Sunday, December 04, 2005

Rethinking the gridiron.

December 4, 2005

Coach Leach Goes Deep, Very Deep

By MICHAEL LEWIS

7:02 . . . 7:01 . . . 7:00 . . .

It was still ordinary time. The seconds ticked off the digital clock on the locker-room wall. A smell: the acrid odor of vomit. They were still ordinary college football players, and a few of them had lost their pregame meals to a war of nerves. Side by side at their lockers the players sat, silently, almost penitently, stomachs churning, waiting for their coach to show up and to make the place a lot less ordinary.

A muted roar from the other side of the thick concrete walls: that would be their mascot, Texas Tech's Masked Rider, a man on a black stallion galloping across their home field. The governor of Texas, a graduate of Texas A.&M., Texas Tech's opponent this evening in early November, was just now finding his seat, along with the biggest crowd ever to watch a football game in Lubbock. The governor would be rooting for the other team, obviously. It could be worse, and had been. Two years before, when Texas Tech played Navy in a bowl game in Houston, the president of the United States, a Texan, was rumored to be in the stands rooting against them. "We aren't exactly America's team," Texas Tech's head coach, Mike Leach, said.

2:51 . . . 2:50 . . . 2:49 . . .


A sound: of surgical tape ripping, as Texas Tech's quarterback, Cody Hodges, affixed to his wrist a piece of laminated paper listing all the plays he might run tonight. Four years ago, Hodges was a high-school senior with just one other offer to be a college quarterback, from the University of Wyoming. Now, two-thirds of the way through the 2005 N.C.A.A. football season, and with a throwing arm so dead that he required a cortisone shot to move it, Hodges was the nation's leader in yards passed, total offense and touchdowns. Three weeks earlier, against a competent Kansas State defense, he threw for 643 yards and, had Coach Leach not pulled him in the fourth quarter, might well have broken the N.C.A.A. record for passing yards in a single game (716).

A lot of the players in the locker room had similar stories of rejection and redemption. In this part of the country, the University of Texas and Oklahoma University are the old-money football schools, with Texas A.&M. right behind. Those schools fish first in the local-talent pool. Tonight there would be very few players on the field for Texas A.&M. - for Oklahoma or Texas there wouldn't be a single player - to whom Texas Tech would not have offered a football scholarship. Conversely, the Texas Tech locker room was filled with players rejected by the old-money schools. And yet - look around! Hodges led all of college football in passing. The team's tailback, Taurean Henderson, had broken the N.C.A.A. career record for most passes caught by a running back. The top four receivers on the team were the four leading pass receivers in Texas Tech's league, the formidable Big 12.

At least one N.F.L. head coach had taken a special interest in the Texas Tech offense and had been ordering its game tapes on Monday mornings. At least one N.F.L. defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz of the Tennessee Titans, had stumbled upon Texas Tech accidentally and said, Oh, my. The surprise runner-up in the search earlier this year for a new San Francisco 49ers head coach, Schwartz had scrambled to answer a question: if he got the 49ers job, whom should he hire? He was just in his mid-30's, and his football career stopped at Georgetown (where he graduated with honors in economics), so he really hadn't thought about this before.

The 49ers had not bothered to interview college coaches for the head-coaching job in part because its front-office analysis found that most of the college coaches hired in the past 20 years to run N.F.L. teams had failed. But in Schwartz's view, college coaches tended to fail in the N.F.L. mainly because the pros hired the famous coaches from the old-money schools, on the premise that those who won the most games were the best coaches. But was this smart? Notre Dame might have a good football team, but how much of its success came from the desire of every Catholic in the country to play for Notre Dame?

Looking for fresh coaching talent, Schwartz analyzed the offensive and defensive statistics of what he called the "midlevel schools" in search of any that had enjoyed success out of proportion to their stature. On offense, Texas Tech's numbers leapt out as positively freakish: a midlevel school, playing against the toughest football schools in the country, with the nation's highest scoring offense. Mike Leach had become the Texas Tech head coach before the 2000 season, and from that moment its quarterbacks were transformed into superstars. In Leach's first three seasons, he played a quarterback, Kliff Kingsbury, who wound up passing for more yards than all but three quarterbacks in the history of major college football. When Kingsbury graduated (he is now with the New York Jets), he was replaced by a fifth-year senior named B.J. Symons, who threw 52 touchdown passes and set a single-season college record for passing yards (5,833). The next year, Symons graduated and was succeeded by another senior - like Symons, a fifth-year senior, meaning he had sat out a season. The new quarterback, who had seldom played at Tech before then, was Sonny Cumbie, and Cumbie's 4,742 passing yards in 2004 was the sixth-best year in N.C.A.A. history.

Now Texas Tech had Cody Hodges, still another fifth-year senior - barely six feet tall, with an average arm and four college seasons on the bench. Before the 2005 football season even began, Hodges was short-listed for the Maxwell Award for the finest college football player in the land. Whoever played quarterback for the Texas Tech Red Raiders was sure to create so much offense that he couldn't be ignored.

