kentucky on Saturday night (6:30 ET, SEC Network). And though it’s not the birthplace of the Air Raid, it is the place where it truly became recognized.

Here’s a look back at how Leach and Mumme’s two years together in the Bluegrass State turned transformative:

Who needs a playbook?

As fall neared winter in 1996, Kentucky football yearned for a fresh start.

Wildcats football needed a jolt of energy. Excitement. Something to give this basketball-crazed school some respectability on the gridiron, which combined for a meager nine wins in the previous three seasons.

The late C.M. Newton, then the Wildcats’ athletic director, rolled the dice by hiring Mumme, a relative unknown at the time. The idea Newton sold to Big Blue Nation was “Basketball on grass.” Mumme would air it out with fast-break football.

Mumme, with Leach by his side, broke records and reversed fortunes at the NAIA (Iowa Wesleyan) and Division II (Valdosta State) levels. But doing it in the SEC? That was another matter altogether, and a stark contrast to Bill Curry, Mumme’s predecessor at Kentucky.

“Invoice Curry was old style, like Alabama old style,” former Kentucky running back Anthony White said. “Oklahoma drill and all that stuff. We had scrimmages on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. A light-weight apply for him was shoulder pads and helmets.”

Mumme preferred less hitting, fewer days in full pads and little — if any — tackling to the ground. He wanted players fresh for Saturdays.

The simplicity extended to the playbook, or lack thereof. Rather than a thick, War and Peace-length binder filled with schemes, Mumme’s offense favored a handful of plays, and no playbook.

“We had, mainly, seven or eight performs and we’d run them from seven or eight completely different formations,” former Kentucky and NFL tight end James Whalen said. “The entire level was, ‘What we do, we’ll do it completely.'”

It worked before, and despite the jump to Division I, Mumme and Leach believed it would again. Except for Florida, where Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘n’ Gun succeeded, it was a stark contrast to SEC football at the time.

“It was three yards and a cloud of mud,” said Arizona offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, then an assistant at Ole Miss. “When you did not run energy and two tight ends and all that, you were not a soccer coach.”

Leach was installed as Kentucky’s receivers coach. Mumme wanted to make him the offensive coordinator, but Newton preferred Mumme not name one, because he was promoting Mumme to Kentucky alumni as the next Spurrier. He wanted no ambiguity about who was calling the shots offensively.

And so it was. In the Wildcats’ 1997 media guide, there is no offensive coordinator listed, though Mumme asked Newton if, after the Wildcats won a big game, he could name one, a request which Newton obliged.

Before the season debut against rival Louisville, a Kentucky graduate assistant named Sonny Dykes was skeptical. The son of the late Spike Dykes, a coaching legend at Texas Tech, Sonny had not seen such a unique approach to offensive football. He turned to fellow GA Chris Hatcher, who had played quarterback for Mumme at Valdosta State.

“I stated, ‘Hey Chris, we solely have like 10 performs,'” recalled Dykes, now the head coach at SMU. “These things’s not gonna work.”

Hatcher, who won the Harlon Hill Trophy — the Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy — under Mumme at Valdosta, knew better.

“We’re gonna be simply high-quality,” he told Dykes. “Simply wait and see.”

By the end of the first quarter, powered by sophomore quarterback Tim Couch, Kentucky was leading 21-0 and would end up beating Louisville 38-24. Couch threw for a school-record 398 yards. The Air Raid was off and running.

It converted more onlookers later that year, when the Wildcats upset No. 22 Alabama, the first win Kentucky had over the Crimson Tide in 75 years. Fans rushed the field at Commonwealth Stadium and tore the goalposts down. Some still have pieces of it; Dykes said he has a piece in his office at SMU. Running backs coach Tony Franklin, now the offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee, has one, too.

“I believe it was the turning level of Kentucky soccer to get individuals to donate cash, make investments their time and consider in this system,” Franklin said.

After that win, Mumme promoted Leach to offensive coordinator, though Mumme was still calling the plays. Even as a receivers coach, Leach exceled.

“I believe that is one of many extra underrated skills [Leach] has,” said West Virginia coach Neal Brown, who walked on as a receiver at Kentucky in 1998. “He was a extremely good instructor of routes … from a basic facet and educating, at the moment, for wideouts, he was distinctive.”

