When Peyton Manning threw for 523 yards and five touchdowns to lead Tennessee football to a 59-31 win over Tim Couch and the Kentucky Wildcats in 1997, nobody knew that the man staring across the Vols would indirectly cause their rise 25 years later. All they knew was his offense forced Manning to keep firing.
Mike Leach was on the other sideline as offensive coordinator to Hal Mumme. Together, they introduced the SEC to the air raid offense and made Kentucky the most fun team to watch in the late 1990s, turning Tim Couch into a No. 1 draft pick.
In 1999, Leach left to become OC of the Oklahoma Sooners, who were trying to rebuild under new head coach Bob Stoops. The two had gone head to head in 1997 and 1998, Stoops a defensive coordinator for a team run by another coach with a pass-happy offense, Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators, and Leach OC at UK.
One of Leach’s first initiatives was to target a Snow College transfer quarterback. That quarterback just so happens to be Tennessee football head coach Josh Heupel. Together, they made OU respectable in 1999. It began the process of changing college football.
Leach left the next year to become head coach of the Texas Tech Red Raiders. Heupel led OU to a national championship under Stoops and Mark Mangino. However, two decades later, he hasn’t forgotten the impact Leach had on him, and he said as much in a statement on Leach’s death.
Now one of the greatest offensive geniuses in the sport, Heupel’s system is a combination of Leach’s air raid and Art Briles’ RPO. However, while the formations and playbook are different, it doesn’t change the fact that many concepts are the same.
Earlier this year, in fact, Leach said he noticed Heupel running a play identical to one he drew up for Heupel when he was playing. He went on to joke about the fact that Hendon Hooker ran the play a lot better than Heupel was able to run it.
This is where Leach’s legacy lives on. Tennessee football is a program on the rise thanks to Heupel’s offensive mind, and you can see Leach all over it. The Vols aren’t the only program either to have a system heavily influenced by Leach.
Lincoln Riley is doing the same thing on the West Coast with the USC Trojans. He spent seven years as an assistant to Leach. Sonny Dykes, another seven-year assistant of his, has the TCU Horned Frogs in the playoff. Kliff Kingsbury is head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.
Everywhere you look, you can see Leach’s impact in the sport. Now, most of these coaches don’t run a system identical to his. As we mentioned, Briles’ impact also has a lot to do with what Riley and Heupel are doing, and there are other coaches who have their hands on offenses you see throughout the sport.
However, Leach is among those coaches. Tennessee football would not be where it is right now without his mind. Of course, the Vols could have had his mind directly if they hired him in 2008 or 2017, but either way, while he’s gone, a piece of him will always be noticeable on Rocky Top as long as Heupel’s there.