Air raid sirens are ringing, which means it’s time to party like it’s 1999 at Commonwealth Stadium.
This weekend Mike Leach returns to Lexington as a coach for the first time since Hal Mumme’s former Kentucky offensive coordinator departed to call plays for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. Now the Mississippi State head coach, Leach has fond memories of his two years in Lexington.
“It’s a great place. I have a lot of friends there. It’s just a gorgeous city, Lexington is, and a great setting for a football game,” he said Monday afternoon. “Now, I’m looking forward to going back to Kentucky. In football, you know, you get asked the memory lane question quite a bit. Not a lot of time to walk down memory lane, but it’ll be good to see Lexington again.”
During his two years in Lexington, Tim Couch set SEC records in the Air Raid offense that still stand. Against Arkansas in 1998 Couch completed 47 of his 67 passing attempts, each of which are still SEC single-game records. Even though Couch threw for 499 yards, Kentucky did not win that game, falling 27-20. That game perfectly illustrates the Mumme experience: It was fun, but Air Raid football did not consistently produce wins at UK.
For those who did not live through the “Basketball on Turf,” Mumme and Leach produced a chaotic form of football. Even though I was just a kid sitting near the top of section 226, the memories from that time are sensory: One neighboring woman yelling at Marvin Love for dropping pass (“Maaaaaaaaaaaaarvin!”), the strong gust of winds from whiffed tackles and the sound of rustling in the bleachers as fans rose to their feet as a long ball soared through the air, culminating in either a sigh from an incompletion, or elation to the tune of the infamous sirens that accompanied each Wildcat touchdown.
Leach is credited for coining the term “Air Raid,” but he admitted that it was not his idea to play the siren. He explained where it got its start with Mumme at Iowa Wesleyan in the late 80s.
“You know, you’re just in the trenches trying to improve every day. You’re most-involved in practice. Go to practice, watch film, try to improve, try to improve. From that standpoint, in the thick of it you’re not very conscious of it. I’m credited with the title Air Raid. When we were at Iowa Wesleyan College some guy brought in an air raid siren. That was fun at that time to name offenses. There were all the different names they had for a variety of offenses. You know West Coast Offense, Fun and Gun, Run and Shoot. Anyway, this guy, Bob Lamb, comes in with an air raid siren. Our offices were in a basement of a gym that was built in about 1890. Iowa Wesleyan College is the oldest college west of the Mississippi, and it was actually a site for the Lincoln-Douglas debates. You see the gym on ‘Hoosiers’? Our gym was more Hoosiers than that gym on ‘Hoosiers’. We’re downstairs in the bowels of the basement. I was next to the boiler room. Come to find out Davey Lopes, the famous baseball player for the Dodgers, that had been his apartment way back when he played baseball at Iowa Wesleyan for a period of time. So he comes in there with this siren and says ‘Look what I’ve got.’ He turns that thing on and it’s loud as can be because it’s echoing off all the walls. [Mimics siren sound] Just letting it rip right.
“So we take it out there and our games would have 1,000 people, maybe 3,000 on a really big crowd, out there playing on a high school field. Bob would stand out there in the end zone. He would turn that thing on when we would score. Then after a while, he and his friends had so much fun with it, they’d just blast it for anything, randomly, whenever they felt like it. Even when the other quarterback was trying to call plays because we didn’t have a lot of crowd noise there. He’d get kicked out of games and stuff and have to go stand on the edge of the fence in the back. It was greatness. From there, they started calling it the Air Raid. I’m kind of credited with the idea of calling it the Air Raid because I said, ‘Well hey, we could call it the Air Raid,’ and it stuck.”
He did not take credit for it, but he loves the siren. He loves it so much he started playing it during Monday’s press conference.
“I’m going to get my grandkids one of these things,” he yell over the noise. “My daughter and her husband, they need to hear this, because I went through years of random noises and rambunctiousness and broken toys and broken glass. I’m going to buy each of my grandkids one of those.”
More than 20 years later and Leach’s offensive philosophy remains entertaining, yet volatile. In week one they threw for 623 yards and scored 44 points against LSU’s man coverage. Last week against Arkansas’ zone they threw for half of that, just 313 yards and one score, in a 21-14 loss to the Razorbacks.
Which version of Miss. State will we see on Saturday? Much of that probably depends on what Mark Stoops has schemed up against the Pirate. What we do know is that after 20 years Leach is going to throw it 60 times and still enjoy his time in the offseason in Key West with his old pal, Hal.
“I do keep in touch with Hal,” Leach said Monday. “We have met up in Key West. It’s been a long time. We talk back and forth, really on all kinds of things. Football is never far from being one of the topics. He’s doing a lot of clinics and things nowadays. He’s still definitely involved. He’ll always be involved in football. I can promise you that. Whether he’s got a team or not, he’s always in the thick of it with coaches drawing things up. Drawing things up on napkins, sometimes cloth napkins, which yeah we’ve had some funny expressions on waiters’ faces over the years when he can’t find paper. He grabs a cloth napkin and starts drawing stuff. He’s still in it, front and center.”