Whalen, who was a receiver in 1997 before moving to tight end in 1998, remembers Leach’s acumen. “His mind is a pc,” Whalen said. “There is a high-quality line between brilliance and loopy, and he straddles it.”

As he does to this day, Leach occasionally meandered. Whalen recalled a position meeting after a practice where Leach filibustered about a film.

“Mike has the clicker and hits the primary play,” Whalen said. “He will get about midway by means of and hits rewind. Then he asks, ‘Has anyone ever seen ‘One other 48 Hours’?’ We have been like, ‘Yeah.’ And he by no means made it by means of the primary play.

“He hit rewind probably 400 times and spent the whole time talking about this movie with Nick Nolte. Finally, after about an hour, he’s like, ‘Alright, y’all can get out of here.’ We didn’t even watch football, didn’t talk about it.”

White, a working again who spent a while within the receiver room due to how a lot they threw him the ball, stated Leach was direct. He remembered as soon as complaining to Leach about defensive backs holding his jersey on routes.

“He told me, ‘A good excuse will get you beat just as fast as a bad excuse,'” White stated. “If they’re grabbing you, we’re just not going to throw you the ball, but you’ve got to find a way to get open.

“It was at all times matter of truth. It was, ‘Do or don’t. When you do not do, then you may’t assist me and I am unable to assist you.'”

Over the course of the 1997 and 1998 seasons, the Wildcats lit up the scoreboard and piled up the passing yards. In ’98, they led the league in scoring and total offense. It gave SEC defensive coaches fits.

“It was very onerous to take care of and it was very out of the atypical from what everybody else was doing,” said former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who was Florida’s defensive coordinator from 1996 to ’98. “They gave me extra hassle and extra complications as a defensive coordinator than perhaps anybody else we performed.”

The team’s landmark wins, like the ’97 victory over Alabama and the ’98 win at Death Valley over a ranked LSU, elevated Kentucky’s profile. Commonwealth Stadium expanded. Ticket sales rose. Couch, an uber-talented blue-chip QB, was the star of the show. He broke NCAA records. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist and the No. 1 pick in the 1999 NFL draft.

Offensive football was evolving, and Kentucky was at the forefront.

“You felt like that you simply have been completely different,” Brown said. “You may really feel the sport altering slightly bit due to the success passing the soccer that Coach Mumme and Kentucky have been having on the time.”

On to Oklahoma

On the morning of Dec. 14, 1998, while Kentucky was busy preparing for the Outback Bowl, Mumme’s phone rang.

It was Stoops.

The new Oklahoma head coach was interested in Leach as his offensive coordinator. But in the interest of due diligence, he had questions for Mumme.



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“Can Leach name the offensive performs? Can he be in entrance of the offense and command the room? Did he have sufficient respect from different coaches and gamers to get them to do what was wanted?”

Mumme didn’t hesitate.

“Oh, completely,” he said.

But Mumme had a question for Stoops. He knew how much grief SEC traditionalists gave Kentucky for its unconventional style. Selling the Air Raid at Oklahoma could be a challenge.

Mumme wanted to know, “Do you wish to rent him to run our offense or do you wish to rent him as a result of it is simply form of horny to rent any person from Kentucky proper now?”

Stoops proceeded to recite Kentucky’s offensive statistics from its past two meetings with Florida and noted how much better they were than the two Kentucky-Florida games prior to Mumme and Leach’s arrival. Even now, Stoops remembers them.

“They led the league in about each offensive class,” Stoops said. “Not simply passing, however scoring, time of possession, third-down conversions, all the belongings you actually take a look at, and these guys have been first or second in about each class, with out having one of the best gamers.”

Stoops went as far as informing other prospective offensive coaches he was hiring to get on board with the Air Raid or get out.

“We’re working this, finish of story,” Stoops recalls saying. “If you cannot try this otherwise you’re in opposition to that, then do not come [to Oklahoma].”

Mumme got the message, walked down the hallway, poked his head into Leach’s office and told him to call Stoops.

Four hours later, Leach had accepted the job as the Sooners’ new offensive coordinator.

“He wanted to, only for his personal development,” Mumme said. “And it labored out nice.”

Making history at Texas Tech

Leach turned the Sooners’ offense around in one year. He trekked to Ephraim, Utah, to find a quarterback, Snow College’s Josh Heupel. By early October, Heupel had already broken OU’s single-season passing touchdowns record. The Sooners went from 101st nationally in total offense before Leach’s arrival to 11th by the end of his first season. They were tops in the Big 12 in total offense and passing.

