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College Football
Phil Taylor
October 24, 2005
Air Raiders
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October 24, 2005

College Football

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Air Raiders

Texas Tech is unbeaten thanks to coach Mike Leach's innovative passing attack

Mike Leach, Texas Tech's brilliantly quirky coach, sat behind his office desk one afternoon last week and offered to show a visitor how he uses a deck of cards to determine whether potential recruits have the right stuff to become a Red Raider. As he peeled each card off the deck facedown, Leach asked his guest to guess whether the card was red or black and made two piles--one of the red guesses and one of the black--still facedown.

After the visitor had guessed on all 52 cards, Leach flipped them over to see how many were correct. Every card in the red-guess pile was red, and every one in the black-guess pile was black. "Amazing," Leach said. "You got a perfect score." Actually, it was a perfect card trick, and the guest asked the coach how he did it. "How do you know it was a trick?" Leach said, deadpan. "Maybe you're just really good."

Now in his sixth year at Texas Tech, Leach, 44, has so thoroughly transformed the Red Raiders--from a mediocre program into the 10th-ranked team in the nation--that it might seem like a magic trick, but there's nothing illusory about their 6-0 record or their high-powered attack, known as the Air Raid, which is bidding to lead the nation in passing for the fourth straight year. Tech's 59-20 win over Kansas State last Saturday set up the biggest game in Leach's tenure: a showdown for first place in the Big 12 South with second-ranked Texas, also 6-0, in Austin this Saturday.

Hardly anyone outside Lubbock expects the Red Raiders to emerge from the Texas game with their perfect record intact. Then again, hardly anyone would have expected a law school graduate who decided to go into college football coaching even though he'd never run anything other than a Little League baseball team to devise one of the most creative and prolific passing games in the nation. But that's exactly what Leach has done, with a twinkle in his eye and a sly half smile on his face. "He's got about a dozen different personalities," says quarterback Cody Hodges, who threw for 643 yards and five touchdowns against Kansas State. "He's a mad scientist, a comedian, a storyteller all rolled into one. I guess the best description is that he's an entertainer."

Give him time and Leach will regale you with stories--about the semipro team he coached in Finland, where the players smoked cigarettes on the sideline; about the time he phoned Donald Trump out of the blue because he was walking past one of the Donald's buildings; about the low-paying coaching job he took in 1987, the year after he had finished in the top third of his law school class at Pepperdine. "It was at Cal Poly-- San Luis Obispo," says Leach. "I told my wife the pay was $3,000. She said $3,000 a month wasn't too bad. I said it was $3,000 a year. Remarkably, we're still married."

That job began an odyssey that included stops at Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta (Ga.) State and Kentucky, all of them as an assistant to Hal Mumme. It was with Mumme that Leach refined the philosophy that has made Tech's offense so dangerous. The Red Raiders typically send so many receivers out--usually four and sometimes five--that a pass play looks like a crowd fleeing a fire. By flooding the field, someone usually breaks open, and Leach depends on his quarterback to find him. "If you're a receiver, why would you want to go anywhere other than Tech?" says sophomore wideout Joel Filani.

Leach isn't a big believer in stretching ("I never saw a dog do stretching exercises before chasing a car," he says), the importance of time of possession, or keeping the score down. With 15 seconds left in Saturday's blowout, he had backup quarterback Graham Harrell throwing into the end zone. But Leach does believe in spreading the ball around, as his team's eye-popping statistics against Kansas State illustrate. Four Red Raiders had more than 100 yards receiving, including Filani, who had 255. Hodges threw for five touchdowns, two of them to running back Taurean Henderson, who also ran for three.

Tech's last three quarterbacks ( Kliff Kingsbury, B.J. Symons and Sonny Cumbie) led the nation in passing yards, and Hodges, a fifth-year senior who had never started a game before this season--and, amazingly, doesn't even grip the ball by the laces when he throws--is in line to do the same. Leach, however, doesn't like to hear his passers slighted by the suggestion that the system is more important than they are. "He says that if just anybody could play quarterback in this system, he'd recruit a girl from the Swedish Bikini Team," Hodges said after Saturday's win, "because she'd be a lot more fun to watch."

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