'Basketball on grass': The origin of Mike Leach's Air Raid offense

On Monday afternoon, Mike Leach story time began. This week's topic: How the Air Raid offense got its name.

Like many Leach monologues, he meandered off topic. Asked about his time at Kentucky and the offense's development, Leach began telling tales about a decrepit Hoosiers-esque gym, Davey Lopes and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. But when he found his way back to the topic at hand, Leach explained.

Someone brought an authentic air raid siren to play after Iowa Wesleyan touchdowns at home games, which is where he first learned the offense under Hal Mumme.

For good measure, Leach, now the Mississippi State coach, mimicked the sound himself as he lurched his head toward the microphone. "BWUUUUP, BWUUUUP."

"From there, they kinda started calling it the Air Raid," Leach said during the news conference. "And I'm kinda credited with the idea to call it that because I said, 'Well, hey, we could call it the Air Raid.'

"And so it kinda stuck."

The name did, primarily because the offense did, too.

For the first time since he was an assistant there 22 years ago, Leach will return to Lexington on the opposing sideline, as the Bulldogs visits Kentucky on Saturday night (6:30 ET, SEC Network). And though it's not the birthplace of the Air Raid, it is the place where it truly became recognized.

Here's a look back at how Leach and Mumme's two years together in the Bluegrass State turned transformative:

Who needs a playbook?

As fall neared winter in 1996, Kentucky football yearned for a fresh start.

Wildcats football needed a jolt of energy. Excitement. Something to give this basketball-crazed school some respectability on the gridiron, which combined for a meager nine wins in the previous three seasons.

The late C.M. Newton, then the Wildcats' athletic director, rolled the dice by hiring Mumme, a relative unknown at the time. The idea Newton sold to Big Blue Nation was "Basketball on grass." Mumme would air it out with fast-break football.

Mumme, with Leach by his side, broke records and reversed fortunes at the NAIA (Iowa Wesleyan) and Division II (Valdosta State) levels. But doing it in the SEC? That was another matter altogether, and a stark contrast to Bill Curry, Mumme's predecessor at Kentucky.

"Bill Curry was old school, like Alabama old school," former Kentucky running back Anthony White said. "Oklahoma drill and all that stuff. We had scrimmages on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. A light practice for him was shoulder pads and helmets."

Mumme preferred less hitting, fewer days in full pads and little -- if any -- tackling to the ground. He wanted players fresh for Saturdays.

The simplicity extended to the playbook, or lack thereof. Rather than a thick, War and Peace-length binder filled with schemes, Mumme's offense favored a handful of plays, and no playbook.

"We had, basically, seven or eight plays and we would run them from seven or eight different formations," former Kentucky and NFL tight end James Whalen said. "The whole point was, 'What we do, we're going to do it perfectly.'"

It worked before, and despite the jump to Division I, Mumme and Leach believed it would again. Except for Florida, where Steve Spurrier's Fun 'n' Gun succeeded, it was a stark contrast to SEC football at the time.

"It was 3 yards and a cloud of dust," said Arizona offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, then an assistant at Ole Miss. "If you didn't run power and two tight ends and all that, you weren't a football coach."

Leach was installed as Kentucky's receivers coach. Mumme wanted to make him the offensive coordinator, but Newton preferred Mumme not name one, because he was promoting Mumme to Kentucky alumni as the next Spurrier. He wanted no ambiguity about who was calling the shots offensively.

And so it was. In the Wildcats' 1997 media guide, there is no offensive coordinator listed, though Mumme asked Newton if, after the Wildcats won a big game, he could name one, a request which Newton obliged.

Before the season debut against rival Louisville, a Kentucky graduate assistant named Sonny Dykes was skeptical. The son of the late Spike Dykes, a coaching legend at Texas Tech, Sonny had not seen such a unique approach to offensive football. He turned to fellow GA Chris Hatcher, who had played quarterback for Mumme at Valdosta State.

"I said, 'Hey Chris, we only have like 10 plays,'" recalled Dykes, now the head coach at SMU. "This stuff's not gonna work."

Hatcher, who won the Harlon Hill Trophy -- the Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy -- under Mumme at Valdosta, knew better.

"We're gonna be just fine," he told Dykes. "Just wait and see."

By the end of the first quarter, powered by sophomore quarterback Tim Couch, Kentucky was leading 21-0 and would end up beating Louisville 38-24. Couch threw for a school-record 398 yards. The Air Raid was off and running.

