Mike Leach's history against Alabama football includes a paradigm-shifting upset

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

In 1997, Mike Leach was little more than a kindred spirit in a supporting role. He was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Kentucky under Hal Mumme, the person credited with taking the Air Raid from the NCAA’s lower ranks at Iowa Wesleyan) to the SEC. He  took Leach along for the ride.

Leach's first game against  Alabama was Oct. 4, 1997, in what was then Commonwealth Stadium. The 40-34 overtime win for Kentucky — the Wildcats’ first win over UA in 75 years — has since been looked to as a watershed moment in the history of offensive football. It was documented thoroughly in S.C. Gwynne’s book “The Perfect Pass,” a cross between a Mumme biography and the origin story of the Air Raid.

Twenty-three years later, Leach is back on the SEC’s sidelines, now as the coach of Mississippi State. When the Bulldogs (1-3) visit Bryant-Denny Stadium to play No. 2 Alabama (5-0) on Saturday (6 p.m., ESPN), it will be two decades after Leach and Mumme first grabbed the nation’s attention, starting the process of taking the Air Raid from a gimmick to a viable offense that would inspire others for years to come.

Mike Leach makes his Mississippi State coaching debut Saturday against LSU.

“I do remember how Hal Mumme used those short passes as a substitute for the run game,” Eli Gold, the play-by-play radio broadcaster for Alabama football games since 1988, said.

In the win, not only did Kentucky attempt more passes than it did runs, 49 to 25, it completed more passes (32) than it attempted runs. Three receivers had at least 60 yards against the Crimson Tide, including 103 from Derek Homer. Craig Yeast scored on a 26-yard touchdown pass to win the game in overtime.

Tim Couch threw for 355 yards and four touchdowns, but what Leach remembers most of Couch’s performance  was a conversation with Bruce Fuller, then the last Kentucky quarterback to beat Alabama in 1922. At least 90 years old and attending the game, Fuller shook Couch’s hand after the game and delivered a message: break the huddle quicker.

Gold remembers the initial shock of it all — he said on the postgame show: “The Kentucky fans aren’t quite sure how to celebrate it. They’re headed to Rupp Arena to cut down the nets.”

It wasn’t until years later the game was assigned its meaning for the future of offense football.

“I think it was more, a lot of people thought Alabama got caught up in an anomaly that night,” Gold said. “On any given day, as the old saying goes, anybody can beat anybody. I don’t know if it was obvious to me at that point.”

Leach would only spend one more season under Mumme at Kentucky, leaving for the same position at Oklahoma for one season before nine years as the coach at Texas Tech, followed by eight seasons at Washington State. 

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In those years, Leach’s Air Raid became much more than the anomaly that occasionally traps a bigger adversary.

“It’s very effective and certainly something that is a little bit different than what you see week in and week out. I think you have to play a little bit differently against it,” UA coach Nick Saban said. “It’s very well-conceived. They do a really, really good job of coaching what they do, so you’ve gotta do a really good job for your players to be able to react to those things, anticipate what’s gonna happen, break on the ball, tackle well in space. There’s a lot of things that go into being able to play well against it because they’re very effective at how they execute it.”

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson