I imagine the proprietors of Dickey’s Prairie Home Restaurant, of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, were paying a modicum of attention to Washington State’s 31-24 win at Houston on Friday night, just to see if they’d get a plug or two.
And they did so, at least during Mike Leach’s postgame news conference.
“Legend goes,” a reporter began, “that you and Hal invented the Air Raid offense on some diner napkins at Dickey’s Home Prairie. What can you tell me about that?”
To his credit, the WSU coach quickly pointed out the oversimplification of that story line, even while allowing Dickey’s its free pub.
Three decades ago, it’s true that Leach, as the new offensive coordinator at Iowa Wesleyan, would flee campus on occasion with his boss, Hal Mumme, and hang out at nearby Dickey’s, sipping coffee and diagramming proto-Air Raid plays on paper napkins. Leach spins the yarn in his 2011 memoir, “Swing Your Sword.”
But after the awkward Cougars vs. Cougars tussle everyone had just witnessed, the Dickey’s anecdote fit the mood about as well as the Big Gulp play that Leach had hauled out to no avail in the first quarter.
As The Pirate has noted, some of those plays that wound up in the dumpsters outside Dickey’s are still very much alive in Leach’s version of the Air Raid at Washington State, and maybe even in Dana Holgorsen’s much-modified version at Houston. And yes, Holgorsen plays an integral role in Air Raid mythology, having grown up in Mount Pleasant and been persuaded by Leach and Mumme to join their team as a receiver.
The whole saga is entertaining, not to mention useful, if not for Dickey’s bottom line then at least for Leach’s reputation as a football savant. It calls to mind any number of napkin legends of the art world, including the one about Picasso sitting at a Paris cafe and complying to an admirer’s request that he do a quick sketch on whatever was handy.
But football plays don’t spring out of thin air, any more than cubist sketches do. In the Picasso tale, the great artist declined to hand over the napkin without charging a pricey fee. “How can you ask for so much? It took you a minute to draw that,” the admirer said.
“No,” Picasso replied, “it took me 40 years.”
In the case of the young Leach and Mumme, they were drawing upon not only their own coaching experience but the innovations of earlier proponents of spread offense. In the postgame session at Houston, Leach mentioned LaVell Edwards of Brigham Young, Don Read of Montana, the run-and-shoot cultists in various locales and, most relevant to Wazzu, Jack Elway, whose iteration of the spread four decades ago at San Jose State profoundly influenced future WSU coaches Dennis Erickson and Mike Price.
As it happens, the WSU Cougars at NRG Stadium in Houston looked as much like a Mike Price team as a Mike Leach one.
Holgorsen, the former West Virginia boss now in his first year at Houston, no doubt had something to do with that. Seeped in Air Raid logic, he evidently intimated enough of it to his suspect defense to throw the Leachians out of kilter as Houston took a 14-7 lead by halftime. When Leach tried his Big Gulp gambit and got tagged for the second illegal-snap penalty of that play’s young history, it was obvious his disciple was flustering him.
Unable to consistently move the chains in the way recent Leach teams have done, the northern Cougars eventually turned to the sort of “big” plays – “explosive” is the more common term these days – that Price thrived on during his 14 years at the Wazzu helm.
It was with a suddenness, and a sense of cracking an arcane code, that Anthony Gordon threw 39-yard touchdown passes to Easop Winston Jr. and Dezmon Patmon in the second and third quarters and, in a foiled masterpiece, hurled the ball to Max Borghi on a gorgeous wheel route in the fourth. The 76-yard touchdown was called back on a pass-interference flag that was so wrong, and so irrelevant to the success of the play, that it could only have been a makeup call.
“Too little, too late” is probably what Holgorsen would say. His team had drawn three holding flags on its first series, which – if you discount its four penalties overall – rang up 112 yards and resulted in a missed field goal. Nine-point underdogs, the Houston Coogs — just to be different, they drop the “u” when they abbreviate the word — dominated the first half in a way that blew the Air Raid vs. Air Raid motif out of the water.
As for Holgorsen’s offensive schemes, they’ve veered for far from the Mumme-Leach ideal that Leach was right a few years ago to jokingly boot him from the Air Raid club. Mumme would probably disagree. Now exiled to the Dallas Renegades of the XFL, the 67-year-old innovator gleefully attended the Cougs-Coogs game, wearing neutral Nevada Wolf Pack gear and proclaiming loyalty to whichever team happened to be on offense.
When talking about Dickey’s during the postgame session, Leach alluded to another Mount Pleasant restaurant mentioned in his book — “a more formal place, where we actually drew on some cloth napkins,” he said. “It turned out they were less happy about that than we thought they might be.”
It was a good line for the occasion. This game wasn’t an ode to the origins of the Air Raid. It was an ode to doing whatever it takes to win a game.
Grummert may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2290.