On a cool fall night in Lubbock, TX, Mike Leach’s Texas Tech Red Raiders football team had eight seconds to pull off the unthinkable.
The year was 2008. On the opposing sideline stood Mack Brown – head coach of the number one ranked Texas Longhorns. Three seasons ago, Brown hoisted the BCS National Championship Trophy as his Longhorns, lead by standout quarterback Vince Young, defeated Pete Carroll’s USC Trojans 41-38 in a game for the ages. This evening, his Longhorns had come back from 19 points down to take a 33-32 lead with 1:30 remaining in the fourth quarter. They needed one stop to complete the comeback.
Leach’s Red Raiders – lead by quarterback Graham Harrell and future NFL talent Michael Crabtree – stood 28 yards away from the end zone. Harrell’s last pass, intended for Edward Britton, looked like it had deflected right into the hands of Texas defensive back Blake Gideon for a game-ending interception. Only it had gone right through Gideon’s hands, leaving Leach and Harrell with another chance to pull off the biggest upset in Texas Tech football history.
Tech came to the line of scrimmage in 10 personnel – four wideouts, one running back to Harrell’s left. Crabtree, Harrell’s favorite target, set up wide on the opposite part of the field. Texas matched with a heavy set of defensive backs and two high safeties. The safety covering Crabtree’s side of the field stood well beyond the first down marker. If they were going to surrender a deep completion on this play, it had to be a perfectly placed football.
The play call was 4-Verticals, better known on the team as “6” (for the points the play typically scored). But this wasn’t your average four verticals. Leach put a different twist on it. In his eyes, the art of calling plays resembled not a chess match – but a boxing match. He didn’t want to confuse his payers with over complicated schemes. He simplified his playbook so they could spend less time memorizing and more time trusting their eyes. Just like a boxing match, you don’t have time to think. If you think, you’re slow. Leach wanted his players to play fast.
In his third season at Tech, Leach had a break through. His quarterback was a kid named Kliff Kingsbury – future NFL head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. Leach knew from his early days at Valdosta State that finding and exploiting every inch of space on the field was critical – vertically and horizontally. Kingsbury was great at hitting short timing routes, but Leach felt they were sacrificing a lot of real estate vertically. He decided to build in verticals routes into the playbook. Early on in spring, it wasn’t working nearly as often as Leach wanted. So he decided to make some changes that fit Kingsbury’s strengths.
Instead of waiting for the receivers to get down the field, Leach wanted his receivers looking for the ball early and often. If they were open, the quarterback was going to throw them the ball. It didn’t matter if it were five yards or 30 yards down the field. If you run straight for 35 yards, you’re probably going to be open at some point. If there wasn’t a window on the initial vertical route, Leach wanted his receivers to bend it off and find space to the left or right. They didn’t always have 70 yards of open space in front of them. But they always had 52 yards of space horizontally.
The quarterback’s job was no longer to wait until you were looking for the football. It was to throw you the football when you were open. Gone were technically demanding routes such as deep curls and digs. Leach would rather run his playbook the way most kids play Xbox: Send everyone deep and see who gets open first. If he’s open, throw him the football. In Kingsbury’s first two seasons, he averaged 3,450 passing yards and 23 passing touchdowns. In his third season, he threw for 41 touchdowns and 4,500 yards.
After Kingsbury went to the NFL, B.J. Symons stepped into Leach’s system and took it to a completely different level. Symons did not posses the hesitation that Leach felt held Kingsbury back. He’d throw a bullet through your ear if you weren’t looking – which is exactly what Leach was looking for. Symons broke every passing record in the books that year – including Kliff’s record of 52 single season passing touchdowns. When Leach first debuted “6” into his playbook, it was running at a 30% success clip. That season, it succeeded 56% of the time. Leach had taken a concept from backyard football and was rewriting the history books with it.
The secret? “Just get open.”
As Harrell took the snap with eight seconds left, he knew immediately where he was going to go with the football.
Texas sophomore cornerback Curtis Brown had the tough task of matching up on the outside with Crabtree – future 10th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. He was playing a few yards off the line of scrimmage. On the snap, Crabtree picked up a burst of speed and blew right by Brown to his left. Brown turned his head and ran up the field trying to keep up. Once Harrell saw the back of Brown’s jersey, he knew where he was going to go with the football. Leach had taught him to look for eyes, or in this case – the lack of. While Brown’s eyes weren’t on the football, he knew Crabtree’s were. And if he was open, Harrell was going to get him the ball.
From the shotgun, Harrell dropped back into a three step drop. He took his eyes to the middle of the field, keeping Crabtree in his peripheral. All he had to do was keep redshirt freshman Earl Thomas – future All-Pro Seattle Seahawk and Super Bowl champion – away from the sideline just long enough where he could give Crabtree a one on one opportunity to beat Brown for the ball. The last thing he wanted to do was give Thomas an easy read where he could undercut the throw for an interception.
