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What If: Mike Leach was hired as the Hurricanes head coach in 2009?

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The eccentric Air Raid guru was coming off an 11-win season at Texas Tech and looking for a primetime job

Boston College v Miami Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Mike Leach was riding high coming off of an 11-win season at Texas Tech where his Red Raiders had upset the top-rated Texas Longhorns 39-33. Before Leach arrived in Lubbock the Red Raiders were a joke, an afterthought. Texas Tech had only managed to win nine games twice under previous head coach Spike Dykes over a 13 year span. The Red Raiders hadn’t won ten or more games since 1976 under Steve Sloan (I haven’t heard of him either).

In fact, in the history of TTU football, there had only been two seasons better than Leach’s 11-2 year in 2008; the 1953 team that went 11-1, and the 1973 team that also went 11-1. The Red Raiders played more ranked teams in 2008 than ‘53 and ‘73 combined. Mike Leach never had a losing season in Lubbock, upset rivals Oklahoma and Texas, and is the first TTU head coach since the 70’s to coach more than one season and not have a losing season in Lubbock.

So when Leach’s name was being tossed around as a potential interview as Miami head football coach- there were reasons to listen. While Leach was enjoying unprecedented success in northwest Texas, Randy Shannon was failing as the head coach at Miami. Shannon was an in-house promotion after the Larry Coker experiment went sour following the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. Coker struggled with the move to the ACC. His record as Miami coach while in the BIG EAST was 35-3, while in the ACC it was 25-12. Randy Shannon was promoted from within, and no one really understood the move.

Shannon promptly started his head coaching career in 2007 finishing 5-6 before a 7-6 record in 2008. Leach, whose record at TTU was 76-39, would have made a great shock value hire and his Air Raid offense would have been a major success with the 2009 Miami roster.

If you’re not impressed by Leach’s two and a half more wins per season at this point than Shannon’s, maybe his coaching tree would impress you more. It has consisted of: Seth Littrell (North Texas HC), Sonny Dykes (SMU HC), Tony Franklin, Art Briles (scumbag), Dino Babers (Syracuse HC), Dave Aranda (Baylor HC), Robert Anae (UVA OC), Mark Mangino (former Kansas HC), Dana Holgorsen (Houston HC), Lincoln Riley (Oklahoma HC), Sonny Cumbie (TCU OC), Josh Heupel (UCF HC), Graham Harrell (USC OC), Ruffin McNeill (Retired from Oklahoma), Jake Spavital (Texas State HC), Neal Brown (WVU HC) and Kliff Kingsbury (Arizona Cardinals HC).

Shannon’s crew has produced Jeff Stoutland,


South Florida v Miami Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images

The Roster

The 2009 Miami Hurricanes were coming off a couple of highly regarded recruiting classes. The 2008 class was the top rated class in the country. The 2007 class was 13th in the nation while the 2009 class, which Leach would have had to secure, was ranked 16th. Mike Leach would have had potential at his disposal that was in need of development and deployment that Andreu Swasey, Mark Whipple, Patrick Nix and Bill Young types couldn’t seem to figure out.

Picture Mike Leach running out an offense of Jacory Harris at quarterback, with Mike James, Javarris James, and Graig Cooper at running back, and a wide receiver corps of Leonard Hankerson, Travis Benjamin, Aldarius Johnson and Tommy Streeter. Then you have the tight ends in Jimmy Graham and Dedrick Epps. In 2009, Whipple and Shannon averaged 30.3 PPG, good for 31st in the country. Back in Lubbock, Leach’s crew averaged 37 PPG- good for 7th in the country.

On defense; Shannon, the defensive mastermind, gave up 22.2 PPG and Ruffin McNeil, Leach’s DC, gave up 22.5 PPG. People don’t realize how much Mike Leach has valued kicking and defense compared to a few other Air Raid coaches like Hal Mumme. Leach has a much stronger appreciation for kicking and would’ve gotten excellent work from Matt Bosher. On the defensive side, Miami had talent to burn. Over a dozen 2009 ‘Canes defenders played in the NFL.

The defensive line had future NFL’ers and former blue chippers in Micanor Regis, Olivier Vernon, Joe Joseph, Dyron Dye, Marcus Forston, and Allen Bailey. The linebackers room was loaded with Sean Spence, Arthur Brown, Colin McCarthy, and Darryl Sharpton. The defensive backs were a solid group that had Brandon Harris, Demarcus Van Dyke, Randy Phillips, Sam Shields, Brandon McGee and utility player Ray-Ray Armstrong.


Miami v South Florida Photo by J. Meric/South Florida/Getty Images

The Quarterback

The 2009 Hurricanes roster had the perfect quarterback to fit the Mike Leach system. Even if Robert Marve had transferred out of Miami anyway, Leach would have loved Jacory Harris. Harris fit the Leach mold perfectly as he’s tall enough at 6’4, lanky, noodle armed, and an intelligent kid. Some of the antics and high interception games would have been fixed under a Leach offense.

