Mike Leach’s impact reached Patrick Mahomes — even if the two never met

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Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach died this weekYou can generate a well-deserved outpouring of not just sympathy, but appreciation for his impact Football is a game.

His former players and his assistants became prominent coaches (Lincoln Riley Josh Heupel Kliff Kingsbury) and his Air-Raid offensive changed football from high-school football to the NFL (five-wide formations; fourth-down aggressiveness); nothing is the exact same.

Yet what Leach’s mold-breaking concepts did extend beyond even that.

Consider that his style — or more accurately his thinking — isn’t just responsible for how, say, Patrick Mahomes plays football, but arguably that Patrick Mahomes even plays football at all.

Mahomes is one the NFL’s most exciting and marketable stars. Leach and Mahomes have never met. Yet without Leach, it’s fair to wonder if Mahomes might have capped out as a college player or be playing a different position, let alone a different sport altogether, rather than lighting up the NFL like few ever have.

You can go back to 2012, Mahomes junior season at Whitehouse Texas High School. Before becoming Whitehouse quarterback, he was a sophomore safety.

Leach was at Washington State coaching at the time. However, during his time at Texas Tech (2000-2009), he had implemented the Air Raid offense. Mahomes’ high school coach, Adam Cook, had gone to Tech and installed a version of the system at Whitehouse.

Kliff Kingsbury (Texas Tech quarterback) celebrates with Mike Leach, head coach after he dunks him with gatorade in the final minutes against Clemson at Orlando’s Mazda Tangerine Bowl.

Air Raid favors smart, intuitive quarterbacks. Mahomes wasn’t the most polished player at the time. Mahomes was a three-sport star. He spent his offseason playing baseball and basketball, not with a throwing specialist.

However, he was highly competitive, intelligent, and adaptive. The Air Raid is a force that values these characteristics. An older-fashioned, pro-style offense might not have been successful for him.

“Coach Adam Cook was the first guy to show me the quarterback position,” Mahomes said. “He didn’t force me to be a certain type of quarterback, he let me go out there and just play the game how I like to play it.”

Mahomes threw 3,839 yards and 46 touchdowns during that season. He also ran 258 yards, and six more touchdowns. He threw for more than 4,600 yards and 50 touchdowns as a senior.

“He was just always making the right decisions,” Cook said.

Even though the junior year was enough to get college football recruiters’ attention, there were still questions about Mahomes future. Air Raid was still considered a joke. If your team didn’t run it, could the QB adapt? Was Mahomes just a system quarterback? Was he even a quarterback?

Mahomes’ father, Pat, once told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that the University of Texas recruited his son to play safety, seeing him more as an athlete. Other schools were scared off by the belief that Patrick would focus on baseball — so banking on him becoming a starting quarterback was risky.

Kliff Kingsbury was Texas Tech’s head coach at the time. He was a former Red Raiders player and was Leach’s first quarterback between 2000-2002. He saw Mahomes through the lens of the Air Raid, and therefore saw him not as a quarterback, but possibly the perfect quarterback.

“Dynamic athlete,” Kingsbury said at the time. “And he’s a winner. You watch him play and he willed his team over and over.”

Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes II, center, and Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury, right, walk off the playing field defeating Baylor in an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 25, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Kliff Kingbury, Tech head coach, and Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes II walk off the field in victory over Baylor in an NCAA college game in Arlington, Texas, on Friday, November 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

This meant that there was no safety. This was the place where the best player is the most important. Kingsbury assured Mahomes that he would not be deterred by Mahomes’s decision to choose baseball, and that he would be drafted by Detroit Tigers.

Mahomes was quick to commit and started trying to integrate what they did at Tech into what he was doing at Whitehouse.

“My coach in high school went to Texas Tech, so he kind of had that same style of offense.” Mahomes said this week. “[When] I went on visits there, I was trying to learn what they were doing to add it into our offense.”

Mahomes made the transition to Texas Tech as a freshman starter. As a sophomore, he quit baseball to focus on football. In his final two seasons – running Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense – he threw for 9,705 yards and 77 touchdowns. In 2017, Kansas City drafted him as the 10th overall draft pick.

“Coach Kingsbury took me from an athlete, a baseball player on the field, to making me a quarterback,” Mahomes said. “He taught me how to go through progressions, taught me to read coverages and just built me up.”

In his first season as a starter, he was named NFL MVP and won the Super Bowl.

“I learned from Coach Kingsbury, so I feel like I’ve learned from Mike Leach himself,” Mahomes added this week.

Mahomes is clearly one of the best athletes in the country. If Mike Leach had not rewritten the rules of offensive football and established the traits a quarterback should possess, could Mahomes be a successful quarterback in the NFL. Is he actually playing football? Is he a college or high school security who was able to make a decision about baseball before making a move?

It’s not a stretch to wonder.

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