Schwartz had an N.F.L. coach's perspective on talent, and from his point of view, the players Leach was using to rack up points and yards were no talent at all. None of them had been identified by N.F.L. scouts or even college recruiters as first-rate material. Coming out of high school, most of them had only one or two offers from midrange schools. Sonny Cumbie hadn't even been offered a scholarship; he was just invited to show up for football practice at Texas Tech. Either the market for quarterbacks was screwy - that is, the schools with the recruiting edge, and N.F.L. scouts, were missing big talent - or (much more likely, in Schwartz's view) Leach was finding new and better ways to extract value from his players. "They weren't scoring all these touchdowns because they had the best players," Schwartz told me recently. "They were doing it because they were smarter. Leach had found a way to make it work."

But when Schwartz studied videotape of the Texas Tech offense, what he saw unsettled him. The offensive linemen positioned themselves between three and six feet apart - on extreme occasions, the five linemen stretched a good 15 yards across the field. At times it was difficult to tell the linemen from the receivers. Strictly speaking, they were not a line at all, just a row of dots. "The offensive line splits - you look at them, and you're just shocked," Schwartz said. "It scares people to see splits that are that wide."

The big gaps between the linemen made the quarterback seem more vulnerable - some defenders could seemingly run right between the blockers - but he wasn't. Stretching out the offensive line stretched out the defensive line too, forcing the most ferocious pass rushers several yards farther from the quarterback. It also opened up wide passing lanes through which even a short quarterback could see the whole field clearly. Leach spread out his receivers and backs too. The look was more flag than tackle football: a truly fantastic number of players racing around trying to catch passes on every play, and a quarterback surprisingly able to keep an eye on all of them.

This offense was, in effect, an argument for changing the geometry of the game. Schwartz didn't know if Leach's system would work in the N.F.L., where they had bigger staffs, better players and a lot more time to prepare for whatever confusion the offense cooked up. On the other hand, he wasn't sure it wouldn't.

1:51 . . . 1:50 . . . 1:49 . . .


Finally, a coach: Mike Leach, 44, entered the locker room with the quizzical air of a man who has successfully bushwhacked his way through a jungle but isn't quite sure what country he has emerged into. "When you first meet him," Jarrett Hicks, a junior wide receiver, told me, "you think he's an equipment manager." Leach's agent, Gary O'Hagan of I.M.G., who represents dozens of other big-time college and N.F.L. coaches, put it this way, "He's so different from every other football coach it's hard to understand how he's a coach."

Leach shouted, "All right, everybody up!" Seventy players pushed into the middle of the room and bent down on one knee. ("That's the great thing about football," Leach says. "All you gotta do is yell.")

Leach isn't really sure that there's anything a coach can say to football players minutes before a game that will inspire them to put aside their pain and their problems and play their best. He thinks that revenge is a silly motive and that waxing poetic on how history will judge you is distracting. Two weeks earlier, his team was ranked seventh in the country but then lost badly to the University of Texas, the nation's No. 2 team, which ended Texas Tech's surprising shot at a national championship. Now they were 7-1, ranked 15th and still within sniffing distance of a major bowl game. Not worth mentioning, in Leach's view.

"Everyone find someone," he yelled. Hands sought hands and clasped. The room swelled with the disturbingly deep rumble of 70 football players speaking in unison. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.. . .("Basically I'm a religious person, but with some clear obedience and discipline issues," Leach says.) "All right," he cried, after the Lord's Prayer. "Three things." He jumped up onto a little green stool and looked down on his players, all larger than he. "Do your job. DO - YOUR - JOB!"

He was talking to the entire team, but his mind was on the offense, which Leach coordinates, unlike most head coaches. He watches the tape, draws up the game plan, schools the quarterbacks and calls the plays.

"No. 2," he said, "play together with great tempo."

He had been harping on tempo all week: he thinks the team that wins is the team that moves fastest, and the team that moves fastest is the team that wants to. He believes that both failure and success slow players down, unless they will themselves not to slow down. "When they fail, they become frustrated," he says. "When they have success, they want to become the thinking-man's football team. They start having these quilting bees, these little bridge parties at the line of scrimmage." His 45-second pregame speech set a certain tempo, but he had one final thing to say:

"Your body is your sword. Swing your sword."

Each off-season, Leach picks something he is curious about and learns as much as he can about it: Geronimo, Daniel Boone, whales, chimpanzees, grizzly bears, Jackson Pollock. The list goes on, and if you can find the common thread, you are a step ahead of his football players. One year, he studied pirates. When he learned that a pirate ship was a functional democracy; that pirates disciplined themselves; that, loathed by others, they nevertheless found ways to work together, the pirate ship became a metaphor for his football team. Last year, after a loss to Texas A.&M. in overtime, Leach hauled the team into the conference room on Sunday morning and delivered a three-hour lecture on the history of pirates. Leach read from his favorite pirate history, "Under the Black Flag," by David Cordingly (the passages about homosexuality on pirate ships had been crossed out). The analogy to football held up for a few minutes, but after a bit, it was clear that Coach Leach was just . . . talking about pirates. The quarterback Cody Hodges says of his coach: "You learn not to ask questions. If you ask questions, it just goes on longer."

