How far can Mike Leach, Air Raid go this time? They'll have to go beyond LSU

We should not have been surprised at what we saw unfold at Death Valley on Saturday. We shouldn't have been shocked when Mississippi State quarterback K.J. Costello, whom we had last seen driving a bulldozer at Stanford, spent the afternoon throwing his way past the likes of Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald in the Bulldogs' record book and then sailing over names such as Eric Zeier, Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow in the SEC annals of single-game passing. We probably shouldn't have been wowed by a game plan that dismantled the defense of defending national champion LSU to the tune of 623 passing yards in a 44-34 win.

No, the real-time Air Raid instruction manual we witnessed as it was read aloud in Baton Rouge absolutely should not have surprised us, because the author of that playbook has been working on it since 1998.

"I am here because I wanted to play in this offense and I wanted the challenge of running that offense in the SEC, against the best," Costello told ESPN on Wednesday morning, speaking for himself and then his head coach, whom he knows via past Stanford-Washington State matchups played in Pullman, Washington, and Palo Alto, California, 2,200 miles west of Starkville. "I think Coach Leach is here for those same reasons."

He is. There's no doubt about it. He just won't admit it.

During his eight seasons at Washington State, Mike Leach was always very careful when choosing his words about the SEC. The same was true during his 10 years at the helm of Texas Tech prior to his arrival at Washington State. Or even the three seasons in between those stops, when he kicked back in Key West, Florida, riding his bike to the grocery store and co-hosting satellite radio shows, sometimes both at once, making the most of an exile from the sideline forced upon him after a controversial firing from Texas Tech. At all three stops, he found himself fielding questions from fans, callers and barefoot rum seekers, all wanting to know when and where he might coach again, and if it might possibly, hopefully, inevitably, bring him back to a place among the college football titans of the Southeastern Conference.

He loved Lubbock. He loved Duval Street. He loved Pullman. So that's why he often went out of his way to sidestep any chance to overly praise the SEC. In fact, he often went the other way. For example, his infamous rant of 2016 when he said to the Washington State media corps: "I've got bad news for all these 'levels people.' Your level isn't special, your conference isn't special. All this 'different level this, different level that.' That's crazy. How is it better? Somebody coaches better athletes and, somehow, they morph into something smarter? That's crazy. I mean, you still have problems, you still have 11 parts you can wiggle around to counter the other 11 parts."

Or, as he wrote in his 2005 memoir "Swing Your Sword: Leading the Charge in Football and Life": "The fact that someone coaches in the SEC doesn't mean that he's any smarter than someone who coaches at a small college or in high school. Yeah, he might be smarter, but then again, he might not be. If some sheer unadulterated moron gets hired in the SEC, that doesn't mean he's automatically a smarter coach, it just means whoever hired him made a mistake."

Or, as he said told me just this week, hitting a little more down the middle: "Running our offense in the SEC was, and is always going to be, a great challenge. But I've had great challenges with this offense before, and I've also never doubted that it can work."

But privately, to friends and sportswriters alike, he confessed coveting any chance he might have to bring his playbook south, especially as he watched other coaches, those he warned of with their simpler football aptitudes, landing SEC head jobs. He became more vocal about that desire in a move to the lower right corner of the map in the fall of 2017, when his athletic director and friend Bill Moos unexpectedly left Wazzu for Nebraska. Only seven weeks later, Leach believed his chance to make that move had come and gone; he met with then-Tennessee athletic director Jon Currie while recruiting California and had a conversation that felt an awful lot like a job offer, only to learn that Currie was fired during his flight back to Knoxville. The following week, Jeremy Pruitt, a born-and-raised child of the SEC, was hired to lead the Vols.

Mike Leach was 56 years old and in his 30th year as a college football coach.

"I love it right here where I am," he said the following spring, knowing full well the person he was talking to knew all the details of the missed opportunity at Tennessee. That fall, with Gardner Minshew behind center, the Cougars went 10-2 with final ranking of 10th in the nation. "I don't need to be in a certain region to validate my worth as a head football coach."

Still, with a flight of adult beverages in his system while sitting in the upstairs lounge at Pullman's Etsi Bravo nightclub, Leach's eyes would light up whenever he started recalling his life down South. As offensive coordinator under head coach Hal Mumme, a man who quite literally looks like a mad football scientist, Leach spent five seasons guiding record-setting QBs at Valdosta State, where he took a liking to Steve Spurrier's "Air Ball" marketing campaign at Duke and altered it into "Air Raid" for his and Mumme's fast-paced, attacking style of play. When a parent started blaring an old WWII air-raid siren from the stands to keep the offense and audience inspired, the name stuck. Between games, Leach drove all over the Southeast -- not recruiting, but visiting the battlefields of the Civil War and American Revolution.

