Mike Leach never coached Patrick Mahomes, but he may be the reason the NFL star plays the sport.
Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach passed away this week, prompting a well-deserved outpouring of not only sympathy, but appreciation for his impact on the game of football.
From his former players and assistants who became notable coaches (Lincoln Riley, Josh Hubbell, Cliff Kingsbury) to the way his Air-Raid offense changed football from high school to the NFL (five-wide formations, aggressive fourth-downers), Nothing is perfect the same.
However, what Leitch’s mold-breaking concepts did extend far beyond that.
Keep in mind that not only is his style – or more accurately his thinking – responsible for how Patrick Mahomes plays football, for example, but arguably why Patrick Mahomes plays football at all.
Mahomes is one of the NFL’s most exciting and marketable stars. He and Leech have never met. Without Leach, however, it’s fair to wonder if Mahomes would have been capped as a college player or playing a different position, let alone playing an entirely different sport, instead of lighting up the NFL like few people do.
Flash back to 2012, Mahomes’ junior season at Whitehouse (Texas) High School. He played safety as a sophomore before becoming the starting quarterback at the Whitehouse.
Leach was coaching Washington State at the time, but during his tenure (2000-2009) at Texas Tech, he nailed the air raid offense. Mahomes High School coach Adam Cook went to Tech and installed a copy of the system at the Whitehouse.
Air raiders tend to favor smart and instinctive quarterbacks. Mahomes was not the most polished player at the time. He was a three-sport star, which meant he spent his free time playing basketball and baseball, not working with a pitching specialist, attending combine harvesters or playing endless 7v7 games.
He was, however, adaptive, intelligent and very competitive. In the simplest terms, Air Raid favors those characteristics. More old-fashioned school crime probably didn’t work for him.
“Coach Adam Cook was the first to show me the quarterback position,” said Mahomes. “He didn’t force me to be a certain kind of quarterback, he just let me go out there and play the game like I like to play it.”
Mahomes threw for 3,839 yards and 46 touchdowns that season as a high school senior. He also rushed for 258 yards and six more scores. As a senior, he threw for over 4,600 yards and 50 touchdowns.
“He always made the right decisions,” Cook said.
The first year alone was enough to get the attention of college football officials, but questions remain about Mahomes’ future. The air raid is still considered somewhat of a gimmick. If your team doesn’t run it, can the QB adapt? Was Mahomes just a regular quarterback? Was he even a quarterback?
Mahomes’ father, Pat, once told the Lubbock Avalanche Journal that the University of Texas recruited his son to play safety, seeing him as more of an athlete. Other schools were afraid to think Patrick would focus on baseball – so counting on being a quarterback was risky.
Cliff Kingsbury was the head coach of Texas Tech at the time. He played for the Red Raiders and was Leach’s starting quarterback from 2000-2002. He saw everything from an air raid perspective, and thus saw Mahomes as not just a quarterback, but perhaps the perfect quarterback.
“A dynamic athlete,” Kingsbury said at the time. “And he’s a winner. You watch him play and he wants his team over and over again.”
In other words, this was not a security. This was putting the best player in the most important place. Undeterred by choosing baseball (he was later recruited by the Detroit Tigers), Kingsbury told Mahomes to come to Tech and play both sports.
Mahomes quickly complied, and began trying to combine what they did at Tech with what he was doing at Whitehouse.
“My high school coach went to Texas Tech, so he had the same style on offense.” Mahomes said this week. “[When] I went on visits there, trying to figure out what they were doing to add to our mistake.”
Once at Texas Tech, Mahomes became a starter as a freshman. He quit baseball in his sophomore year to focus on football. In his last two seasons, managing Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, he has thrown for 9,705 yards and 77 touchdowns. Drafted 10th overall by Kansas City in 2017.
“Coach Kingsbury took me from an athlete, a baseball player in the outfield, to making me a quarterback,” said Mahomes. “He taught me how to keep track of progress, taught me to read the coverages and built myself up.”
He was named the NFL MVP in his first season as a starter and won the Super Bowl in his second season.
“I learned from Coach Kingsbury, so I feel like I learned from Mike Leach himself,” Mahomes added this week.
Mahomes is clearly one of the greatest athletes in the world. However, if Mike Leach wasn’t redefining offensive football play and the characteristics a quarterback needs to succeed at the position, would he play quarterback in the NFL? Does he play soccer at all? Was he just a good high school or college safety before choosing to focus on baseball?
It is not an exaggeration to ask.
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