Hodges knows - the players all do - that their coach is a walking parenthesis, without a companion to bracket his stray thoughts. They suspect, but aren't certain, that his wide-ranging curiosity benefits their offense. Of all the things motivating Texas Tech to beat Texas A.&M. this night, however, the keenest may have been the desire to avoid another lecture about pirates. Even now, their beloved coach had his left arm in the air, wielding his imaginary sword.

"SWING -YOUR - SWORD!"

With that, the players rose and crowded into the bright red double doorway leading to the tunnel.

Hu! Hu! Hu! Hu! Hu! Hu! Hu!

Leach had mixed feelings about this fever pitch - "You never know if they're too wired," he says. "I've had them saunter out and play like gangbusters" - but it couldn't really be helped, not at home against the Texas A.&M. Aggies. The players jammed in close and tight. They were no longer names; they were numbers. Leach walked up behind 88, Jarrett Hicks. Three years ago, Hicks was a widely ignored receiver playing for a high school in Houston. Neither Texas nor Texas A.&M. showed any interest in him; the only other offer he received from a serious football program was from Purdue. He had not caught his share of passes this season, but tonight Leach had plans for him. Leach placed his hand on the small of his back and said: "You and me, Hicks. You and me."

0:03 . . . 0:02 . . . 0:01 . . .


They burst through the doors and into the thick concrete tunnel and then onto the field and into the hot Texas wind and the roar of the crowd that gave them the feeling that they were running straight into the mouth of a lion.


Wherever Mike Leach walks onto a football field, a question naturally follows. Vincent Meeks, who plays safety, puts it this way: "How does a coach who never played a down of football have the best offense in the game?" Leach actually rode the bench through his junior year in high school in Cody, Wyo. But that was it for his playing career. When he left Cody for Brigham Young University, Leach planned to become a lawyer. From B.Y.U. he went straight to Pepperdine law school, where he graduated, at the age of 25, in the top third of his class. That's when he posed the question that has sunk many a legal career: "Why do I want to be a lawyer?" One day he announced to his wife, Sharon - soon to be pregnant with their second child - that what he really wanted to be was a college football coach. ("Yeah, her side of the family flipped.") To Leach, coaching football requires the same talent that he was going to waste on the law: the talent for making arguments. He wanted to make his arguments in the form of offensive plays.

The last 20 years have been an odd journey, with coaching jobs at College of the Desert, Cal Poly, Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State and a European league team in Pori, Finland. His first year coaching Division 1 college football was 1997, at the University of Kentucky. He arrived from Valdosta State with the head coach, Hal Mumme, and turned the Kentucky offense from joke into juggernaut. The year before he arrived, Kentucky's quarterback passed for 967 yards. In Leach's first year, his quarterback, Tim Couch, threw for 3,884 yards; the year after that, Couch, who lasted for only a few disappointing years in the N.F.L., threw for 4,275 yards. After Kentucky, Leach moved to Oklahoma for a single season, 1999. That year Oklahoma went from 101st to 8th in the country in offensive scoring. Its quarterback, Josh Heupel, passed for 3,850 yards that season, which was 1,700 more than any quarterback in Oklahoma football history had thrown for in a season. The next year, running Leach's offense, Oklahoma won the national championship - but by then Texas Tech had picked up the pattern and hired Leach to run its team. "Mike was different," says Patty Ross, who has long served as an assistant to Texas Tech head football coaches and who didn't know what to make of this new one. "We had always had West Texas guys. We always ran the ball here. The first time Mike's offense came out on the field everyone is like, Whoa. He has that play he calls the Ninja - when they all line up on one end. I'm not sure anyone had ever seen the Ninja. It was just a shock effect. Mike's personality was like that, too."

Stepping out into Jones SBC Stadium, surrounded by people wearing self-conscious looks of grim determination, Leach was even easier than usual to identify: he was the one guy wandering about, as Meeks has put it, "with this look on his face like he's walking around an airport, lost." True, he had shaved ("It's a good idea to shave for TV games") and shed his flip-flops, his "Hawaii Five-O" baggy shirts and his board shorts for an outfit that looked vaguely coachlike. As his team raced onto the field, he gazed into the stands filled with screaming fans and wondered about the several thousand "cadets" from Texas A.&M. clustered in one end zone. They wear military uniforms and buzz cuts, holler in unison and stand at attention the entire game. "How come they get to pretend they are soldiers?" he asked. "The thing is, they aren't actually in the military. I ought to have Mike's Pirate School. The freshmen, all they get is the bandanna. When you're a senior, you get the sword and skull and crossbones. For homework, we'll work pirate maneuvers and stuff like that."

Leach made his way to the sideline and from his back pocket pulled a crumpled piece of paper with the notations for dozens of plays typed on it, along with a red pen. When a play doesn't work, he puts an X next to it. When a play works well, he draws a circle beside it - "to remind myself to run it again." But at the start of a game, he's unsure what's going to work. So one goal is to throw as many different things at a defense as he can, to see what it finds most disturbing. Another goal is to create as much confusion as possible for the defense while keeping things as simple as possible for the offense.