But the stories that have always worked him into a laughing lather are the ones told of his only prior SEC experience, the 1997-98 seasons at Kentucky with Mumme and quarterback Tim Couch. Leach's trademark stone-faced scowl is erased by smiles and downright giggles when he talks about the skull-rattling noise made by the end zone fans at South Carolina's Williams-Brice Stadium, climbing the hill outside the locker room at Neyland Stadium to catch a glimpse of the Vol Navy on the Tennessee River, and the second home of the Arkansas Razorbacks, Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium (what he still believes to be the loudest stadium he has visited).

His two all-time favorite SEC road trips were, coincidentally, LSU and Mississippi State. He beams whenever he talks about the visiting locker room in Starkville in '97, little more than a concrete box, with a sanded ramp outside to make walking in cleats nearly impossible, 38 nails in the wall upon which to hang gear for 70 players, and two exposed commodes placed in the center of the room. "Sitting on the floor right in between the toilets was exactly one roll of toilet paper," Leach recalled in 2017. "It was almost artwork. It was exquisite."

Until last weekend, he had been to LSU's Death Valley only once. Mike the Tiger didn't yet have his multimillion-dollar habitat next to the stadium. Instead, he was parked in a cage right outside the Kentucky locker room and poked in the butt with a stick to make sure he angrily roared at the Wildcats as they tried to hold their pregame meeting.

"I have told that story a million times because it was the best away-game experience I've ever had," Leach recalls now. "But you know what makes it the best? It wasn't the tiger or the insane crowd or any of that. It was that we also won the game. LSU was a Top 25 team and we won by three. Kentucky hadn't had a road win over a ranked opponent since the 1970s. We beat Louisville in our very first game in '97 and we beat Alabama that year, too, and it was the first time Kentucky had beaten them since the 1920s. Tim set a bunch of records -- he finished fourth in the Heisman voting [in 1998]. It was all just so much fun."

Air Raid T-shirts were all over Lexington. Heading into that 1998 season, the student section started wearing face masks of Mumme and Couch. Kentucky sold out games for the first time in forever. The Wildcats didn't merely beat archrival Louisville -- they dominated them.

Then it was over. After two seasons, Leach was off to Oklahoma for a year before landing the head coaching gig at Texas Tech.

"You never want to spend a lot of time looking back in this business, but the Kentucky time, that's always felt like a bit of an 'incomplete' grade, hasn't it?" Leach explained over the summer. "What if we'd been there longer, had a chance to really grow what we had started?"

The truth is, the roots were never planted very deep into the bluegrass. The national spotlight that burned so bright after the '97 team's thrilling start had moved on elsewhere by midseason and was turned off completely when the team lost three of its last four to finish 5-7. The '98 team, powered by Couch's record-breaking Heisman finalist performance, recaptured the nation's imagination with that win at LSU, but it lost the Outback Bowl to Penn State and finished 7-5.

To old-school SEC fans and Leach critics, neither of whom are hard to find, the two-year Kentucky Air Raid experiment is the cautionary tale that needs to be paper-clipped to any story of this year's LSU upset win as an indicator of Mississippi State and the Air Raid being the force that will forever change the SEC. They said the same when Leach and his Red Raiders and Michael Crabtree upset top-ranked Texas in 2008, and whenever his Washington State teams upset USC or Stanford and got off to so many something-and-0 starts in the Pac-12. But he still has never coached a conference championship team, or let alone lead a team into a conference championship game.

In between those big wins and big seasons, there are also the news conferences and social media posts that can be entertaining (search "Mike Leach on weddings," or see his post-LSU tweet about pumpkin spice) but also get him called into the bosses' offices (see: his April 2020 tweet, which drew "WTF" responses from multiple MSU players). Meanwhile, the legal battles stemming from his Texas Tech dismissal continue, a fight the Houston investigation firm Leach hired stated just two weeks ago will continue "until he dies."

So, until Mike Leach stands on the sideline of a title game, be it conference, national or both, the Air Raid will always be viewed as having a ceiling. And until his quirkiness is displayed behind a podium at that championship's news conference, many will always write him off as too odd and/or too difficult to push a program to the next level. He knows that. He acts like such talk doesn't bother him, but it does. That's why he's back in the Southeastern Conference. Your best chance to break through any ceiling, be it football success, reputation, or both, is to start with the best possible launching pad. Not so long ago, he thought he'd never have the chance to stand on that pad. Now he does, and as we all learned at LSU, he's going to pull out all the stops to make sure this chance lasts.

"How's the saying go? A good coach can take his and beat yours and then take yours and beat his," he said. "Well, a really good coach, he can be a good coach anywhere. Any coach worth his salt wants to prove that. Every coach is motivated by that at some level. Don't let any coach try to tell you that he's not."

Including Mike Leach.