Coach Leach Goes Deep, Very Deep

Tuesday, December 6th, 2005

Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, looks at Texas Tech’s unorthodox football coach, in Coach Leach Goes Deep, Very Deep:

Looking for fresh coaching talent, Schwartz analyzed the offensive and defensive statistics of what he called the “midlevel schools” in search of any that had enjoyed success out of proportion to their stature. On offense, Texas Tech’s numbers leapt out as positively freakish: a midlevel school, playing against the toughest football schools in the country, with the nation’s highest scoring offense. Mike Leach had become the Texas Tech head coach before the 2000 season, and from that moment its quarterbacks were transformed into superstars. In Leach’s first three seasons, he played a quarterback, Kliff Kingsbury, who wound up passing for more yards than all but three quarterbacks in the history of major college football. When Kingsbury graduated (he is now with the New York Jets), he was replaced by a fifth-year senior named B.J. Symons, who threw 52 touchdown passes and set a single-season college record for passing yards (5,833). The next year, Symons graduated and was succeeded by another senior — like Symons, a fifth-year senior, meaning he had sat out a season. The new quarterback, who had seldom played at Tech before then, was Sonny Cumbie, and Cumbie’s 4,742 passing yards in 2004 was the sixth-best year in N.C.A.A. history.

Leach was not working with top talent, but his unorthodox strategies led them to set offensive records:

But when Schwartz studied videotape of the Texas Tech offense, what he saw unsettled him. The offensive linemen positioned themselves between three and six feet apart — on extreme occasions, the five linemen stretched a good 15 yards across the field. At times it was difficult to tell the linemen from the receivers. Strictly speaking, they were not a line at all, just a row of dots. “The offensive line splits — you look at them, and you’re just shocked,” Schwartz said. “It scares people to see splits that are that wide.”

The big gaps between the linemen made the quarterback seem more vulnerable — some defenders could seemingly run right between the blockers — but he wasn’t. Stretching out the offensive line stretched out the defensive line too, forcing the most ferocious pass rushers several yards farther from the quarterback. It also opened up wide passing lanes through which even a short quarterback could see the whole field clearly. Leach spread out his receivers and backs too. The look was more flag than tackle football: a truly fantastic number of players racing around trying to catch passes on every play, and a quarterback surprisingly able to keep an eye on all of them.

Leach sounds like a fascinating guy:

Each off-season, Leach picks something he is curious about and learns as much as he can about it: Geronimo, Daniel Boone, whales, chimpanzees, grizzly bears, Jackson Pollock. The list goes on, and if you can find the common thread, you are a step ahead of his football players. One year, he studied pirates. When he learned that a pirate ship was a functional democracy; that pirates disciplined themselves; that, loathed by others, they nevertheless found ways to work together, the pirate ship became a metaphor for his football team. Last year, after a loss to Texas A.&M. in overtime, Leach hauled the team into the conference room on Sunday morning and delivered a three-hour lecture on the history of pirates. Leach read from his favorite pirate history, “Under the Black Flag,” by David Cordingly (the passages about homosexuality on pirate ships had been crossed out). The analogy to football held up for a few minutes, but after a bit, it was clear that Coach Leach was just … talking about pirates. The quarterback Cody Hodges says of his coach: “You learn not to ask questions. If you ask questions, it just goes on longer.”

Coach Leach never played football — he rode the bench as a high school junior — and got a law degree before asking himself “”Why do I want to be a lawyer?”" and deciding to coach.

How he confounds the opposing defense:

What a defense sees, when it lines up against Texas Tech, is endless variety, caused, first, by the sheer number of people racing around trying to catch a pass and then compounded by the many different routes they run. A typical football offense has three serious pass-catching threats; Texas Tech’s offense has five, and it would employ more if that wasn’t against the rules. Leach looks at the conventional offense – with its stocky fullback and bulky tight end seldom touching the football, used more often as blockers – and says, “You’ve got two positions that basically aren’t doing anything.” He regards receivers as raffle tickets: the more of them you have, the more likely one will hit big. Some go wide, some go deep, some come across the middle. All are fast. (When Leach recruits high-school players, he is forced to compromise on most talents, but he insists on speed.) All have been conditioned to run much more than a football player normally does. A typical N.F.L. receiver in training might run 1,500 yards of sprints a day; Texas Tech receivers run 2,500 yards. To prepare his receivers’ ankles and knees for the unusual punishment of his nonstop-running offense, Leach has installed a 40-yard-long sand pit on his practice field; slogging through the sand, he says, strengthens the receivers’ joints. And when they finish sprinting, they move to Leach’s tennis-ball bazookas. A year of catching tiny fuzzy balls fired at their chests at 60 m.p.h. has turned many young men who got to Texas Tech with hands of stone into glue-fingered receivers.
“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.” Leach prefers new formations. “That way, you don’t have to teach a guy a new thing to do,” he says. “You just have to teach him new places to stand.”

It sounds like he’s been reading Boyd. In fact, this sounds straight out of the Marine playbook:

Leach is unusual in giving his quarterback the authority to change every play, wherever the line of scrimmage. “He can see more than I’ll ever see,” Leach says. “If I call a stupid play, his job is to get me out of it. If he doesn’t get me out of it, I might holler at him. But if you let him react to what he sees, there’s a ton of touchdowns to be had.”

The mentality he’s fighting:

From the beginning of football time, when there was no such thing as a forward pass and an offense did nothing but run, innovation has come from the passing attack. The last great shift was the so-called West Coast offense, developed by Bill Walsh during his time as a coach for Stanford University and then the San Francisco 49ers. Now widely imitated, it emphasizes controlling the game with lots of short passes. Still, football’s mixed feelings toward passing are ingrained. Bob Carroll, a leading football historian, summarizes the attitude of the game’s rule makers to the forward pass: “We’re going to allow it because we know it makes the game safer. But we’re going to make it difficult for you, because we don’t approve of it.” A whisper of the old antipass bigotry can be heard in football’s conventional wisdom: that a balanced offense means running as often as you pass; that you can’t pass all that effectively unless you first establish a running game; that a running game is necessary to “control the clock”; that passing is inherently riskier than running because a pass might be intercepted and give the other team good field position.

Leach and his offense are approaching the natural end of a path football strategy has been taking for 50 years. They are testing a limit. Synergy, in Leach’s view, doesn’t come from mixing runs with passes but from throwing the ball everywhere on the field, to every possible person allowed to catch a ball. “Our notion of balance,” Leach says, “is that the five guys who catch the ball all gain 1,000 yards in the season.”

I love this anecdote — any football fan should:

“Thinking man’s football” is a bit like “classy stripper”: if the adjective modifies the noun too energetically, it undermines the nature of the thing. “Football’s the most violent sport,” Leach says. “And because of that, the most intense and emotional.” Truth is, he loves the violence. (“Aw, yeah, the violence is awesome. That’s the best part.”) Back in the early 1980′s, when he was a student at B.Y.U., he spotted a poster for a seminar, “Violence in American Sports.” It was given by a visiting professor who bemoaned the influence of football on the American mind. To dramatize the point, the professor played a video of especially shocking blows delivered in college and pro football. “It had all the great hits in football you remembered and wanted to see again,” Leach recalls. “Word got around campus that this guy had this great tape, and the place was jammed. Everybody was cheering the hits. I went twice.”

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