What a defense sees, when it lines up against Texas Tech, is endless variety, caused, first, by the sheer number of people racing around trying to catch a pass and then compounded by the many different routes they run. A typical football offense has three serious pass-catching threats; Texas Tech's offense has five, and it would employ more if that wasn't against the rules. Leach looks at the conventional offense - with its stocky fullback and bulky tight end seldom touching the football, used more often as blockers - and says, "You've got two positions that basically aren't doing anything." He regards receivers as raffle tickets: the more of them you have, the more likely one will hit big. Some go wide, some go deep, some come across the middle. All are fast. (When Leach recruits high-school players, he is forced to compromise on most talents, but he insists on speed.) All have been conditioned to run much more than a football player normally does. A typical N.F.L. receiver in training might run 1,500 yards of sprints a day; Texas Tech receivers run 2,500 yards. To prepare his receivers' ankles and knees for the unusual punishment of his nonstop-running offense, Leach has installed a 40-yard-long sand pit on his practice field; slogging through the sand, he says, strengthens the receivers' joints. And when they finish sprinting, they move to Leach's tennis-ball bazookas. A year of catching tiny fuzzy balls fired at their chests at 60 m.p.h. has turned many young men who got to Texas Tech with hands of stone into glue-fingered receivers.

The first play Leach called against Texas A.&M. was the first play on Cody Hodges's wrist. That wrist held a mere 23 ordinary plays, 9 red-zone plays (for situations inside an opponent's 20-yard line), 6 goal-line plays, 2 2-point-conversion plays and 5 trick plays. "There's two ways to make it more complex for the defense," Leach says. "One is to have a whole bunch of different plays, but that's no good because then the offense experiences as much complexity as the defense. Another is a small number of plays and run it out of lots of different formations." Leach prefers new formations. "That way, you don't have to teach a guy a new thing to do," he says. "You just have to teach him new places to stand." Texas Tech's offense has no playbook; Cody Hodges's wrist and Mike Leach's back pocket hold the only formal written records of what is widely regarded as one of the most intricate offenses ever to take a football field. The plays change too often, in response to the defense and the talents of the players on hand, to bother recording them.

Hodges looked down and read what to anyone but a football player is incomprehensible: Ace Rip 6 Y Shallow.

The first part - Ace Rip - is the formation, the way the players line up. Here's how a conventional college football offense lines up.

Here's how Texas Tech lines up in Ace Rip, its most common formation.


Leach is unusual in giving his quarterback the authority to change every play, wherever the line of scrimmage. "He can see more than I'll ever see," Leach says. "If I call a stupid play, his job is to get me out of it. If he doesn't get me out of it, I might holler at him. But if you let him react to what he sees, there's a ton of touchdowns to be had." All Leach is really saying to Hodges when he sends in the play is, "Line up in Ace, see how they line up against it and call a good play."

Hodges stuck with 6 Y Shallow. The four wide receivers fanned out, two on each side, and the lone back stood several steps to the right of the quarterback. 6 Y Shallow tells them where to run - sort of. The play calls for the two outside receivers, X and Z, to run deep and drag both the cornerbacks and the safeties with them. If the cornerbacks and safeties are in a zone defense and refuse to follow along, X and Z are supposed to stop and wait in empty pockets within the zone. H is also supposed to adjust his plans according to how the defense lines up: if it looks as if the defenders will blitz - that is, rush in to get the quarterback - H runs a quick slant across the middle of the field so that the quarterback can throw to him immediately. If the defenders do not blitz, H runs a more leisurely 10 yards downfield and cuts across the middle. F, the tailback, takes off sideways and waits for a pass. Y, for whom the play is named, goes shallow. He runs 3 yards down field, then tears across the middle of the field, crossing H's route but separated by 7 or 8 yards. Leach doesn't expect receivers to go entirely uncovered - though in the confusion he creates, that happens a lot - but he does assume he will get single defenders covering a couple of them. A fast receiver covered by just one player is an open target waiting to happen for the simple reason that he knows where he is going and the defender does not.

Hodges took the snap from a shotgun position a couple of yards behind the center and saw something not often seen on a football field: 10 of the 11 Texas A.&M. defenders running backward to cover 5 Texas Tech receivers. There was but one lone white jersey in front of Hodges, walled off by five Tech lineman. A.&M.'s fear of the open spaces down the field had left the space right in front of Hodges empty. He ran for an effortless 11 yards and a first down.

Quickly, a pattern was established: A.&M.'s fear of Tech's passing meant that the field just beyond the line of scrimmage was so open that a blind man with a cane could find the holes. Though the defense managed to stymie his passing attack - temporarily - the sight of big, lumbering defensive linemen dropping back to cover the receivers did not displease Leach. "The thing is," he said after the game, "defensive linemen really aren't much good at covering receivers. They aren't built to run around that much. And when they do, you have a bunch of people on the other team doing things they don't have much experience doing." For the first 16 plays of the game, Texas Tech lined up in seven different formations (one with two running backs, another with two tight ends, etc.) just to see how the defenders would respond and which way they would run after the ball was snapped. Hodges threw to four different receivers, at eight different spots on the field. Leach wanted to move the ball toward the opponent's goal line, of course, but he also wanted to see how the spaces changed, to see what the A.&M. defense conceded and also which parts of the inherent disorder the defenders were failing to understand. Seven of the first 11 plays were pass plays that Hodges changed into runs.

