Such a pass-heavy attack was a novelty in the hidebound SEC, so reporters naturally went to the source to ask whether it would work at such a high level, especially considering the coach who was installing it at Ole Miss had been hired away from lower-echelon Sam Houston State.
Always good for a quote, Leach attempted to take the mighty SEC down a peg.
“I’ve got bad news for all these levels people,” Leach told Antonio Morales of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. “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.”
Leach probably sympathized with Longo, considering the similarly unorthodox path he had taken: Leach didn’t play college football, he got his law degree, and he spent a year coaching football in Finland, of all places. In 1997, Kentucky plucked him from Division II Valdosta State to be its offensive coordinator. Naturally, there was skepticism that such a system from such an unknown quantity — and a non-Southerner to boot — could work in the SEC. And naturally, Leach was having none of it.
“First, it becomes, ‘It won’t work,’ ” Leach told Morales. “Second, they basically say, 'Oh, it’s a system,’ suggesting that people who don’t do it that way — who just run it up the middle, stick all your asses together so one hand grenade can kill everybody — that’s the right way to do it. Since they do it the right way, they’re okay with the fact they lost. This is a great time to be in the SEC; everybody’s got the same offense: run right, run left, play-action. And they tease themselves and say we threw it four more times a game this year than we did last year.”
It’s safe to say Mississippi State will pass the ball at least four more times a game in 2020. Forty more times a game might be a better guess: On Thursday, the school announced it had hired Leach away from Washington State. After a one-year absence — Longo departed Ole Miss for North Carolina after the 2018 season — the Air Raid is back in the Magnolia State and the SEC.
The move makes sense on many levels, even if Leach’s offense might be alien to the SEC. His previous head coaching stops were at Texas Tech and Washington State, out-of-the-way, power-conference also-rans at which he could tinker to his heart’s content without much interference. Apart from a four-week run at No. 1 thanks to the magical pairing of Dan Mullen and Dak Prescott in 2014, “out-of-the-way, power-conference also-ran” perfectly describes Mississippi State, which last won the SEC title in 1941 and last won its SEC division in 1998.
And perhaps you may have noticed that LSU — which until this season was one of those SEC teams that probably patted itself on the back for throwing it four more times per game — will be playing in Monday’s College Football Playoff title game. With passing-game wunderkind Joe Brady calling the shots, the Tigers threw the ball on 53.5 percent of their plays this season (29th nationally), up from 43.2 percent in 2018 (far below 29th nationally).
Under Leach, Washington State threw the ball on a national-high 77.9 percent of its plays this season, a full 14 percentage points higher than No. 2 San Jose State. But the Cougars are staring down a massive athletic budget deficit, have replaced the athletic director who hired Leach and play in a conference — the woebegone Pac-12 — that has something of a visibility problem, its in-house cable channel a mere rumor east of the Rockies and its champion now annually shut out of the playoff.
Mississippi State, for all of its comparative anonymity in the SEC, is in much better shape: The presence of the SEC Network and the conference’s TV deal with ESPN mean all of its games get a mostly national airing, and the SEC’s pending new television deal probably will mean each school will get an annual payout bump of around $20 million. Visibility and funding: These are not problems in today’s SEC, and suddenly Leach thinks it’s a pretty special place to be.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to be the head football coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs,” Leach said Thursday in a statement. “I loved Washington State, but I am excited for the next chapter in the SEC. It’s a privilege to be a part of the MSU family, and we look forward to getting down to Starkville shortly.”