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The Mike Leach coaching tree

And he’s still going strong out in Pullman...

NCAA Football: Montana State at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Leach’s upset victory over the #5 ranked USC Trojans was his fifth career upset over a top 5 ranked opponent. It was also the first since 2008 when his Texas Tech Red Raiders beat Texas in Lubbock 39-33 on this famous play.

It had seemed as though the pirate coach was going to take a backseat for this decade and fade into the sunset while his former assistants took over college football. It would seem that he still has some fire left though to continue to overturn the college football world.

Meanwhile many of his former assistants have moved on to bigger and better things. The Mike Leach coaching tree has become massive and sprawling, reaching across the landscape and starting to invade and branch out in new directions. For fans that haven’t tracked Leach’s career over the last two decades, it’s an amazing thing to behold. Back when he was ruining seasons for Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12 his offense was regarded as anything from “a gimmick” to “sheer wizardry.”

In reality it was simply the logical endgame of the West Coast passing revolution that has transformed the NFL into a league where 40-year old Tom Brady is winning Super Bowls without a running game. If the most potent style of offense is the quick passing game, and mastery of that style requires dedication, then a college offense that’s geared around it is going to need to be tweaked to make that dimension sufficient to overcome a lack of run game.

Leach accomplished that with wide splits along the offensive line, a practice regimen geared around giving his QBs enough reps to make all of the progressions and checks a factor of muscle memory, and the paring down of the West Coast passing game into a few key concepts that they could master at a high level.

Some of this has stuck and we probably haven’t seen the end of college offenses built around the passing game to the neglect of running the football, but it may prove to be Mike Leach’s assistants and not his ideas that have the greatest impact on the game.

The assistants who borrowed from Leach

There are some major accomplishments and new branches that extend out of these various connections to Mike Leach, mostly from his time at Texas Tech.

Some of these coaches developed their systems alongside Mike Leach, such as Art Briles who used his time at Texas Tech in part just to springboard himself from the high school coaching world into the college coaching world. There are also coaches like Urban Meyer (and his ilk), Bob Stoops, Kevin Sumlin, and Chip Kelly that took a lot from Leach’s offense without necessarily working under Leach. Then there are the coaches that came before Leach whom he learned from and borrowed from such as BYU’s Lavell Edwards and Kentucky’s Hal Mumme.

The guys on this tree all worked at the pirate’s direction though before going on to take over at new stops. It’d be interesting to learn what all Dave Aranda took from his time in Lubbock but given his knack for attacking protections it was probably > nothing. The most successful of this tree was probably Art Briles who took a similar approach to what Leach did but instead of drawing the “let’s be excellent in the drop back passing game” to its logical extremes he did the same thing with the concept of the spread and option offense in general. Ultimately marrying play-action/power football and Leach’s downfield spread passing in a way that has changed the game forever.

The former players

Mike Leach didn’t fight hard to recruit at Texas Tech and has never made it a major component of his formula for success, which is perhaps a part of the reason why some of his successors have had more success. Leach has always had better things to do (in his estimation) than try to ingratiate himself with teenage boys and their families. Like learning about history or drawing up a new way to run a passing concept on a diner napkin.

That may also be why his teams have tended to draw players that relied on their enthusiasm for approaching the game intellectually and relationally who then went on to be innovative coaches in their own right.

Anyways, Leach has had a number of players that learned a lot from his approach to the game in terms of teaching and strategy, and that have also thrived in the opportunities that his success created for coaches that could duplicate his methods. Once again, these guys aren’t all necessarily strict acolytes of the same system. Josh Heupel takes more after Art Briles these days than he does Mike Leach. Lincoln Riley took over at Oklahoma and adapted to the Sooners’ personnel to building a brilliant offense geared around the run game.

Dana Holgorsen was his first player to go on to notoriety as a coach, he was recruited to Iowa Wesleyan by Mike Leach and Hal Mumme as a wide receiver. Holgorsen was the first to branch out from the strict passing game and introduce a greater emphasis on the run game and using the run to set up play-action or RPOs (run/pass options).

Sonny Cumbie, who played QB at Texas Tech two years after Kingsbury graduated, has taken lessons from Leach and infused them with some Gary Patterson principles to find ways to unleash athletes in simple schemes that have lots of built-in answers. In particular, Cumbie has explored the possibilities of the dual-threat QB in the Air Raid system. Future TCU offenses are likely to be hybrids of the Air Raid and shotgun-option based systems.

Kliff Kingsbury has arguably the strongest offense resume amongst Leach’s former players save perhaps for Lincoln Riley. The original Red Raider QB under Mike Leach coached Case Keenum at Houston to his 5631 passing yard/48 TDs season in 2011. Then he followed Kevin Sumlin to Texas A&M where they immediately loosed redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel in a 5116 total offensive yards/47 total TD, Heisman-winning performance.

That earned him Leach’s old gig in Lubbock where he’s struggled to win games but hasn’t struggled to field some amazing offenses. He’s demonstrated some amazing possibilities with dual-threat QBs but has also lit up defenses with pocket passers at the helm. He’s in a make or break campaign this year and already 3-1 with Iowa transfer and pocket passing Nic Shimonek at the helm.

A lasting legacy

There are two main influences that Mike Leach has had on the game of football and offense in particular. The first is the lasting influence of his once “wacky” ideas about flinging the ball around all day from shotgun spread sets rather than trying to win by besting opponents up front in the run game.

His “throw it short to people who can score” immediately struck smaller schools and high schools around the state of Texas as a superior way to put points on the board. If you could train up a disciplined OL to open lanes and then happened to have a star athlete running the ball, he still gets the ball behind the line and immediately becomes the focus of the entire defense. But if you can train up a disciplined set of players to fling the ball around in space, the rewards are vastly higher as the ball’s movement through the air is doing much of the heavy lifting in terms of picking up yardage.

Part of the reason for the proliferation of 7on7 tournaments, skill development, and superior passing prospects coming out of high school has been the influence of Leach’s offense.

Leach’s tactics for training and deploying players in the passing game have stuck and influenced offenses all around the country beyond the obvious ones coached by former assistants like Dana Holgorsen or Art Briles. Then there’s the influence of all the players he coached and has helped into the coaching ranks, who now seem poised to dominate the Big 12 region for the foreseeable future if not elsewhere as well.

And despite all of those lasting accomplishments that will stay with the game for years and years to come, the pirate is still up there in Pullman swinging his sword and cutting down Trojans.