Finally, A.&M. brought a few more players to the line of scrimmage. Hodges looked over and noted Jarrett Hicks all alone with a cornerback and threw Tech's first touchdown pass to him. The entire Texas Tech possession lasted just 2 minutes 42 seconds. Two minutes later, Tech got the ball back, and this time it was only four plays and 47 seconds before the tailback, Taurean Henderson ran, barely touched, for 18 yards into the end zone. An idea about the use of football time was being challenged. The typical football offense seeks to eat up as much of it as it can. The Texas Tech offense, which at that point in the season had passed for more touchdowns than any team in the country, uses just a shade over two minutes on each drive. But speeding everything up has a curious effect on game time. A typical college football team runs 65 to 75 offensive plays a game. Texas Tech tries to run 90 - and sometimes does. A college team with a robust passing game might throw the football 35 times a game; at this point, 8 games into an 11-game regular season, the Red Raiders were averaging 53 passes a game. And because the clock stops after first downs, touchdowns and incompletions, Texas Tech's games are among the longest in college football. Less than six minutes into game time but nearly 30 into real time, Tech led, 14-0.

The Texas Tech offense is not just an offense; it's a mood: optimism. It is designed to maximize the possibility of something good happening rather than to minimize the possibility of something bad happening. But then something bad happened. ("It always does," Leach says.) On its third series, the Tech center cut his hand and began bleeding profusely; instead of telling anyone, or wiping it off, he snapped a blood-drenched ball that slithered out of Hodges's hand as he prepared to throw, and the huge loss of yards killed the drive.

"There's no such thing as a perfect game in football," Leach says. "I don't even think there's such a thing as the perfect play. You have 11 guys between the ages of 18 and 22 trying to do something violent and fast together, usually in pain. Someone is going to blow an assignment or do something that's not quite right."

Three more times in the first half Texas Tech had the ball and each time it failed to score. But its problems weren't obviously caused by the A.&M. defense. One drive ended in a missed 38-yard field goal. On another, a touchdown was nullified by a holding call on the receiver Robert Johnson far away from the action. If you are the captain of a pirate ship, you cannot complain too much about lawless behavior - and Texas Tech is one of the most heavily penalized teams in college football - but still it's painful to watch a crew member drop treasure overboard. (Later, watching a videotape of the incident, Leach actually says, "Johnson's got to do a better job holding.") The final drive reached the A.&M. 5-yard line, where Leach called a pass play. Cody Hodges rolled out and, when he might well have simply run the ball into the end zone, threw an interception.

The Red Raiders trotted off the field at halftime with a lead, but not a large one: 14-10. A disappointing half, yet with hidden value. For 40 plays Leach's offense had groped - digressing, probing to learn something new - and it had been useful to see how the empty spaces on the field shifted. Coach and quarterback now knew what they wanted to know about the A.&M. defense. They had paid for the knowledge with time, but time means less to them than it does to any other offense in the land. A half to the Texas Tech offense is as good as a full game to most. The game within the game was about to begin.

From the beginning of football time, when there was no such thing as a forward pass and an offense did nothing but run, innovation has come from the passing attack. The last great shift was the so-called West Coast offense, developed by Bill Walsh during his time as a coach for Stanford University and then the San Francisco 49ers. Now widely imitated, it emphasizes controlling the game with lots of short passes. Still, football's mixed feelings toward passing are ingrained. Bob Carroll, a leading football historian, summarizes the attitude of the game's rule makers to the forward pass: "We're going to allow it because we know it makes the game safer. But we're going to make it difficult for you, because we don't approve of it." A whisper of the old antipass bigotry can be heard in football's conventional wisdom: that a balanced offense means running as often as you pass; that you can't pass all that effectively unless you first establish a running game; that a running game is necessary to "control the clock"; that passing is inherently riskier than running because a pass might be intercepted and give the other team good field position.

Leach and his offense are approaching the natural end of a path football strategy has been taking for 50 years. They are testing a limit. Synergy, in Leach's view, doesn't come from mixing runs with passes but from throwing the ball everywhere on the field, to every possible person allowed to catch a ball. "Our notion of balance," Leach says, "is that the five guys who catch the ball all gain 1,000 yards in the season." (The Indianapolis Colts last season became only the fourth team in N.F.L. history to have three receivers gain more than 1,000 yards in a single season.) The trouble with running plays, as Leach sees it, is that they clump players together on the field - by putting two of them, during a handoff, in the same spot with the ball. "I've thought about going a whole season without calling a single running play," Leach says, only half-joking. To a team that gains as many yards as Texas Tech, the usual boring, penny-ante yard-eating tactics - punts, penalties - are trivial. Field position is simply a thing to improve. Cody Hodges, who has spent the last four years marveling at Leach's in-game refusal to accept that his offense might have to be so conservative as to punt, says, "There's been lots of times I'm on the sidelines, and I'm like, 'Oh, my God, we're going for it!' We went for it on fourth and 5 on our own 23 - in the first quarter. We went for it once on fourth and 18 - and we were ahead." E. J. Whitley, an offensive lineman, says: "If you're on this offense, you expect to score. Most offenses on fourth down are coming off the field. On fourth down we expect a play to be called. Because we haven't scored yet."

