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Venables might rate more sympathy if it hadn't been the Sooners themselves who launched this revolution. Hired at Oklahoma before the 1999 season, coach Bob Stoops put together a staff that included contrarian offensive coordinator Mike Leach, whose determination to install a passing offense—in the stadium where Billy Vessels, Steve Owens, Billy Sims and Joe Washington had run wild—struck many a Sooners fan as vaguely heretical.
They were not his only critics. At a staff meeting the following spring, Leach got into a heated discussion with offensive line coach Mark (Bear) Mangino about streamlining the playbook. "I wanted to cut the counter," he recalls. "Bear wanted to keep it."
The two men were soon out of their chairs, shouting and finger-pointing across the table. The dispute was mediated by tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes, a former NFL player. "I've got one gigantic paw implanted in my chest; Bear's got another in his," recalls Leach. "We kept the counter."
Leach has been even less inclined to hew to mainstream doctrine since taking the coaching job at Texas Tech in 2000. Since then, the Red Raiders have carved out a niche as the most unapologetically unbalanced spread offense in the nation. "We're going to throw it," says Leach. "We know it, you know it, so try and stop us. Let's see what you got."
Mangino—Leach's good friend then and now—took over at Kansas in 2002. Lacking a sufficient number of Big 12--caliber skill players, he didn't install a full-fledged spread right away. An especially critical piece of the puzzle for the Jayhawks fell into their laps three years later. As a favor to a friend, Mangino took a look at a videotape of an undersized quarterback from Austin. Despite putting up huge numbers for Lake Travis High, Todd Reesing got no love from in-state powers Texas or Texas A&M—for obvious reasons. ("Five-ten-ish," replies one Jayhawks assistant, when asked for Reesing's height.) But Mangino liked Reesing's pinpoint accuracy, his cool in the clutch, his knack for sidestepping the rush to keep a play alive. As a sophomore last season, Reesing threw for 3,486 yards and 33 touchdowns, both school records, and led the Jayhawks to an Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.
His favorite target this season has been the guy he beat out for the job. Junior wide receiver Kerry Meier, still the backup QB, is 6'3", 220 pounds, runs a 4.5 40 and has "the softest hands I've seen in a long time," says Mangino, who told Meier last season, "I really don't want to see you standing by me on the sideline every week. How about we work you in at receiver?"
Despite the fact that he neither meets nor practices with the receivers—as Reesing's understudy, he's too busy ingesting the game plan—Meier is averaging 8.8 receptions a game, second-best in the country. He snagged a pair of TD passes in the Jayhawks' white-knuckled, come-from-behind 35--33 win at Iowa State last Saturday. It beats the heck out of holding a clipboard.
MISSOURI'S GARY PINKEL was "looking for an edge" after the 2004 season, which is another way of saying he was looking to save his job. A favorite to win the Big 12 North that year, the Tigers lost a nationally televised game to the Trojans—the ones from Troy, not USC—before dropping five straight games in conference. With no bowl game to play after finishing 5--6, Pinkel had plenty of time on his hands over the holidays. That's when he decided to join football's fast-break crowd.
That decision was made easier by a commitment he had in his back pocket. The previous July, a pudgy prodigy from Southlake ( Texas) Carroll High had cast his lot with the Tigers. Like Reesing, Chase Daniel had cut his teeth on this offense: He'd been operating in a spread since eighth grade. Like Reesing, the 6-foot, 225-pound Daniel was a three-star recruit who'd been docked at least one star for lack of height. And like Reesing, he was overlooked by the Texas Longhorns, for whom he'd long dreamed of playing.
Long-suffering Tigers fans got a glimpse of things to come on Oct. 15, 2005. Mizzou was trailing Iowa State by 10 with eight minutes to play when Daniel relieved an injured Brad Smith. On his first snap, a third-and-10 on his own 25, the true freshman coolly moved the chains with a 13-yard completion. On a fourth-and-seven in the same drive, he rifled a 25-yard pass to tight end Chase Coffman. In the end he completed 16 of 23 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown, rallying Missouri to a 27--24 overtime win.