In 1998 I went to Kentucky to interview a top quarterback named Tim Couch and a very strange coach named Hal Mumme.
Kentucky was running a quirky, pass-loopy offense a lot of people thought was contrary to the basic concepts of Walter Camp’s football.
Mumme was a borderline nutcase hired out of Division II Valdosta State to bring excitement, if not winning, to Kentucky football.
And that he did bring—and by “that" I mean excitement.
Mumme broke all rules, norms and conventions. One of those sacrileges, one year, was never punting on fourth down. Ever.
Mumme’s offensive coordinator in 1998 was a guy named Mike Leach.
In 1999, a young Oklahoma coach named Bob Stoops hired Leach away from Kentucky to run an offense that would become known as “Air Raid.”
Leach stayed only a year but in 2000, running his offense, Oklahoma won the national title.
In 2015, looking to recharge the program after an 8-5 season, Stoops got sentimental and doubled down on “Air Raid” when he hired disciple OC Lincoln Riley from East Carolina.
“We kind of made it popular when I brought Mike from Kentucky, from Hal Mumme,” Stoops said. “And then it spread.”
Never in a million years, or even 20, though, did I ever imagine Air Raid being sprayed on the campus of USC.
But here we are.
The Trojans, desperately hopeless after a 5-7 campaign that nearly\should have gotten Clay Helton, have sold the last piece of their Student Body heart.
USC has officially hired Kliff Kingsbury as their new offensive coordinator and it was just about the best thing the 2018 Trojans could have ever done.
This is no time for Trojan fans to wax nostalgic for Marcus Allen and Tailback U because those days are gone.
USC needs to get back to winning, now, with an offense that doesn’t look like it fell off the back of a turnip truck.
Kingsbury is “Son of Air Raid.” He played for Leach at Texas Tech and then took over as head coach.
Air Raid was originally conceived to counter superior physical forces employed by the likes of powerhouses USC, Alabama and Penn State.
But then came Bob Stoops, desperate at Oklahoma, who proved that Air Raid could be a game changer when beefed up and infused by four-star recruits.
And while Air Raid seems anathema to everything USC ceded to Stanford and ever stood for, Trojan fans should be excited.
Imagine Washington State’s offense, run by Mike Leach, with USC players?
With inferior chess pieces, Washington State went 10-2 this year and Leach was named Pac 12 Coach of the Year.
What should thrill USC fans about Kingsbury is the possibility of blending Air Raid with blazing tailbacks and 6-4 receivers from Long Beach Poly.
Call it Power-Raid.
Leach, at Texas Tech and now Washington State, has mostly succeeded with players USC and Oklahoma did not want.
This, as a program, could only get you so far. Air Raid is one-dimensional as it relies too much on quick-passing, 65 to 75% of the time.
Here’s the all-timer: Washington State, in a 2013 loss at Oregon, ran the ball 12 times for two yards.
Quarterback Connor Halliday, however, passed 89 times for 557 yards. Leach refused to concede a lopsided defeat and kept passing until the final whistle.
Very unconventional, or as Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti called it after the game: “total bullshit.”
Kingsbury, being a smart man, will have to deftly meld Air Raid with USC talent.
If it works, wow, look out.
The downside for Washington State is not being able to adjust to certain conditions. The Cougars were completely taken out of this year’s Apple Cup by a snowstorm in Pullman that neutralized Wazzu’s precision passing attack.
Washington, with better and bigger players, battered the Cougars with a steady diet of offensive linemen and running back Myles Gaskin.
Washington out-rushed WSU, 285-85, and won a 28-15 victory.
UW defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake, unabashedly, ripped Leach’s offense after U-Dub’s sixth straight win over Pullman U.
“They do the same thing year in and year out,” Lake said. “It makes it really easy to game plan.”
Washington, though, always has the talent advantage and so will USC.
USC’s major concern with Kingsbury is the impact his offense will have on the Trojans defense.
Oklahoma’s Air Raid this year has been as historically good as the Sooners defense has been historically bad.
Sonny Dykes, another Air Raid disciple, had prolific offenses at Cal that were matched only by horrific defenses.
I once pitched a story to my L.A. Times editors to go to Ruston, Louisiana, for a specific reason. And it wasn’t to see the spot where Bonnie and Clyde were shot up by the Feds.
I went to Ruston to do a story on Louisiana Tech, coached by Dykes, who had the unusual distinction of having the nation’s No. 1 ranked offense and nation’s worst-ranked defense.
“In the South it’s still considered a gimmick,” Dykes said of Air Raid in my 2012 story.
Louisiana Tech’s offense was run not by the quarterback, but by the center, who called plays at the line of scrimmage.
A lot has changed in six years but this fact has not: offenses that score fast are murder on your other primary unit.
USC, to succeed, needs to also overhaul its defense.
The Trojans should hire, lean on or at least study what defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti did at Oregon.
Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offenses drove Aliotti crazy at first because the Ducks either scored every third play or went three-and-out.
To combat his own offense, Aliotti developed a hockey-type line shift philosophy. He determined he needed 20 starters on defense, not 11, and constantly rotated fresh players into the game.
Aliotti is the best up-tempo defensive coordinator of his generation.
His masterwork was he and his staff holding Cam Newton’s Auburn to 22 points in the 2010 national title game.
In 2005, “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis did an in-depth story on Leach for the New York Times.
At that time, Leach’s system at Texas Tech was still being scoffed at by the NFL and upper-echelon college programs.
“They dismissed him out of hand,” Lewis wrote.
Lewis, though, as precursor to what USC fans may be in for, also outlined the possibilities of an offense that features split-gap linemen and multiple pass catchers.
“Receivers are raffle tickets,” Leach told Lewis.
USC can only hope it has just hit the lottery.