One of the side effects of Leach's tinkering with the accepted rules of offensive conduct is to upset the ordinary rhythms of a football game. In the five full years Leach has coached Texas Tech, four or five times each season the team has flopped around ineffectually for the first third or so of a game before racing off to score touchdowns at a rate unheard of in organized tackle football. It's as if his opponent's defense has some deep dark secret that takes time for his offense to extract. Early this season, Texas Tech had been losing to Kansas State, 13-10, late in the second quarter - and won the game, 59-20. Last year's game against Texas Christian University was even odder: T.C.U., heavily favored, had shut out Southern Methodist University the week before, 44-0. With 8 minutes left in the second quarter, T.C.U. scored its third touchdown, for a 21-0 lead, and a T.C.U. defensive back was caught mouthing into a television camera, "They aren't going to score." In the last six minutes of the half, Texas Tech scored three quick touchdowns; after the break Leach's team came out and scored another seven and won the game, 70-35. A few games later, the Texas Tech offense scored the most points Nebraska had ever given up in its 114-year-old history. In that game, Texas Tech had been ahead, 14-3, with 2 minutes remaining in the first half. It won 70-10.

Halftime during the game against A.&M. was dull-minded; by now the original thrill of the game was gone. The team had slumped into the locker room, oozing self-disgust, and the players scattered into little bureaucratic meetings with their position coaches - the offensive linemen with the offensive line coaches, the receivers with the receivers coach and so on. Leach met with his quarterbacks in the coaches' locker room; he spent a few moments glancing at the first-half statistics. "The only information he ever asks for at halftime is the distribution," Hodges says. "He doesn't even care about the score. If Y has caught five passes and Z hasn't caught any, he wants to figure out how to get the ball to Z." Leach says, "You try to get the ball in everyone's hands because then it makes the whole offense harder to keep track of." If they aren't spreading the ball around, they aren't forcing the defense to cover the entire field. They are leaving empty spaces unprobed.

Leach had just a few minutes with Hodges, but he told him what he had noticed. First, the A.&M. cornerbacks were disguising their intentions. They were lining up as if to cover the fade routes - that is, before the play began, they stood between the receiver and the sidelines - but then, just as the ball was snapped, they were scampering back into the middle of the field. To Hodges it looked as if fade routes would be covered, so he had been sending his receivers on slants into the middle of the field. "Throw the fade," Leach said. "It doesn't look like it's there, but it is."

The other glaring opportunity, to Leach's mind, was A.&M.'s response to Tech's formations. On the few occasions when Texas Tech lined up in a formation that suggested a running play, with two running backs, the Aggies "put their ears back and stop the run." But when Tech was, as it preferred, in its passing formation, A.&M.'s fear of the pass caused them to leave huge empty spaces to run in. In the second half, the Tech running backs would be charging into pass coverage, and the Tech receivers would be running toward the sidelines.

There was one other thing Leach had noticed - and Hodges had noticed it, too. The A.&M. front line appeared tired. "The minute you see the defensive line bent over and their hands on their hips," Hodges told me, "that's when you know you have them." The A.&M. linemen were a lot bigger than the Texas Tech linemen. They may or may not have been fatter - Leach insists they were - but their bodies were clearly designed for a different sort of football game than this frenetic one. "That's the risk of playing 330-pound guys," Leach said later. "You get good push, but if you got to run around a lot, you get tired." Before the game, Leach had said to Hodges: "Get those fat guys up front and make them run. They're already a little slow. By play 40, they'll be immobilized." That was one reason he kept sending so many receivers on deep routes: to force the defense to run with them.

A coach cannot change the shape of the football field, but he can change its effective size. And if he can alter the environment, even slightly, he alters the environment's system of rewards and punishments. He can put 330-pound defensive linemen on the fast track to obsolescence and turn a pass-catching tailback into the holder of N.C.A.A. records. He can take a quarterback whose greatest assets are his moxie and his ability to see the field quickly and efficiently and make him the most prolific passer in the nation.

When he was finished with Hodges, Leach marched into the locker room, climbed back up on his green stool and exhibited, with the enthusiasm of a man doing it for the first time, the proper way to swing a pirate sword. "Coach's motivational speeches are always the same," says Daniel Loper, who played four years for Leach and is now a rookie offensive tackle with the Tennessee Titans. "He tells very long stories, and you're never sure what they mean. But he's a genius. When we leave the locker room, we all know that we'll have three receivers wide open every play."

