College Football Retrospectives: Chip Kelly vs. Mike Leach

Man wearing headset looking at players in red helmets.
Mike Leach during his time Washington State University Head Football Coach. Photo by Matt Zlaket

This column seeks to look back on memorable moments in college football and offer commentary on what makes them unique.

To call right now a “complicated” time to talk about football is leaving the word “complicated” as over-encumbered as essential workers at the pandemic’s peak. We are watching kids get sent out to play one of the most contact-heavy team sports in existence while schools renounce their responsibility for the consequences of said decision. Players are signing waivers that put the onus of paying for treatment on their pocket, and considering how many hours they are putting into practice and their studies, I doubt they have time to earn a supplemental income that can cushion the cost of treatment for COVID-19. With all the money in college football broadcasting, ticket revenue and merchandising, it is absurd to me that all the athletes get is a two percent shot at ever being fairly compensated for their labor. The attempts at labor stoppages to demand meaningful change in regard to how student athletes are compensated and how social issues are addressed within the Pac-12 and Big 10 were undermined by both conferences play-faking a season cancellation, only to have sorted out a delayed start date with reduced schedules. Since the start of the season, we have seen games delayed for positive COVID tests, the most notable of which being Houston versus Baylor, which was arranged and then rubbished within less than a week. This is a stark contrast from the norm of having seasons completely scheduled years in advance. In light of all of these factors, I hope you understand why I do not feel comfortable covering the college football being played right now. Instead, I will be writing a column looking back at notable games and moments in the sport’s history, week by week.

This week, we are only going back one calendar year. Remember 12 months ago? I sure as heck do not. But, considering the relatively fresh spot this holds in our collective memories, I will not be going through the game in any detail. Instead, I will look back on how we got to the point we were at before kickoff. The words “new normal” tended to be applied to social progress, like more women in positions of power, material improvements to the quality of the lives of society’s most vulnerable members or Wazzu somehow managing to become one of the better teams in the Pac-12 North. What certainly was not the new normal was whatever in God’s name was going on during Pac-12 After Dark. The Washington Sate Cougars came into the game undefeated. Mike Leach had constructed a Cougars team strong enough to fight for the division title, which had been unthinkable during Oregon’s reign of terror that stretched from the division’s inception until the departure of Marcus Mariota following the 2014 season. The man on the other sideline, Chip Kelly, would know; he was the progenitor of that regency. It is hard to find a precedent for Chip Kelly’s year one success in 2009. It helped that he had put the team on the map with his revolutionary spread offense. In his first season as offensive coordinator, he got the Ducks to the cursed number two spot of the 2007 season, only for them to have the rug pulled out from under them due to a brutal string of injuries at signal caller. He would go on to be a national finalist that year, only to fall at the final hurdle against Ohio State in the 96th Rose Bowl. The next year, the Ducks would be pipped to the title in the first iteration of the BCS National Championship Game by Cam Newton’s Auburn Tigers. This massive level of success by a program that had failed to find consistency until the early 21st century was unheard of, and it was thanks in no small part to Chip Kelly’s offensive ingenuity.

For those of you not in the know, the spread offense is a scheme that is mostly played out of the shotgun utilizing a mobile quarterback with a myriad of targets to pass to. In football’s infancy, most formations focused on bulldozing out running lanes. Then, the forward pass was introduced. Most teams continued to bulldoze running lanes, utilizing the pass as a trick play. As the game evolved, passing began to be an increasingly large part of the offense. Although use of the term “spread” in football can be traced back to Dutch Meyer’s 1952 book Spread Formation Football, it was not until Jack Neumeier put his spin on the scheme that it began to resemble what we think of today as a spread offense. Starting in 1970, he began to run his offense primarily out of the shotgun, with a backfield comprised of the quarterback (QB), one running back (RB) and four wideouts incorporating pre-snap motion to add a mystique of unpredictability. This was intended to be used for pass-first offenses. Chip Kelly saw things differently.

In the wide-open space between the offensive line and the quarterback, he saw running lanes that a savvy quarterback could pick apart using the read option. A read option consists of a running play where the onus of deciding where the ball should go is placed on the quarterback’s shoulders. If the blitzing defender is charging at the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs the other way. If the blitzing defender is waiting patiently for the quarterback to keep the ball, the QB defers to his RB. This, along with jet sweeps, which are running plays featuring wide receivers sweeping in pre-snap, and various pitch-based options, where the QB has the option to pitch the ball back to the RB depending on who has the better running lane, formed the backbone of his playbook at Oregon. Gadget players like De’Anthony Thomas thrived under this scheme, as did mobile QBs like Marcus Mariota.

Kelly made the jump to the NFL in 2013 when he was appointed as the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. After leading the Eagles to the playoffs in his first season, his calling card became bitter disappointment. He failed to make it past the first round of the playoffs that year and would fail to make the cut in his subsequent three seasons in the league. After a miserly 2-14 season in charge of the 49ers in 2016, Kelly slunk off to spend a season in college football punditry. However, after just one season away from coaching, the UCLA Bruins decided to hand him the reins to their program in 2018.

Facing Kelly on the other sideline was Mike Leach. Where Kelly saw the spread formation’s value in the running game, Leach took it to its opposite, more logical conclusion with his Air Raid offense that had the potential to systemically dismantle even the most dominant secondaries in the college game. The sheer volume of passing plays that the scheme calls for, including the regular incorporation of five-wide sets, would frequently see his quarterbacks leading all the FBS in weekly passing yards. He was calling the shots when the Texas Tech Red Raiders upset the number one Texas Longhorns in Week 10 of the 2008 season. That season saw the Red Raiders rise as high as second place in the country, according to both the Coaches and AP polls, but they would end the season in 12th. This would be his peak in Lubbock, as he would be fired for making a concussed player take part in training following the conclusion of the 2009 regular season. He took a longer leave of absence from coaching, returning at the helm of the Washington State University Cougars in 2012. After putting up three wins in his first season at Wazzu, he ended the school’s 10-year long bowl drought in year two, putting up a losing effort in a tightly contested New Mexico Bowl. After a failure to go bowling in year three, Mike Leach’s Cougars would participate in five consecutive post seasons, winning the 2015 Sun Bowl and the 2018 Alamo Bowl. That 2018 season was arguably Leach’s peak as a head coach, as the Cougars would finish that season ranked 10th in the country thanks to Heisman Award finalist Gardner Minshew II’s prowess in the passing game. But 2019 could have been even better.

WSU came into their week four Pac-12 opener against the UCLA undefeated. While that was not anything special considering the quality of their opposition, who would go on to put up eight total wins between the three of them, Anthony Gordon looked like a worthy successor to fill that Minshew shaped hole in their depth chart. He threw for over 420 yards in each game and only totaled two interceptions over the course of those first three weeks. They could be on course to win their first division title in the Pac-12 North. Meanwhile, Chip Kelly’s Bruins could not catch a break. After having gone 3-9 in year one, they failed to put up more than 14 points in their first three games, the first two of which were against unranked opponents. Chip Kelly’s innovative take on the spread offense had become standard since his departure. It had been adapted and further built upon, while his reputation as a football auteur had taken a hit after consistently bad performances over his previous three seasons in coaching. Mike Leach had risen from his ashes after having burned out in Lubbock, finally reaching his zenith last year, which seemed to be a statement of intent on conquering the Pac-12 North. If you were not tuned in last season, what happened next may surprise you.