The Pirate Innovator: From Finland To Starkville, Mike Leach Remembered For His Persistently Creative Approach To Football

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Mike Leach was 28, and his career was in the desert along with his law degree – literally – before he met the father of the “Air Raid” offense. That was Hal Mumme, who rose to fame as Kentucky’s innovative coach from 1997-2000.

Leach, Mississippi State’s coach the last three seasons, died at age 61 on Monday following a massive heart attack. He was a linebacker coach at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California, near Palm Springs in 1989, before he became an offensive genius under Mumme.

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Mumme, a former Texas high school coach and offensive coordinator at Texas-El Paso known for innovative pass offenses, had just been named the new head coach at Iowa Wesleyan in 1989. Mumme’s offense at UTEP was instrumental in upsetting No. 7 and defending national champion Brigham Young, 23-16, in 1985 for its only win of the season.

Mike Leach’s Coaching Roots Were At BYU

Then-BYU coach LaVell Edwards, the grandfather of many modern passing offenses, was impressed enough to reach out to Mumme and let him watch BYU practice after the ’85 season. Mumme and most others at El Paso were fired after a 1-10 season in ’85. Mumme landed at Copperas Cove High in central Texas from 1986-88. When Mumme went to Iowa Wesleyan, his plan was to install the BYU-type attack he had been perfecting.

Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach dead at 61. (Credit: Getty Images)
Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach died Monday at age 61. (Getty Images)

Mike Leach graduated from BYU in 1983 with a degree in American Studies and a minor in film of aerial football. He had been recruited out of Cody High in Wyoming to play at BYU, but an ankle injury changed that. He played rugby instead and watched film with Edwards.

So when Leach heard of this Mumme guy going to Iowa Wesleyan, he wanted in. And the “Air Raid” offense was off to college.

“The offensive coordinator job paid $12,000,” Mumme, 70 and still a pass game consultant, told OutKick on Tuesday. “Mike was at College of the Desert making $6,000 coaching linebackers, but he also had to watch the rec center at night. He was about the only guy I could hire who saw it as a move up.”

Mike Leach Had Humble Coaching Beginnings

Leach’s only other previous coaching experience was as the offensive line coach in 1987 at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. This guy was really smart, though. Didn’t have the typicial coaching degrees. He earned a law degree from Pepperdine in Malibu, California, in 1986. And he had a master’s in Sports Science from the United States Sports Academy in Daphne, Alabama.

“The guy is so intelligent,” Mumme said. “What you see in a press conference was what I’d see back then. You ask him a question about football, and you weren’t sure what subject he was going to talk about.”

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They talked on the phone almost nightly for weeks before they ever met, and Mumme wanted to hire him.

“But he wanted to know if it would be all right if he didn’t start until Aug. 1 because he had gotten an offer to be a head coach in Finland,” Mumme said. “I said, ‘Finland? Sure, go to Finland.'”

Leach coached Pori Bears in the American Football Association of Finland. Pori is a coastal town on the Gulf of Bothnia.

“He said he loved it,” Mumme said. “He had players age 17 to 40.”

The Mumme and Leach raid on college football blossomed at Iowa Wesleyan through 1991 and moved on to Valdosta State in Valdosta, Georgia, for five more seasons with Leach as offensive coordinator. Unlike most offensive coordinators, Leach spent some seasons coaching quarterbacks and receivers and others coaching the offensive line. Then the big move happened and Mumme and Leach got into the Southeastern Conference at Kentucky in 1997.

Mumme and Leach scripted plays like the great Bill Walsh, who invented the short-pass heavy West Coast offense as the coach of the San Francisco 49ers from 1979-88. Both also called a lot of plays with Leach doing so more.

“He was a great play caller,” Mumme said. “He was very aggressive – always in attack mode. He kept me from ever getting conservative.”

Must have. It is not a reach to say that probably no one ever called Mumme conservative.

“He’s like my little brother,” Mumme said. “We both enjoyed not coloring in the lines.”

Never was that more true than on Oct. 17, 1998, at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. With Leach as coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch shredded No. 21 LSU on 37-of-50 passing for 391 yards and three touchdowns at a time when the only other SEC team passing like this was Florida and coach Steve “Air” Spurrier.

Tied at 36-36 with 1:05 to go, Kentucky had the ball at its 34-yard line, and LSU’s coaches were coloring in the lines. They thought surely that the Wildcats would just run out the clock, punt and play for overtime as they faced a 3rd-and-12 with 1:05 to go.

Mike Leach Was A Daring Play Caller

But Leach – ever the pirate – called a reverse, caught LSU with its pants down, and wide receiver Quentin McCord gained 38 yards. A 14-yard completion by Couch then set up a game-winning, 33-yard field goal by Seth Hanson as time expired.

It was Kentucky’s first road win over a ranked team since 1977. The Wildcats finished 7-5 for their first winning season since 1983. Couch went on to set the SEC passing record for yards in a season with 4,275 and was the first pick of the 1999 NFL Draft by Cleveland. That SEC passing yards mark stood until LSU’s Joe Burrow broke it with 5,671 in 2019.

