- With USC hiring Graham Harrell, Mike Leach's coaching tree is more marketable than ever—but Leach himself almost never gets looked at for big jobs.
USC has hired Graham Harrell of North Texas as its offensive coordinator, which seems like a logical move considering the Trojans’ original plan was to have Kliff Kingsbury run the offense in 2019. Kingsbury left USC after a month to be the Arizona Cardinals’ head coach—which still seems wild considering Kingsbury had just been fired as the head coach of alma mater Texas Tech after compiling a 35–40 career record. So it made sense that USC would replace Kingsbury with a guy who also played quarterback at Texas Tech, also became a coach after an NFL stint and also embraces the same Air Raid principles he ran as a player.
While it is an extremely logical move, it only serves to deepen my suspicion that decision-makers across the football landscape don’t understand what they truly want. They say they want an offense that is simple to teach, quarterback-friendly and stressful to defenses. This, they believe, will win them more games. And that has made a certain subset of coaches quite marketable.
But the guys doing the hiring keep sipping from tributaries. Why not go straight to the wellspring? They don’t really want a certain set of offensive principles. They want something that they’re afraid to admit they want.
So what do they actually want? They want Mike Leach.
The Cardinals hired Handsome Mike Leach, even though his results don’t match the results obtained by Actual Mike Leach at the same school. AML went 84–43 in 10 seasons at Texas Tech. He’s 49–40—including 37–15 over the past four seasons—at Washington State, an even more remote Power 5 outpost. The best selling point for Kingsbury is that he has a great eye for quarterbacks, and he’s excellent at developing them. He brought in Baker Mayfield as a walk-on* and saw the stratospheric potential in Patrick Mahomes long before anyone else. But AML has a pretty good track record on that front, too. He inherited Kingsbury and had him setting records. He recruited Harrell and had him setting records.
*And who was the only Power 5 head coach to offer a scholarship to Mayfield out of high school? You guessed it. AML.
AML’s last project was taking a grad transfer who had started for a 3–9 American Athletic Conference team and turning him into a guy who completed 70.7% of his passes and threw for 4,779 yards with 38 touchdowns and nine interceptions on an 11–2 team. The last coach who made an East Carolina quarterback that much better was Old Soul Mike Leach with Shane Carden.
Who is Old Soul Mike Leach? You know him better as Lincoln Riley. The Texas Tech walk-on-turned-assistant started his career under AML and runs an offense that uses most of the same principles. AML was born 22 years before OSML, but spend any time around the two and you’ll realize that OSML’s emotional age outpaces AML’s by a few decades. For instance, Riley is far less likely than AML to launch into a 14-minute soliloquy about what happened with the ice pick at the end of Basic Instinct during a quarterback meeting.
OSML, who has won two Big 12 titles and coached two Heisman Trophy winners since taking over the Oklahoma program from Bob Stoops, is the only branch of AML’s coaching tree who has surpassed the master. That isn’t unheard of, though. AML surpassed Air Raid creator Hal Mumme (Ur-Mike Leach) a long time ago. OSML’s Oklahoma teams have had only one weakness: a porous defense. So what did OSML do to fix this? He hired Alex Grinch, who ran the best defenses that have worked opposite AML’s offenses at Washington State.
Now USC will try to save the Clay Helton era with Hot Young Mike Leach. What’s interesting is that the Trojans didn’t immediately move to HYML following Kingsbury’s departure. The other name reportedly in the mix for the job was Jedd Fisch. Fisch spent most of his early career in the NFL, but he later ran offenses at Miami, Michigan and UCLA. He currently works for the Los Angeles Rams. This is curious, and this digression isn’t meant to cast aspersions on HYML or Fisch, who are both quality coaches. Their offenses are drastically different. If Helton was convinced Kingsbury was the guy, why not immediately move on another Air Raid coach? That there seemed to be a question at this late date about whether USC wanted to run the Air Raid or an offense run by a guy with NFL roots suggests a lack of an overall vision on that side of the ball. Perhaps that will change now that the Trojans are once again all-in on the Air Raid.
Or perhaps Helton needed that time to sell HYML to his bosses. After all, HYML was a 33-year-old working at North Texas for head coach Seth Littrell (Jacked Mike Leach), who played for AML at Oklahoma and worked for him at Texas Tech. Maybe someone like former Cal coach Sonny Dykes (Chill Mike Leach) would have been an easier sell, but CML already has a head-coaching job at SMU. Dana Holgorsen (Visored Mike Leach) is perhaps the purest distillation of AML, but he just got a mega-deal to be Houston’s head coach.
The decision to go to USC is a wise one for HYML. He’s going to make big money no matter what happens, and if he makes the offense better and saves the rest of the staff’s jobs, he’ll either get more money to stay at USC or the chance to run his own program elsewhere. If it doesn’t work out and the staff gets fired, he’ll still get paid. And he probably wouldn’t get tarred because everyone would know the boat was leaky before he climbed aboard.
And while we’re using nautical analogies, let’s head back to the coaching world’s best known pirate. The Trojans have had three chances to hire AML as their head coach since Pete Carroll left for the Seahawks, but that hasn’t even been a remote possibility. Perhaps the powers that be at USC were concerned AML would show up to a fancy booster function in flip-flops and some Hollywood type would yell “Well I never” and faint.
But let’s think about this for a second. Why doesn’t AML get any serious run for jobs like that one? The Adam James thing? AML debunked that pretty thoroughly in his book. That’s not it. Maryland brought him in for an interview after all that happened but hired Randy Edsall instead because Edsall felt safer. Decades ago, Key West High could have hired AML and changed the course of football history, but he didn’t get the job. Washington State did hire AML and eventually got better.
Let’s imagine for a moment that instead of meeting with AML in California at the tail end of his portion of the coaching search from hell, former Tennessee athletic director John Currie had attempted to hire AML first. Imagine how that Sunday night in November 2017 might have gone had word leaked that AML had signed a Memorandum of Understanding to be Tennessee’s coach instead of Greg Schiano. There would have been a celebration instead of a fan revolt that got a job offer rescinded after the coach had already accepted. Currie would still have his job. Tennessee press conferences would definitely be more fun, and the games probably would be, too.
Tennessee wound up making a good hire in Jeremy Pruitt (Bald Nick Saban) in an attempt to grab a few drops of Alabama’s secret sauce. But the difference is every program in the country would hire Actual Nick Saban if it could. He’s just prohibitively expensive because Alabama will pay enough to ensure he never leaves. Washington State can’t do that, yet most high profile Power 5 schools don’t even give a thought to AML when their jobs come open.
AML is rarely top of mind in these situations. He’s not devastatingly handsome. He’s not young. He has very strong opinions about weddings and live mascots and other things that aren’t third-and-nine. He may work until 2 a.m., but he also may not come in until 10 or 11 a.m.
If this flavor of the month in football becomes the flavor of the year and remains en vogue, it’ll be interesting to see what happens when the coaching carousel spins again. Will the game keep seeking out some more polished, more boring version of Mike Leach, or will it seek out Actual Mike Leach?