There’s a reason Mike Leach’s quarterbacks have never cost him his job

There’s a reason Mike Leach’s quarterbacks have never cost him his job


Will Rogers and Mike Leach
Image: Getty Images

The next time a pundit says “Missing on such-and-such QB cost coach X his job” will be my next visit to the psych ward. You know why Spencer Rattler didn’t cost Lincoln Riley his job, and Paul Chryst couldn’t survive Graham Mertz? One looks at a chalkboard as a place to draw plays, and the other sees a canvas.

Granted, being the coach every quarterback wants to play for helps keep the QB stable teeming with thoroughbreds. It’s not a coincidence that Riley’s system produces successful quarterbacks. If it wasn’t Caleb Williams, it would’ve been someone else the same way Mike Leach molds 4,500-yard passers wherever he goes. Ohio State head coach Ryan Day has given us enough evidence that he also gets the best out of his signal callers.

Yes, Alabama has all-world talent all the time; Nick Saban also always has some failed head coach rekindling his prowess calling the offense. Bill O’Brien is on his way to another head coaching job after Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin used the Bama bump to return to the sidelines. Whether those disciples are great head coaches is beside the point. If you give them infallible ingredients and only ask them to cook, not run a kitchen, they’ll give you high-end meals.

Even though Chryst’s steaks come out perfectly temped, you’re still eating meat and potatoes every Saturday.

Which brings me to my next issue (course?).

Concern about the cooks at LSU and obviously Texas A&M

Like the Crimson Tide, whenever the Bayou Bengals get a capable coordinator they look otherworldly. However, after watching Brian Kelly’s teams at Notre Dame for nearly a dozen seasons, my inclination is that we’re not going to see consistent fireworks in Baton Rouge. Here’s where his teams ranked nationally in points per game during his tenure with the Irish: 68, 49, 81, 74, 40, 33, 53, 24, 42, 13, 30, 20. Next, name me his best quarterback. Ian Book? Deshone Kizer? Take away the non-power five blowouts, the Tigers are scoring 25 points per game this season. The win-ugly stuff that flourished in South Bend is a lot harder to pull off in the SEC.

Since Jimbo Fisher won the national title at Florida State in 2013 and finished second in the country in scoring, his team’s scoring offenses have finished ranked: 35, 46, 31, 71, 19, 62, 37, 56. The Aggies are 108th in scoring this year and that includes their non-conference games, and his quarterbacks have become as nondescript as his offenses.

For the sake of fairness, let’s take a look at Leach’s past two stops. Here’s where his squads have finished since 2012 when he took over Washington State: 108, 52, 47, 48, 18, 50, 15, 11, 110, 60. The 108th and 110th finishes were the first years with the programs, and this season they’re scoring 38 points a game (23rd nationally) and 32 ppg against Power Five schools. So since 2012, Leach has had as many top-15 offenses at Washington State as Kelly and Fisher have combined at Florida State, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, and LSU in about two decades worth of work.

The Bulldogs lost to the Tigers in mid-September — which was supposed to happen because one is LSU and the other is Mississippi State — but did put it on the Aggies last week. Quarterback Will Rogers has a 19-3 TD-INT ratio on the season, is amassing 346 yards passing per outing, and Miss St. is going to be annoying to play all season even in the SEC.

I know big schools are hesitant to hire Leach because he locks concussed players in closets and would fling toe fungus at the boosters, but someone please give that man Mel Tucker money.

How systems help QB and teams

Systems aren’t bad for quarterbacks. They make the jobs of everyone easier. And it’s not just a bunch of wide receiver screens, or the college football equivalent of a volume scorer. It’s a quarterback seeing what his play-caller is seeing because they’re on the same page. It’s getting a call in from the sidelines in a timely fashion and not staring at a play sheet like it’s written in Mandarin.

Look at USC this season. Obviously, it helps that the coach-QB tandem is in their second year together. The rest of the team is largely new to Riley’s scheme though, and they’re averaging more than 40 points per game and have one turnover on the season. While Williams has been brilliant with his decision-making, how many times have we seen a botched handoff lead to a fumble, a pick due to a receiver continuing his route instead of finding the hole in the zone — or any number of miscommunications that seem to happen more frequently in bad offenses?

Hendon Hooker is able to run Josh Heupel’s break-neck-paced system at Tennessee so well because he’s in sync with his coach and is able to get linemen and skill players lined up quickly and correctly. Sam Hartman executing Dave Clawson’s mind-boggling mesh running scheme at Wake Forest is another example of a symbiotic coach-QB relationship helping a unit hum as a whole.

Poor coaching vs. bad quarterbacks

And then we have Wisconsin. They fired Chryst, and people were like, welp, tough luck missing on Graham Mertz. Sure, I guess. That said, when was the last time the Badgers had a passing game that instilled fear in defenses outside of Russell Wilson more than a decade ago?

I know they’re built on running the ball, and that’s been the key to Rose Bowl appearances and 10-win seasons. However, if Wisconsin wants to consistently compete for Big Ten titles, it needs to be multi-dimensional. It’s obviously easier said than executed, but I at least understand where the athletic department was coming from after watching Mertz regress the past few seasons. The fact that they can run the ball so well should make it easier on the quarterback, and yet anytime a Badger dropped back it felt like trying to restart a Buick that’s been sitting in grandma’s garage the past decade.

Former Nebraska QB Adrian Martinez choked consistently under Scott Frost, and now under Chris Klieman, he has Kansas State in the Top 20 while rediscovering the confidence that was sapped from him in Lincoln. Hooker was at Virginia Tech, who is eternally challenged offensively, prior to blooming at UT.

I’ve said previously that QB transfers are often not the answer because the problem usually lies in the head coach’s inability to develop any quarterback let alone one with bad habits and low confidence. The best offensive coaches may not be able to turn sewage drainage into a Heisman winner, but they can get by, and even thrive, with average to above-average talent.

A head coach can miss on a quarterback and still find/develop a capable one within a season or two. It’s not ideal, but it is possible. If a coach hasn’t put together a consistent unit for going on a decade, those misses might be more user error than a lack of talent.



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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.