"Thinking man's football" is a bit like "classy stripper": if the adjective modifies the noun too energetically, it undermines the nature of the thing. "Football's the most violent sport," Leach says. "And because of that, the most intense and emotional." Truth is, he loves the violence. ("Aw, yeah, the violence is awesome. That's the best part.") Back in the early 1980's, when he was a student at B.Y.U., he spotted a poster for a seminar, "Violence in American Sports." It was given by a visiting professor who bemoaned the influence of football on the American mind. To dramatize the point, the professor played a video of especially shocking blows delivered in college and pro football. "It had all the great hits in football you remembered and wanted to see again," Leach recalls. "Word got around campus that this guy had this great tape, and the place was jammed. Everybody was cheering the hits. I went twice."

For him, the game combines the appeal of chess with the joy of a demolition derby. Before the game, he and his coaching staff had spent a fair amount of time reminding the players, as if they needed to be reminded, that they were meant to hit people as hard as they can. "Be the hammer, never the nail." "You go out and knock the living dog snot out of people." "You get after him - get after him like he stole something from you." Et cetera.

On the second play of the second half, a lot of violent imagery, along with a pair of Texas Tech safeties, converged on a Texas A.&M. running back as he broke into the open field. One of the safeties, Vincent Meeks, was a ridiculously fast athlete who thought he came to Texas Tech to be a running back; the other, Dwayne Slay, had been hitting receivers so hard that they had started taking dives before he got to them. Slay was one hit shy of the N.C.A.A. record for forcing fumbles in a season - this was the hit. He drove right through the A.&M. ball carrier and took out Meeks as well, who rolled around on the ground screaming and clutching his groin. As the ball popped free and was grabbed by a Tech defender, a bent-over Meeks stumbled to the sidelines, where a coach asked a trainer, "Now who gonna touch that and make it well?"

What happened next doesn't often happen in big-time college football, and almost never in the N.F.L. But here at Texas Tech it now passes for normal: the Tech offense scored a touchdown, then got the ball back five times more - and scored all five times. One moment the scoreboard read 14-10 and suggested a hard-fought contest; the next it showed Texas Tech winning 56-17, with the ball and, with a minute remaining in the game, driving to score again. By the time he left the game, with 5 minutes to go, Cody Hodges had thrown 44 passes for 408 yards, a lot of them to Jarrett Hicks, who had 8 catches for 147 yards and 2 touchdowns, both on fade routes. The Texas Tech rushers had gained another 218 yards, just about all of them from pass formations.

But when Leach removes his starting quarterback, he does not mean for his offense to stop scoring touchdowns. Scoring is a habit, he says; the more players do it, the better they get at it. The new quarterback, Graham Harrell, had the offense marching as fast as possible toward the end zone, and with 23 seconds left, Texas Tech had reached the Texas A.&M. 25-yard line.

It was then that I looked over and noticed Bennie Wylie standing uneasily next to Mike Leach. Wylie is Texas Tech's strength and conditioning coach. Leach hired him three years ago from the Dallas Cowboys to prepare football players to run more than they had ever run on a football field. Just after he moved to Lubbock, Wylie learned that this job might be less a job than a calling. The thought struck him when he was driving and spotted, in the distance, a sloppily dressed middle-aged man in-line skating down the center of the road. The guy was rocking back and forth in the middle of what in Lubbock passes for a busy street; cars were whizzing past at 30 m.p.h. in both directions. There was no skating lane; truth to tell, there wasn't a lot of in-line skating going on in Lubbock. As Wylie drew closer, he thought to himself, That lunatic looks a little like Coach. As he pulled alongside the lunatic, he realized, It is Coach. Later, Leach explained that he had decided to take up in-line skating, and he'd calculated that the middle of that particular road was Lubbock's flattest, smoothest surface and so the obvious place to start. "To Mike, everything he does makes sense," Wylie says. "It just takes a while to see how it all fits together. But if you were a fly on his shoulder for six months, you'd laugh your eyeballs out."

But on this night Wylie was a fly on Leach's shoulder, and his eyeballs were still in their sockets. The end of this football game was shaping up disturbingly like last year's game against S.M.U., which had been, by Leachean standards, a low-scoring affair. With 15 seconds left, Texas Tech was ahead, 27-13. The clock was running, but the Red Raiders had the ball on the S.M.U. 4-yard line. It was then that Wylie realized that Leach and his offensive machine lacked an off switch. With 15 seconds left, Leach leaned into the field and called a timeout.

On the last play of that game, Leach sent in a pass play, and the quarterback, Sonny Cumbie, stepped into the shotgun position. "I could hear Bennett screaming," Cumbie says, referring to the S.M.U. head coach, Phil Bennett. "He's furious. He's yelling: HIT HIM! HIT HIM! HIT HIM! HIT THE QUARTERBACK!" Cumbie threw the ball into the end zone to a wide-open receiver, who dropped it. (None of the S.M.U. defenders hit him.) "I see their coach slam his earphones, throw down his clipboard and come running across the field," Wylie says. "I'm thinking: This is gonna be bad. He's mad at Mike for trying to score. And Mike really has no idea that he's mad. Mike is sitting there upset that we didn't score." Leach was, in fact, jotting notes on his wadded-up sheet of paper with the plays on it. His head was down; he didn't see Bennett. But before the S.M.U. coach reached Leach, Wylie jumped in. "The guy starts poking me in the chest - Bam! Bam! Bam! - and screaming," Wylie says. "If I hadn't been there, I think he might have taken a swing at Mike."

