Sunday, November 9, 2008

Maximizing the possibility of something good happening

More from the 2005 NY Times feature story about Texas Tech coach Mike Leach's coaching style and philosophy:

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.

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.

"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.

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."

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."

"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."