Football has been called war by other means. As a grand exercise in strategy and tactics, it might also be called business by other means. For some purposes, football is America by other means.
So when someone comes along and threatens to change football at its core, well, we have to pay attention. Enter Coach Leach of Texas Tech, the object of an article in the NYT Sunday Magazine.
changing the game
Coach Leach has created a football program that punches above its weight. Typically, he works with kids who are not nationally scouted or ranked. But what he does with them is not to be believed. All of his quarterbacks have distinguished themselves, and B.J. Symons set a college record passing 5833 yards in a single season. The kid threw for more than 3 miles.
Coach Leach has done this without the aid of charisma…for he is unprepossessing. He is in fact sometimes mistaken for the equipment manager. In a sport that has many formidable-looking contestants, he’s the one "with this look on his face like he’s walking around an airport, lost."
An illuminating moment from Lewis’ excellent piece in the NYT:
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. […] 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."
Bloggers live for ideas, and this sort of thing kind of makes Coach Leach sound like a man after our own, usually pacific, hearts. Wrong. Coach also loves the violence of the game, counselling his players to go out "and knock the living dog snot out of people."
what is Coach doing to football?
Coach Leach’s has changed the configuration of the offensive unit, spreading it out on the line of scrimmage, so that it looks more like flag football than tackle football. The defense must now contend, as Lewis puts it, with "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."
Leach uses 5 receivers (not the usual 3). They run routes that are many, various and variable
There is no play book. There are places that the offensive player is supposed to stand, things he is supposed to do.
Leach gives his quarterback the authority to change the play at the line of scrimmage,
"He [the quarterback] can see more than I’ll ever see. 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."
Speed is the order of the day. Texas Tech players are smaller and faster than their opponents.
Coach makes sure that everyone gets the ball. This is not "sharing."
"You try to get the ball in everyone’s hands because then it makes the whole offense harder to keep track of."
That’s the real objective: to maximize the complexity faced by the opposition while keeping things as simple as possible for Texas Tech players.
Oh, there’s one more thing. Iteration. Coach likes to try everything in order to discover the weaknesses of the opponent. Where do they really panic? Some of his plays are run for the purpose of discovery. They are not so much plays as fact-finding missions.
But doesn’t this waste plays? Leach runs such a prolific offense he can afford to spend plays on fact findng. Most college football time run 70 plays a game. Texas Tech aims for 90.
So let’s review Coach uses speed to exhaust, variety and variation to confuse, iteration to discover, and improv to improve just-in-time responsiveness. Football has been hardening into orthodoxy for some years now. Coach appears to be doing his best to turn football into something more like basketball.
Wait a second, who does this sound like?
That’s what I thought, too. It sounds like Coach Leach is running Texas Tech the way AG Lafley is running P&G. Both appear to have a page from the complexity theory "play book." They have created organizations that are prolific, fast, responsive. They have taken organization once committed to "ball control" and "grinding it out," and made them creatures of something much closer to true dynamism.
In the case of football, this change comes, perhaps, not a moment too soon. I heard today that Monday Night Football will be consigned to cable (ESPN, but still). Now that there is a plenitude of options (lots more sports, lots more things competing with sports), it is perhaps time for football to step it up a little. I mean, some of the games this season, it’s been like listening to Coach talk about pirates for 3 hours.
Lewis, Michael. 2005. Coach Leach Goes Deep, Very Deep. New York Times Sunday Magazine. December 4, 2005. here.
“It sounds like Coach Leach is running Texas Tech the way AG Lafley is running P&G. Both appear to have a page from the complexity theory “play book.”
Any chance you could elaborate on what’s going on at P&G or provide a link or two?
I blogged the same article the other day, excerpting the same bit about pirates. Sooner or later, Leach or his philosophy will be tried out in the NFL. I predict NFL defenses will adjust and consign pirate ball to history within a season. But we’ll see.
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Juri, thanks for the comment and the question. BusinessWeek did an article a couple of years ago that suggested that Lafley was a complexity theorist kind of guy. Here’s a quote from the book I’ve got coming out from Indiana University Press in a couple of months.
In the words of BusinessWeek, Lafley is now “leading the most sweeping transformation of [P&G] since it was founded by William Procter and James Gamble in 1837.” His task is to establish “how to make P&G relevant in the 21st century, when speed and agility … matter more than heft.” As Lafley puts it:
We were looking at slow growth. An inability to move quickly, to commercialize on innovation and get full advantage out of it. We were looking at new technologies that were changing competition in our industry, retailers, and the supply base. We were looking at a world that all of a sudden was going to go 24/7, and we weren’t ready for that kind of world.
The Owner’s manual, if by “adjusting,” you mean giving up an extra 3 touchdowns a game, I couldn’t agree more. Best, Grant
(thanks for the shoutout!)
The Lewis article is interesting because it gets the feel of being an innovator right. It’s alwasy intersting to watch contrarians and mavericks compete successfully.
I should point out that many of the individual concepts employed by Leach are not original to him at all. It’s how he puts them together and teaches them to his players that’s truly unique.
For example, sending out five receivers on a play is not exactly a new idea. Most teams, including those using the West Coast offense, have plays that do this–they just don’t do it as frequently. Sending out five receivers against a five- or six-man rush means that you can only throw short passes, because the quarterback doesn’t have time for receivers to get deep. Most teams try to mix it up so the defense won’t know what’s coming.
Having an improvisational pass offense is also not new. The old Run&Shoot offense and its many offshoots were even more improvisational than Leach’s attack–all the receivers read coverages on the fly and adjusted their patterns, four or five receivers went out every play, etc. The Houston Oilers and Detroit Lions piled up big stats and got to the playoffs with the Run&Shoot, but never got over the hump. (Conventional coaching wisdom appears to be that the development of the zone blitz put it out of business.)
I would personally like to see what would happen to Texas Tech if the defense didn’t spread out its line to match the Red Raider splits. Put a man over the center and a man in each of the A gaps (center-guard spaces) and rush up the middle like a son of a bitch. “Strand” the offensive tackles so they have nobody to block and essentially are wasted players. Then you effectively have eleven defenders against eight or nine offensive players, and the QB has little time to throw. Okay, enough of my inner football geek.
Steve, thanks, those details, and the larger argument, most interesting. Best, Grant
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Sport is always political. I mean, political game, even Olympic games. And football is not exceptance.