Harris had played in a shotgun, spread, pass-first, QB driven offense at Miami-Northwestern. Harris, who finished back-to-back state title seasons with an unblemished 30-0 record was used to calling the plays. Mike Leach’s Air Raid is very dependent on the quarterback to make decisions at the line of scrimmage. Leach’s rules are that he can’t see what the QB can in real-time, so the QB has carte blanche to get into the right play, or at least tag a WR on the best route.

I think Harris would have thrived in that type of environment. One that put the ownership in his hands and demanded his leadership and intelligence to take center stage. Harris still left Miami with 8,826 yards and 70 touchdowns with 48 interceptions while playing for three different OC’s in Patrick Nix, Whipple, and Jedd Fisch.


Miami v Florida State Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Skill Positions

Leach’s offense requires running backs to get touches, not carries. Picture sure-handed backs like Mike James, Javarris James and uber-athletic backs like Graig Cooper and Lamar Miller thriving in the Leach offense, just in different ways. All four could catch the rock while Cooper and Miller might fit the mold a little more than the James duo.

At receiver, Leach likes to use two big bodied outside receivers and typically two smaller slots. However, that’s changed over time. He’s always had the super fast slot receiver like Wes Welker to catch screens and run drag routes with break-neck pace. In 2009, Miami had big bodied guys in Hankerson (6’2) Johnson (6’2), Byrd (6’4), and Streeter (6’5) with short speed guys like Benjamin (5’11), Theron Collier (5’9) and Kendall Thompkins (5’10) could have battled for the slot job. you have to assume Leach would’ve used Jimmy Graham and Dedrick Epps as weapons as well.

Just because a guy isn’t an inline tight end from a pro style approach doesn’t mean he can’t do the same things a tight end would do. He’ll still be the stick guy in Leach’s stick concept, he can still run dig routes on shallow cross, and is a big body to set picks and block for screens.


AT&T Cotton Bowl - Texas Tech v Mississippi Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Backyard Football

If you know anything about South Florida it’s that the residents like to get outside and play football and basketball in the neighborhood. The Air Raid is basketball on grass and an organized form of backyard football. Much of what Leach does is tell his receivers to find open space and his QB to throw to the open guy. It’s literally that simple. You can read countless articles (this one was great) about how little he wants his players to really think, and how much he wants them to react and play a fast break style on the gridiron.

The kids in South Florida aren’t used to pro style offenses or being coached into restrictive boxes like a West Coast approach would. Whipple’s Pittsburgh Steelers offense flopped in Coral Gables and there’s good reason. His quarterback and skill guys weren’t used to that brand of football. It was a limited, restrictive style of play versus the wide open games Miami-Northwestern was playing with Harris and eventually Teddy Bridgewater at QB.

Putting a rigid system on players who are under-coached at the youth and high school levels and mostly told to rely on their natural skillset is bad coaching. It’s poor deployment. Leach’s system would’ve been great for the Miami high school player and the way that he’s been typically coached- which is to make plays. Go out and let guys play 1-on-1 ball don’t try to limit them into a tight perfectly wrapped package.


Washington State v Houston Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Discipline

What Miami has lacked for the better part of two decades is a disciplined approach. I don’t mean suspending a few kids here or there or being a cold coach. I mean accountability and dedication. Coaches who understand the discipline the game requires in order to be the best. If you look at Mike Leach’s teams at TTU and Washington State, he wasn’t afraid to kick guys off the team. But he also developed two star talent into NFL players.

It’s also the discipline Leach shows in hiring. As I listed above, he’s found and hired some of the best young assistants in the country. Even at Wazzu he landed Alex Grinch who was just a safeties coach at Missouri. Grinch immediately gave Leach’s defense respectability upon arriving in Pullman. It literally took Grinch 12 months to fix the defensive problem at Wazzu.

He’s also done a great job of developing. His strength and conditioning programs have taken the unheard of prospect and turned them into a professional football player. Leach has also done a fine job of acquiring talent in the S&C field, too. When one S&C coordinator takes a bigger job he finds another one like Amir Owens who was at Eastern Washington.

The issues Miami had with laziness, lack of production, and that the potential was getting guys fired- that wouldn’t have happened under Leach.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Cheez-It Bowl - Air Force v Washington State Photo by Carlos Herrera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What if...

What if Miami hired Mike Leach going into the 2009 season? Leach was riding high, Miami was at the beginning of the basement years that are still existing today a decade later. Do I think the Key West living Leach would have lasted 20 years at Miami? No. He would’ve said and done things people didn’t like that got him pushed out of Lubbock and already in hot water down at Mississippi State. But would the 2009 and 2010 teams put up top-rated offenses and won more than 16 games? Yes. Would Leach have let the offense dip down to 67th in the country in points per game? Hell no.

Under Mike Leach, Jacory Harris would have been a Heisman Trophy candidate instead of an also-ran. The program would have had more discipline on and off the field. The potential of Arthur Brown would’ve been met at Miami and not Kansas State while the potential of another two dozen highly regarded recruits would’ve been developed to their potential versus getting him fired like it did to Shannon.

What if...