Now Texas Tech had a 39-point lead over A.&M. and the ball and was moving forward as rapidly as ever. To minimize its humiliation, the A.&M. offense had been running plays meant to use up time and get the team out of Lubbock. The governor of Texas slipped away early and was on his way back to Austin. The guys dressed up as soldiers in the Aggie end zone had run out of military drills to perform. Up in the sky boxes, the wife of an Aggie assistant coach insulted every female Red Raider in earshot by saying that at least she lived in College Station instead of Lubbock. ("First of all, we just beat them, 56-17," Leach says when told of the incident. "By rights she should now be a Red Raider slave.") For everyone but Mike Leach, the game was over, but he jumped onto the field and called a timeout. The referees did not notice: they were too busy throwing yellow flags at the extra Texas Tech players who had tried to get into the game. Tech was penalized, and in the subsequent confusion, Leach let the clock run out. "There was 23 seconds on the clock," he told me later. "That's more than enough time. I think we all had a level of disappointment we didn't score one more touchdown."

Bad as it was for Texas A.&M., its staff might wonder how much worse it could have been if Leach had the same access to talent as A.&M. or Texas or Alabama or, God forbid, Notre Dame. The chances of that happening can't be great, though. Leach remains on the outside; like all innovators in sports, he finds himself in an uncertain social position. He has committed a faux pas: he has suggested by his methods that there is more going on out there on the (unlevel) field of play than his competitors realize, which reflects badly on them. He steals some glory from the guy who is born with advantages and uses them to become a champion. Gary O'Hagan, Leach's agent, says that he hears a great deal more from other coaches about Mike Leach than about any of his other clients. "He makes them nervous," O'Hagan says. "They don't like coaching against him; they'd rather coach against another version of themselves. It's not that they don't like him. But privately they haven't accepted him. You know how you can tell? Because when you're talking to them Monday morning, and you say, Did you see the play Leach ran on third and 26, they dismiss it immediately. Dismissive is the word. They dismiss him out of hand. And you know why? Because he's not doing things because that's the way they've always been done. It's like he's been given this chessboard, and all the pieces but none of the rules, and he's trying to figure out where all the chess pieces should go. From scratch!"

Leach was out in the middle of the field shaking hands with a visibly upset Dennis Franchione, the Texas A.&M. coach. The press had descended on him, to ask him to describe just how happy he felt. But he didn't look happy; he looked distracted, for all the world as if he would rather be left alone. And by the time the cameras left, he was. The football field was huge and green and empty. The only other people on it were the two Texas Rangers assigned to protect him. As he allowed himself to be escorted toward the locker room, there were many things Mike Leach might have been thinking about. His team was now 8-1 - the best start in nearly 30 years for a Texas Tech football team. They had just beaten Texas A.&M. by the largest margin in the 80-year-old history of the rivalry. He knew he was not going to sleep anytime soon - he keeps the hours of a vampire and wouldn't go to bed until 6:30 a.m. - and so he might have even been thinking about reviewing game tape, which he usually does while others sleep.

Then he spotted a giant grasshopper on the turf. It twitched on the very spot where, two days earlier, he picked up his third-string halfback's tooth after it had been knocked out by his second-string defensive tackle. He gazed upon the grasshopper in wonder. He wondered, specifically, how far a giant grasshopper could hop, were he to put his foot to its rear. It was on the 20-yard line; he thought maybe it might make it to the 30.

Finally he looked up from the grasshopper. And, as if for the first time, he noticed that he wasn't exactly alone. The stands were thick with fans. Twenty thousand Red Raiders were chanting his name.

Coach! Leach! Coach! Leach!

Texas college football teams seem to have a particular need for hand signals. Fans of the University of Texas Longhorns deploy the thumb-and-pinkie hook-'em-horns gesture to suggest their bovinity. The Aggies have gig 'em, a frog-murdering gesture. The Red Raiders have guns up; when they are excited, they turn their index fingers into gun barrels. Now they were excited, perhaps as excited as they have ever been, and the fingers of West Texas filled the air. Ah, yes, it seemed to occur to Mike Leach, I'm supposed to feel as if I've won. He glanced once more at the grasshopper and thought, Oh, well, next time. Then he threw two triumphant trigger fingers high over his head and jabbed the air with them, twice. Guns up!

Twenty thousand natural-born underdogs roared the winner's roar. The man who made the moment possible by refusing to do anything but what he loves to do smiled, and for just a few seconds his mind was present and accounted for. Then he ran up the concrete tunnel and back into the pleasure of thinking for himself.

Michael Lewis, a contributing writer for the magazine, is the author of "Moneyball" and, most recently, "Coach," about a high-school baseball coach.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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