Leach long had head coaching aspirations. Even before Stoops called Mumme to bring Leach to Norman, he had scoured the country for head coaching jobs, but was turned down for every one he applied for. After one season with the Sooners, an opportunity arose at Texas Tech. He took it. The next year, Stoops, Heupel and new offensive coordinator Mark Mangino won the national championship at OU with a similar, albeit more balanced, offensive style.

When Leach arrived in Lubbock, Texas, a talented young quarterback named Kliff Kingsbury awaited. The two set NCAA records together and it started an impressive run for Leach, who won a school-record 84 games over the next 10 years. However for all the recognition he was receiving, Leach was abruptly fired, accused of mistreating a player.

While Mumme is the Air Raid’s pioneer, Leach’s success in Lubbock did more to advance the offense’s gospel than anything. He turned Texas Tech, which nobody would confuse with a blueblood, into a consistent winner, averaging eight wins a season and going to a bowl all 10 years of his tenure. The Red Raiders’ signature victory, a 39-33 upset of No. 1 Texas in 2008, forever changed the way the Air Raid, and other spread offenses like it, were perceived.

The culmination of Mumme’s creation, from the wide offensive line splits, fast tempo and pass concepts (Michael Crabtree’s game-winning touchdown catch came on “six,” the offense’s terminology for four verticals), was on full display to a nationally televised audience. Coaches from multiple levels around the region and the nation flocked to Lubbock to learn from Leach’s staff.

“We spent extra time internet hosting highschool coaches and training staffs than we did our personal gamers,” said Dykes, who was an assistant for Leach at Tech. “It by no means stopped. I want we’d’ve saved our mouth shut slightly greater than we did.”

Leach’s Texas Tech teams — coaching staff and players included — produced 23 college or NFL coaches, according to The Athletic. His tenure there was a breeding ground for future coaches of this style. Kentucky preceded it: At least six coaches and players from the 1997 and 1998 Wildcats teams went on to be college head coaches.

Air Raid offense remains potent

Mumme and Leach’s union was part coincidence, part Leach persistence.

When Mumme took the head coaching job at Iowa Wesleyan in 1989, few coaches were lighting up his phone line for a job, as S.C. Gwynne wrote in “The Good Cross,” a book on Mumme. The NAIA program was a bottom-feeder, 0-10 the year prior. But Leach, a BYU and Pepperdine Law graduate who was desperate to coach football despite his limited background in the sport, was undeterred.

Mumme needed an offensive line coach who would embrace the wide splits he wanted to have in his offense. Leach simply wanted an opportunity. The two met at BYU that spring, hit it off, and Mumme hired Leach, paying him a $12,000 salary.

“I made a decision I simply needed to rent the neatest particular person I may discover who actually needed to do what I do,” Mumme said.

Soon thereafter, before Leach’s official arrival in Mount Pleasant (he was busy coaching a team in Finland and had to finish out the season), Mumme’s phone would ring weekly, often late at night. It was Leach wanting to talk. About anything.

“Civil conflict historical past,” Mumme said. “Pirates. Jimmy Buffett music. Sometimes we bought round to some soccer.”

It was the start of a 10-year coaching relationship that would change everything for both of them.

After success at Texas Tech and Washington State, Leach is back in the SEC. His Mississippi State debut was wildly successful, a win over reigning champion LSU, but Arkansas squashed the lingering euphoria by upending the Bulldogs on Saturday.

Regardless of the first two results, those who know Leach are optimistic about his chances in Starkville. The roster talent at his disposal, paired with the recruiting base he has access to, gives him a lot of potential for success.

Times, jobs and salaries have changed, but Leach has not. While many Air Raid disciples have evolved the offense, Leach still runs the purest form of it. “It is completely the identical factor,” White said. He’s still not a big fan of running the ball.

And he still goes off on tangents, which are now well-documented publicly, rather than confined to the privacy of staff meeting rooms. Near the end of Monday’s news conference, he borrowed someone’s phone to play an air raid siren over the microphone and promised to get such a noisemaker for his grandchildren.

“You realize he is all of the belongings you need,” Stoops said. “He is an awesome chief and he will get individuals to carry out properly. Once more, although individuals will chuckle at his completely different sayings or when he goes off on his rants, while you come right down to it, he is a hell of a soccer coach.”

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