Two years ago, a high school senior watched Texas Tech on television thinking its freewheeling offense looked awfully confounding. Now a quarterback in the program, Graham Harrell knows better, even pointing out, "Coach never handed out a playbook."
Based more on repetition than complexity, the offense has become an ideal system for quarterbacks looking to accumulate gaudy statistics. Over the past three seasons, three Red Raiders have led the nation in passing. The opportunity this season will go to either Harrell, a redshirt freshman, or fifth-year senior Cody Hodges, who acknowledged, "It's a good time to be a quarterback at Texas Tech."
Coach Mike Leach polished his aerial attack while working for a decade under Hal Mumme during stints at Iowa Wesleyan College, Valdosta State in Georgia and the University of Kentucky. Spending many late nights scribbling plays on napkins, Leach and Mumme eventually broke 26 national records at NAIA Iowa Wesleyan, at least seven at Division II Valdosta State and six at Kentucky.
Based primarily on the system Brigham Young employed throughout the 1980s, the offense also incorporates principles of the West Coast and run-and-shoot offenses.
"They used to always talk about some secret recipe," Leach said during last month's Big 12 media day. "Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Sanders, he had this recipe for finger-food. I drove by it one time at Kentucky; I wanted to know where the vault for the recipe was. Contrary to belief, we don't have a vault."
Instead of distributing an official playbook, Hodges said, Leach diagrams plays on a grease board at the onset of summer practice, expecting quarterbacks to store the information over the course of camp. But there always is room to tweak because Leach has never met an idea he won't consider.
Players said if they pitch ideas to Leach, he will test them in practice, perhaps even during games.
"You can draw up a play and test it on" a video game, Harrell said in a telephone interview. "And then you could take it to Coach. I haven't tried it, but that's not a bad idea."
In all, Hodges said, there are no more than 25 primary passing plays, but each can be run using five different formations. The challenge is for the quarterback to know when to switch plays at the line of scrimmage.
"He gives the reins to the quarterback," Hodges said in a telephone interview, "and lets us be in charge."
Practices are fast-paced and always pit the offense against some sort of defense in game-like situations. The key, Leach said, is running the same play again and again, almost a monotonous routine.
"There's that Don Henley line about why the Eagles were good: They had a great capacity for boredom," Mumme, now head coach at New Mexico State, said in a telephone interview. "You practice one line of a song or one chord until you have it right, and that's basically what we do in our offense."
The Red Raiders, who are 39-25 in five seasons under Leach, twice scored 70 points last season. Tech completed more passes (426) than 100 other teams attempted and often continued to throw even with the game in hand.
"A lot of teams, if they are not throwing the ball well, they get away from it and go straight to running the ball," Hodges said. "We're going to throw it 70 times a game regardless of whether we're winning, losing, trailing by six, whatever."
Hodges has thrown only a dozen passes in his college career. Harrell, the Gatorade Texas high school player of the year two seasons ago, has not played a snap in college. Few expect the inexperience to hamper Leach's "Air Raid" offense.