THE CASE FOR MIKE LEACH AS TENNESSEE VOLUNTEER HEAD COACH

A couple of days ago, Clay Travis posted a link to this in-depth 2005 article by Michael Lewis about Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach. While I was devouring that article and fleshing my thoughts into the post you’re about to read, Clay was posting his own endorsement of Mike Leach. We're both right. Mike Leach should be Tennessee's next head coach because he's having great success challenging the traditional notions and customs of college football, his offense is explosive, he has a defense to go with it, and he would make it all fun again.

The Space Offense

Most would likely call Leach’s offense a spread, but it may be more precise to call it a “space offense.” Yes, he spreads players out to get playmakers in space, but it's more than just that. Leach isn’t just seeking room for his players to move, he’s looking at the entire field from a geometrical perspective. He moves folks around in such a way as to alter the environment in which the players are moving, effectively changing the size and shape of the field.

Take the offensive line as just one example. The linemen line up with huge gaps between them. You’d think that would mean that defenders would simply rush right through those gaps and get at the quarterback before he could do anything about it, but that’s not what happens. The wide gaps force the defenders to spread out themselves to cover all of the possibilities presented by the wide o-line. The defensive line spreading out means that the defensive ends have further to run to get the QB, and it means that the quarterback has much wider passing lanes through which to see the field and get the ball to the receivers.

Mike Leach isn’t the only coach using wide-gap o-lines. Most coaches employing some version of the spread use them as well. But with Leach, it’s more like he uses wide gaps because he views the entire game differently than because he figured out a new way to get the old job done.

Forget everything you knew

Leveraging space and geometry isn’t the only thing that Leach does differently than most. He couldn’t care less about time of possession. He’d much rather eat up the scoreboard than devour the clock, and it doesn’t appear to matter how much time is left in the game. His goal is to run 90 plays per game rather than the 65-75 plays most teams run. His drives generally don’t last much longer than two minutes. He’d much rather try to gain a first down than punt the ball. He’d much rather pass the ball than run it, and he doesn’t think much of the idea that a team has to be balanced to win. No, he considers his team balanced if five receivers all gain 1,000 yards on the season. In a world of power and strength, his teams are conditioned for speed and endurance.

Heresy!

Will Tennessee and its fan base accept such an affront to its tradition? All of those notions are anathema to Tennessee’s tradition, which has been to pound the rock for three yards and a cloud of dust, to play a conservative field-position game and to chew up the clock. Would the Tennessee establishment embrace any of Leach’s offensive nonsense?

If only they give it a chance, they will. Texas Tech was apparently a run-first, time of possession type team prior to Leach’s arrival. After the initial shock, they warmed up to the innovation because it worked.

Consdier this, too. How jazzed were Tennessee fans prior to this season simply because we were going to see a new style of offense? Turns out the Clawfense was too complicated. Not so with Leach’s space offense. His offensive philosophy is to create as much confusion for the defense as possible while also keeping things as simple as possible for his offensive players. "There's two ways to make it more complex for the defense," Leach says. "One is to have a whole bunch of different plays, but that's no good because then the offense experiences as much complexity as the defense. Another is a small number of plays and run it out of lots of different formations. That way, you don't have to teach a guy a new thing to do. You just have to teach him new places to stand.”

Leach has no playbook. His quarterback has a wristband with plays written on it, and Leach has what appears to be notes on a napkin in his palm on the sideline. That’s it. Lewis described the offensive philosophy as a mood: “optimism. It is designed to maximize the possibility of something good happening rather than to minimize the possibility of something bad happening.” I like the sound of that precisely because it is different from what we’ve been doing for so long.

Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it isn’t exciting. In fact, the word explosive doesn’t quite do it justice. Have a look:


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That’s not a new thing for Tech in 2008, either. In 2004 against TCU, the Horned Frogs led 21-0 with eight minutes left in the second quarter. Tech finished the game 70-35. A few games later, Tech had been leading Nebraska 14-3 late in the first half and ended up winning 70-10.


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As Lewis describes it, “It's as if his opponent's defense has some deep dark secret that takes time for his offense to extract.” Once he finds it, game over, man.

And if that doesn’t sell you, maybe this will. Leach’s offense does not have an off switch. He will continue to try to score no matter the score, no matter the game clock, no matter the opponent. Urban Meyer, we’re coming for you.

Quick turn-arounds

Quickly now, because I’m running out of time. Dude’s got head coaching experience. He was the offensive coordinator for Kentucky from 1997-1998. Prior to his arrival, the Wildcats’ QB passed for 967 yards. Under Leach, Tim Couch passed for 3,884 yards his first year and 4,275 yards his second.

Leach then went off to Oklahoma to be the Sooners’ offensive coordinator. That year, Oklahoma went from 101st to 8th in the country in offensive scoring. The next year, the Sooners won the national championship running Leach’s offense even though Leach had left for Texas Tech.

Leach has been the head coach for Texas Tech since 2000. He’s 75-37 and averaging eight wins a season. Not bad, not great, but remember that this is Texas Tech. They were basically a six-win school prior to Leach’s arrival. Think of Texas Tech in the Big 12 South with Texas and Oklahoma as essentially the same as South Carolina in the SEC East. He basically added two wins per season at a school with significant disadvantages. It’s easier to be successful at a tradition-rich school because players want to go there for that reason. Having success at a school that has trouble recruiting is a better indicator of the coach’s value. Yes, Tech is in Texas, but they have to compete with all of the Texas schools as well as Oklahoma and everybody else in the nation who knows that Texas and Florida have great talent.

Making it fun again

Finally, having Leach would make it fun to be a Volunteer football fan again. The guy is just entertaining. He’s intelligent: top third in his law school class at Pepperdine. He’s wise: he asked himself why he wanted to be a lawyer and then chose to become a coach instead. He keeps things fresh and interesting with some new curious interest each season, whether it’s pirates, Geronimo, Daniel Boone, whales, chimpanzees, grizzly bears, or Jackson Pollock.

And he’s an absolute quote machine. He believes that both failure and success can slow you down:

When they fail, they become frustrated. When they have success, they want to become the thinking-man's football team. They start having these quilting bees, these little bridge parties at the line of scrimmage.

He ribs his rivals:

How come [the A&M cadets] get to pretend they are soldiers? The thing is, they aren't actually in the military. I ought to have Mike's Pirate School. The freshmen, all they get is the bandanna. When you're a senior, you get the sword and skull and crossbones. For homework, we'll work pirate maneuvers and stuff like that.

And more. Go read Lewis’ fantastic article.

But seriously, what about recruiting?

If you’re concerned about his recruiting, think about this. If he can do what he’s done at Texas Tech, a school that basically picks up the scraps from the other excellent Texas schools, just imagine what he could do with a school with a history of getting national recruits.

Conclusion

We’ve heard a lot of talk about some folks wishing Steve Spurrier had come to coach the Vols awhile ago or wanting him to now. Basically, what they’re saying is that they want the Spurrier who introduced innovation to the SEC and changed the league forever. You don’t want Spurrier, you want what Spurrier did back then. Mike Leach is now what Spurrier was then: a guy challenging the system and winning because he’s thinking differently than everyone else.

Perhaps some other traditionalist would be a better fit for Tennessee. I’m no athletic director or football expert. But I am a guy who last year made the case for Trooper Taylor as Tennessee’s next offensive coordinator. Just saying.

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