By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
There have been quite a few recent football coaching changes in the SEC. Arkansas, Ole Miss and Missouri have all hired new head coaches in this current off season. As most of you know Mississippi State also recently fired their head coach, Joe Moorhead, after his two year stint in Starkville. Last Friday Mississippi State named former Washington State coach and Hal Mumme Air Raid disciple Mike Leach as its new coach.
So what does this mean to Kentucky Wildcat fans? First of all it means that UK will face an uptempo air raid-type offense each year when they play the Bulldogs since Mississippi State is UK’s permanent East Division opponent.
That, in and of itself, should create a lot of interest on November 14th when Mississippi State brings its cowbell ringing brigade to Lexington. That’s the 10th game of the 2020 season so by then we should have a pretty good read on what kind of team Kentucky will have and what type of team Leach will have been able to create out of the players left in Starkville.
But here is the more interesting thing that could come out of this hiring. Prior to Mark Stoops being hired as the new football coach at Kentucky many fans had been calling for Kentucky to consider Mike Leach for the UK job. Leach had taken the head coaching job at Texas Tech, a team that had fallen on hard football times, and resurrected them into a competitive football program in the Big 12. After his firing from Tech in 2009 for what Leach called “unjust” off the field accusations he resurfaced two years later as the head coach at Washington State. Once again he took a team that had been a perennial cellar-dweller for years and turned them into a competitive football program in the PAC 12. He left Pullman, Washington as the third winningest coach in Washington State history with an overall record of 55-47.
So here is the interesting part for UK fans. They will now get to see if Mike Leach could have been successful at UK based on how he performs at Mississippi State. It’s kind of like a laboratory test.
Mississippi State and UK are similar in recent football history. Both programs have been “middle of the road” or worse performers over the last few decades. They both have had periods of time when their football programs were competitive but other times when they have been bottom of the SEC teams.
Both programs also have historically been limited in their ability to recruit top notch players and struggle to be competitive with other SEC schools because of the difficult recruiting landscape.
What that means is that Mississippi State’s football program is very similar to Kentucky’s football program prior to Mark Stoops. Mississippi State’s program was performing well with Dan Mullen as head coach and then after he left, Mississippi State selected a coach that pretty much destroyed everything Mullen had created. It is a scenario very similar to what happened with Joker Phillips as the head coach at UK following Rich Brooks revival of the UK Football program back in the early 2000’s. The Kentucky program collapsed, very similar to what is happening at Mississippi State.
So the interesting thing to me will be to sit back and watch Mike Leach try to resurrect the Bulldogs program using his Air Raid offense and his generally mediocre defenses. It will be interesting because as most fans may recall when Mark Stoops arrived at UK, he too was going to resurrect UK’s program using an Air Raid offense. It seems like what he quickly found out after a couple of seasons was that to win consistently in the SEC a team has to be physical and control the line of scrimmage on both offense and defense. A team has to be able to run the ball consistently, even in predictable running situations, and defenses have to be able to stop the run. Those are the basic building blocks for winning at a high level in the SEC. Football programs that have ignored those basics have not been able to remain competitive against other SEC programs over the long haul.
It was the same way when Kentucky’s Hal Mumme, with Mike Leach as his offensive coordinator, ran the Air Raid offense. His teams were exciting to watch and put up a lot of points but they struggled to consistently win more than fifty percent of their games in the SEC. Hal Mumme left Kentucky with an overall record of 20-26.
I have to wonder if Mike Leach might not find himself in the same situation at Mississippi State. Everywhere he has gone he has been good at getting teams to a competitive level. He did it at Texas Tech, he did it at Washington State, but will he be able to take Mississippi State to the next level which would be winning the SEC West and competing for an SEC Championship?
As Mike Leach takes over the reins of the Bulldog program UK fans can sit back and watch the events unfold in Starkville knowing that the Kentucky Football program is in good hands even as they watch how a true Air Raid offense — one coached by Mike Leach at Mississippi State — can perform against the best of the best in college football.