Leach returned to Tiger Stadium for his first game as Mississippi State’s coach in 2020. And his quarterback K.J. Costello, a transfer who would later lose his starting job, threw for an SEC record 623 yards in a 44-34 win. That broke a mark that had stood since 1993.

Also at Kentucky, Leach pioneered some of the widest offensive line splits that anyone had seen.

“That spacing bothered people,” Mumme said. “Mike proved that it could work.”

Spacing was a term more often associated with the fast break and Kentucky basketball coach Rick Pitino, who won the national championship in 1996 and was runner-up in 1997. Leach saw space as the secret to his offense with linemen as well as with multiple wide receivers in spread formations.

While Mississippi State’s athletic director, John Cohen hired Mike Leach to be his football coach away from Washington State after the 2019 season.

“I thought everything with a football passing game was the receiver’s routes,” Auburn athletic director John Cohen told OutKick Tuesday. Cohen as Mississippi State’s athletic director hired Leach from Washington State to be State’s head football coach after the 2019 season.

“But what Mike does is drop a receiver in space,” Cohen said. “His whole attack is to make the defense defend the entire field and making the defense decide what part of the field it will and will not cover.”

As Leach neared 40, though, he had never been a head coach outside of Finland.

Mike Leach Felt Like The ‘Avis Of Assistant Coaches’

“I remember he came into my office one day and said he just finished second for a head coaching job somewhere,” Mumme said. “And he said, ‘I’m the Avis rental car of assistant coaches.'”

Avis, which was No. 2 to Hertz at the time, used “We Try Harder” ads for decades. Leach kept trying.

“I told him, ‘No, you’re going to get one,'” Mumme said. “He couldn’t get out from under me.”

Mumme was accurately seen as the brains behind the offenses at Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State and Kentucky, but Leach had a large hand in the process and called many of the plays.

Finally, Leach got the offensive coordinator job at Oklahoma in 1999, and head coach Bob Stoops “turned him loose,” Mumme said. The offense went from No. 11 in the Big 12 to No. 1 under Leach. And Leach became head coach at Texas Tech from 2000-09.

The Red Raiders had three seasons of nine wins in Leach’s first eight years after just one through the previous decade. When Leach went 11-2 in 2008, it was Tech’s first double-digit win seasons since 1976.

At Washington State, Leach inherited a program that had seven losing seasons in eight years. In his fourth year, he was 9-4 and followed that with 8-5 and 9-4 seasons before an 11-2 mark in 2018 for the first double-digit win season since 2003 for the Cougars.

Leach winning at second or third city programs like Washington State and Texas Tech is why Cohen hired Leach. He inherited a 6-7 program and in year two was 7-6 in 2021 before finishing 8-4 and No. 22 this season in the latest College Football Playoff rankings.

Success At Texas Tech, Washington State, Mississippi State

“To survive in the SEC West at Mississippi State and other places, you have to regularly beat people with superior talent,” he said. “Mike did that at two places with talent disadvantages – Texas Tech and Washington State. Imagine what his record would be had he spent the majority of his career at places that get superior talent. Mike is a warrior. He always thought he would win the football game no matter what the talent was on the other side was. He is fearless.”

And in many ways, no one ever figured out how to adequately cover all the spaces in Leach’s offense.

Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers talks to coach Mike Leach during a game at Arkansas in the 2021 season.
(Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

“There’s almost always something open,” said State quarterback Will Rogers, a former three-star prep prospect who became the SEC career completions leader with 1,130 this season. While under Leach at State from 2020-22, he became the Bulldogs’ all-time leading passer with 10,428 yards and threw the most touchdown in school history with 81.

“He’s incredibly smart at figuring out defenses,” Rogers said at the Manning Passing Academy last summer.

“Mike Leach transformed college football forever. He was an innovator and a visionary,” LSU coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday.

“He ran the best, most highly functional, efficient practices I’ve ever seen,” Cohen said. “I love the guy. He’s one of the pioneers in coaching, there’s no doubt about it. When you look at the last 25 years the most innovative coaches that emerge are Steve Spurrier and Mike Leach. And I learned something about being an athletic director from him. No matter how advanced you are in your career, you can never lose curiosity and a desire to learn.”

“He ran the best, most highly functional, efficient practices I’ve ever seen,” Cohen said. “I love the guy. I learned something about being an athletic director from him. No matter how advanced you are in your career, you can never lose curiosity and a desire to learn.”

Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach (left) and Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin talk before their game at Ole Miss last Thanksgiving night. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)

Yet, Leach never changed that much from what he and Mumme were doing at Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State and Kentucky.

“I do think it’s amazing how he’s really not evolved,” rival Ole Miss coach and friend Lane Kiffin said during the 2021 season. “Usually, if you don’t evolve or don’t keep up with the game, you’re fired or you get passed by. Somehow he came up with something a long time ago that keeps working.”

Until the day he died.

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

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