It converted more onlookers later that year, when the Wildcats upset No. 22 Alabama, the first win Kentucky had over the Crimson Tide in 75 years. Fans rushed the field at Commonwealth Stadium and tore the goalposts down. Some still have pieces of it; Dykes said he has a piece in his office at SMU. Running backs coach Tony Franklin, now the offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee, has one, too.

"I think it was the turning point of Kentucky football to get people to donate money, invest their time and believe in the program," Franklin said.

After that win, Mumme promoted Leach to offensive coordinator, though Mumme was still calling the plays. Even as a receivers coach, Leach exceled.

"I think that's one of the more underrated talents [Leach] has," said West Virginia coach Neal Brown, who walked on as a receiver at Kentucky in 1998. "He was a really good teacher of routes ... from a fundamental aspect and teaching, at that time, for wideouts, he was exceptional."

Whalen, who was a receiver in 1997 before moving to tight end in 1998, remembers Leach's acumen. "His brain is a computer," Whalen said. "There's a fine line between brilliance and crazy, and he straddles it."

As he does to this day, Leach occasionally meandered. Whalen recalled a position meeting after a practice where Leach filibustered about a film.

"Mike has the clicker and hits the first play," Whalen said. "He gets about halfway through and hits rewind. Then he asks, 'Has anybody ever seen 'Another 48 Hours'?' We were like, 'Yeah.' And he never made it through the first play.

"He hit rewind probably 400 times and spent the whole time talking about this movie with Nick Nolte. Finally, after about an hour, he's like, 'Alright, y'all can get out of here.' We didn't even watch football, didn't talk about it."

White, a running back who spent some time in the receiver room because of how much they threw him the ball, said Leach was direct. He remembered once complaining to Leach about defensive backs holding his jersey on routes.

"He told me, 'A good excuse will get you beat just as fast as a bad excuse,'" White said. "If they're grabbing you, we're just not going to throw you the ball, but you've got to find a way to get open.

"It was always matter of fact. It was, 'Do or do not. If you don't do, then you can't help me and I can't help you.'"

Over the course of the 1997 and 1998 seasons, the Wildcats lit up the scoreboard and piled up the passing yards. In '98, they led the league in scoring and total offense. It gave SEC defensive coaches fits.

"It was very hard to deal with and it was very out of the ordinary from what everyone else was doing," said former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who was Florida's defensive coordinator from 1996 to '98. "They gave me more trouble and more headaches as a defensive coordinator than maybe anyone else we played."

The team's landmark wins, like the '97 victory over Alabama and the '98 win at Death Valley over a ranked LSU, elevated Kentucky's profile. Commonwealth Stadium expanded. Ticket sales rose. Couch, an uber-talented blue-chip QB, was the star of the show. He broke NCAA records. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist and the No. 1 pick in the 1999 NFL draft.

Offensive football was evolving, and Kentucky was at the forefront.

"You felt like that you were different," Brown said. "You could feel the game changing a little bit because of the success passing the football that Coach Mumme and Kentucky were having at the time."

On to Oklahoma

On the morning of Dec. 14, 1998, while Kentucky was busy preparing for the Outback Bowl, Mumme's phone rang.

It was Stoops.

The new Oklahoma head coach was interested in Leach as his offensive coordinator. But in the interest of due diligence, he had questions for Mumme.

"Can Leach call the offensive plays? Can he be in front of the offense and command the room? Did he have enough respect from other coaches and players to get them to do what was needed?"

Mumme didn't hesitate.

"Oh, absolutely," he said.

But Mumme had a question for Stoops. He knew how much grief SEC traditionalists gave Kentucky for its unconventional style. Selling the Air Raid at Oklahoma could be a challenge.

Mumme wanted to know, "Do you want to hire him to run our offense or do you want to hire him because it's just kind of sexy to hire somebody from Kentucky right now?"

Stoops proceeded to recite Kentucky's offensive statistics from its past two meetings with Florida and noted how much better they were than the two Kentucky-Florida games prior to Mumme and Leach's arrival. Even now, Stoops remembers them.

"They led the league in about every offensive category," Stoops said. "Not just passing, but scoring, time of possession, third-down conversions, all of the things you really look at, and these guys were first or second in about every category, without having the best players."

Stoops went as far as informing other prospective offensive coaches he was hiring to get on board with the Air Raid or get out.

"We're running this, end of story," Stoops recalls saying. "If you can't do that or you're against that, then don't come [to Oklahoma]."

Mumme got the message, walked down the hallway, poked his head into Leach's office and told him to call Stoops.

Four hours later, Leach had accepted the job as the Sooners' new offensive coordinator.

