While some coaches micromanage every element of their scheme, staff and players, Washington State coach Mike Leach has found success with more of a laissez faire approach.
Quarterbacks in his Air Raid offense are expected to know the ins and outs of every position on the field, but Leach affords them far more control in calling plays and making reads than most college (or professional) coaches would dare.
It doesn't happen often, but Leach says there are games when his quarterback heads onto the field about 60 percent of the time with nothing more than an offensive formation. In those cases, it is the quarterback's responsibility alone to give the offense his own play call, unless he decides to audible on the formation altogether.
It's a level of trust between Leach and his quarterbacks that he calls “one of the strengths of our offense.” According to several former quarterbacks who played for Leach, it also serves to form what they describe as the most unique relationship between a coach and a player in all of college football.
“You don’t find that in a lot of offensive coordinators or head coaches,” former Texas Tech quarterback B.J. Symons said. “Some of them might be a little egotistical that you’re going to run what they call. … That freedom that Mike gave you -- and it came from him trusting that you could make the right call -- that was a big part of my success.”
For some quarterbacks, it takes a while for that trust level to manifest itself. For others, like former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell, it came a bit more quickly. He realized the amount of ownership he had over the offense five games into his sophomore season.
With Texas Tech down three with less than a minute to go and the Red Raiders facing fourth-and-4, Leach looked at Harrell and told him, “Pick a good one.”
As in, pick a good play. It’s only the game that’s riding on this.
For a lot of college coaches, that would be terrifying. But if Leach didn’t believe that his quarterbacks knew the offense well enough to make the right call, then he wouldn’t give them that authority.
“With that trust comes a level of responsibility,” Leach said. “He does know he’s isolated out there and he does know he’s marooned, and he does know he’s expected to swim.”
And so Harrell did.
He completed a 10-yard pass to Jarrett Hicks for the first down.
“Somehow he puts a ton of responsibility on the quarterback without the quarterback feeling any pressure,” Harrell said.
Over the past season and a half, current Washington State quarterback Luke Falk has earned more trust from Leach and has found himself in similar positions, making play calls and changing offensive formations between the sideline and the pocket.
“You have to do your homework and know the offense completely,” Falk said. “You have to know who you’re playing. There’s a lot of work that goes into it, but it all comes down to doing your job and that’s just part of it -- getting us into the right checks, getting us into the right play calls.”
But Leach goes deeper in solidifying that trust with his starting quarterbacks.
One of Leach’s typical sayings is that most of the quarterback position is played from the shoulders up. Meaning, the mental aspect for each of his quarterbacks -- especially as he gives them so much decision-making responsibility -- needs to be taken care of as much, if not more, than the physical part.
So, he protects his guys. He’ll defend a quarterback in the media, to other coaches, to anyone who asks. His quarterback understands that Leach has his back.
And because of this, early on in Leach’s career he made a commitment to never yell at a quarterback in front of the team.
Whether it was former Texas Tech quarterback Kliff Kingsbury in 2001 or Falk today, Leach will not rip a quarterback in front of the team, or even the other quarterbacks. If it’s a problem, Leach will send every other player out to practice and stay with just his starting QB to go over the issues he’s having in the offense.
“I think a lot of times when a head coach starts ripping the quarterback in front of the whole team then a lot of the guys on the team start questioning, ‘Well, who should even be in there? Maybe the backup should be in there,’” former Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch said.
By not ripping quarterbacks in front of the rest of the team, there seems to be more of a “you’ve got my back” mentality than some might expect.
It’s a far different approach than a lot of college coaches take. Some coaches and coordinators feel like it’s important to be hard on their quarterbacks in public in order to let people know that their guy isn’t getting any preferential treatment. But for Leach, it’s the exact opposite. He gives that guy a different treatment, because the relationship is a different relationship than any other one he has on the team -- and likely any other head coach-player relationship in college football.