With six seconds remaining, Harrell let go of the football for the most important throw of his college career. He put the ball towards the boundary and to Crabtree’s back shoulder. Thomas, coming over late from his center field position, was late making a play on the ball. Brown was glued to Crabtree’s inside shoulder. With the ball in mid air, Crabtree turned his back to the ball and relocated it with his body oriented towards the sideline. Brown saw Crabtree’s eyes and also looked back to find the ball, but was a half second too late.
Harrell dropped a perfect pass right into Crabtree’s arms, making the catch with just inches between his cleats and the sideline. Brown got a handful of Crabtree’s jersey, but it was not enough to stop the future NFL first rounder. Crabtree broke free and sprinted the remaining five yards into the end zone for the game winning touchdown. One second remained.
The game winning play call? “6.”
Going into the game, Leach knew Texas’ defensive backs did not do well against his backyard football style of play. They preferred to pounce on routes more clearly defined. With Leach’s system, the routes were only clearly defined to the quarterback and his receivers. Every single vertical was a little bit different. The improv nature of Leach’s system was chaotic enough where defenses couldn’t sit on certain routes. His wideouts were designed to find the open space. If you were on defense, you had no way to predict what was coming. Every single route – despite many of them largely coming from the same play package – was a little bit different.
It’s something you never would have come up with if you had a traditional background in football.
When Leach first broke into coaching in 1987, much of football offensive production was rooted in a strong ground game. Offensive packages, such as Bear Bryant’s wishbone, were designed to keep the ball moving on the ground. This never made sense to Leach. The objective of football wasn’t to “establish the run.” It was to score more points. And if all you do is keep the ball on the ground, it was easier for defenses to pack the box and minimize the amount of space you could utilize on the field. Born was his famous spread offense.
While Leach never played football during his time as an undergraduate student at BYU, he paid close attention to the football team. From 1976 to 1985, the Cougars – lead by College Football Hall of Fame head coach LaVell Edwards – won 10 consecutive Western Athletic Conference championships and the 1984 National Championship. A large part of their offense came down to their pass-heavy style of offense that relied on getting their playmakers in space. Leach fell in love with it. He took these concepts and paired it with Buffalo’s no huddle “K-Gun” offense – as made famous by future Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly.
Leach didn’t care to keep the ball on the ground like much of his competition. He wanted to revolutionize the way teams scored points. He was going to do it with BYU’s space, Buffalo’s tempo, and a playbook that only existed in his head. He didn’t want his players to spend their time memorizing an endless amount of plays and formations. He wanted to get really damn good at a few. And he didn’t care too much about whether the defense was in a cover two, three, man, or blitz. Like Hall of Fame basketball coach John Wooden, Leach wanted his players to run their best plays irregardless of what the defense threw at them. If they focused on doing what they knew how to do best really well, the defense would have to make adjustments off of them – not the other way around. It’s exactly how Leach wanted it.
On Texas Tech’s game winning drive, four of their last five plays were “6.” It was no secret what they were trying to do. But Leach’s offense didn’t rely on tricks. It relied on execution. He had built out a scheme and a level of trust that empowered his players to play as if they were playing a game of backyard football.
It’s something Leach never would have discovered if he had a traditional football background.
Of all the things that made Mike Leach a special football coach, the one trait that separated him from the pack was his unending curiosity. He studied history and law. He played rugby. His fascination with pirates turned into a team mantra: “Swing your sword.” It’s no coincidence his approach to football reflected his unique personality. Mike Leach was a one of a kind. But I think there are a lot more out there, waiting to be discovered.
That is – if we give them a chance to develop their own style.
One of Leach’s greatest advantages seems like a disadvantage on the outside. Leach did not play professional football, let alone college football. His father didn’t walk sidelines growing up. He didn’t go into his undergraduate at BYU thinking he would ultimately become a football coach. He had no preconceived notions for what you were supposed to say, do, or call from the sideline. He approach football the way an artist approaches a blank canvas: He started from scratch.
With no understanding of what he was supposed to be like, he simply created his own approach through careful observation, critical questioning, and an attitude of skepticism. He wasn’t going to run an offense just based off of the way others were running theirs. He was going to find and seek people who were successful, learn about their methods, and ultimately formulate his own based on what he thought made sense. There was no football book that told him BYU’s approach to offense or Buffalo’s no-huddle attack was the way to coach football. But he saw it with his own eyes. It made sense why it worked. The part that didn’t make sense was why more teams hadn’t tried to adopt it.
I think this approach to life – curiosity coupled with a healthy dose of skepticism – is a super power. Leach’s reputation as a skilled tactician started because he refused to believe that the common way to approach running a football offense was the best way. When he didn’t know, he asked. When he thought he knew, he questioned. If it didn’t make sense, he didn’t do it. Imagine how many iterations we would save if we looked at our work the way Leach looked at his coaching when he started from scratch in 1987. The curious will always find. The skeptical will never go blind.
The man who combines the best of both will always be in demand.