"He needed to, just for his own growth," Mumme said. "And it worked out great."

Making history at Texas Tech

Leach turned the Sooners' offense around in one year. He trekked to Ephraim, Utah, to find a quarterback, Snow College's Josh Heupel. By early October, Heupel had already broken OU's single-season passing touchdowns record. The Sooners went from 101st nationally in total offense before Leach's arrival to 11th by the end of his first season. They were tops in the Big 12 in total offense and passing.

Leach long had head coaching aspirations. Even before Stoops called Mumme to bring Leach to Norman, he had scoured the country for head coaching jobs, but was turned down for every one he applied for. After one season with the Sooners, an opportunity arose at Texas Tech. He took it. The next year, Stoops, Heupel and new offensive coordinator Mark Mangino won the national championship at OU with a similar, albeit more balanced, offensive style.

When Leach arrived in Lubbock, Texas, a talented young quarterback named Kliff Kingsbury awaited. The two set NCAA records together and it started an impressive run for Leach, who won a school-record 84 games over the next 10 years. However for all the recognition he was receiving, Leach was abruptly fired, accused of mistreating a player.

While Mumme is the Air Raid's pioneer, Leach's success in Lubbock did more to advance the offense's gospel than anything. He turned Texas Tech, which nobody would confuse with a blueblood, into a consistent winner, averaging eight wins a season and going to a bowl all 10 years of his tenure. The Red Raiders' signature victory, a 39-33 upset of No. 1 Texas in 2008, forever changed the way the Air Raid, and other spread offenses like it, were perceived.

The culmination of Mumme's creation, from the wide offensive line splits, fast tempo and pass concepts (Michael Crabtree's game-winning touchdown catch came on "six," the offense's terminology for four verticals), was on full display to a nationally televised audience. Coaches from multiple levels around the region and the nation flocked to Lubbock to learn from Leach's staff.

"We spent more time hosting high school coaches and coaching staffs than we did our own players," said Dykes, who was an assistant for Leach at Tech. "It never stopped. I wish we would've kept our mouth shut a little more than we did."

Leach's Texas Tech teams -- coaching staff and players included -- produced 23 college or NFL coaches, according to The Athletic. His tenure there was a breeding ground for future coaches of this style. Kentucky preceded it: At least six coaches and players from the 1997 and 1998 Wildcats teams went on to be college head coaches.

Air Raid offense remains potent

Mumme and Leach's union was part coincidence, part Leach persistence.

When Mumme took the head coaching job at Iowa Wesleyan in 1989, few coaches were lighting up his phone line for a job, as S.C. Gwynne wrote in "The Perfect Pass," a book on Mumme. The NAIA program was a bottom-feeder, 0-10 the year prior. But Leach, a BYU and Pepperdine Law graduate who was desperate to coach football despite his limited background in the sport, was undeterred.

Mumme needed an offensive line coach who would embrace the wide splits he wanted to have in his offense. Leach simply wanted an opportunity. The two met at BYU that spring, hit it off, and Mumme hired Leach, paying him a $12,000 salary.

"I decided I just wanted to hire the smartest person I could find who really wanted to do what I do," Mumme said.

Soon thereafter, before Leach's official arrival in Mount Pleasant (he was busy coaching a team in Finland and had to finish out the season), Mumme's phone would ring weekly, often late at night. It was Leach wanting to talk. About anything.

"Civil war history," Mumme said. "Pirates. Jimmy Buffett music. Occasionally we got around to some football."

It was the start of a 10-year coaching relationship that would change everything for both of them.

After success at Texas Tech and Washington State, Leach is back in the SEC. His Mississippi State debut was wildly successful, a win over reigning champion LSU, but Arkansas squashed the lingering euphoria by upending the Bulldogs on Saturday.

Regardless of the first two results, those who know Leach are optimistic about his chances in Starkville. The roster talent at his disposal, paired with the recruiting base he has access to, gives him a lot of potential for success.

Times, jobs and salaries have changed, but Leach has not. While many Air Raid disciples have evolved the offense, Leach still runs the purest form of it. "It's absolutely the same thing," White said. He's still not a big fan of running the ball.

And he still goes off on tangents, which are now well-documented publicly, rather than confined to the privacy of staff meeting rooms. Near the end of Monday's news conference, he borrowed someone's phone to play an air raid siren over the microphone and promised to get such a noisemaker for his grandchildren.

"You know he's all the things you want," Stoops said. "He's a great leader and he gets people to perform well. Again, though people will chuckle at his different sayings or when he goes off on his rants, when you come down to it, he's a hell of a football coach."