Before S. C. Gwynne moved to Texas in 1994 from New York, he never dreamed he’d take an interest in Big 12 football. Yet before long, he was transfixed: “I desperately cared who won the Kansas State–Iowa State game.”
A writer for Texas Monthly, Gwynne was more than just a fan. He followed the glory days of the Texas Longhorns—the Mack Brown era that produced Vince Young, Colt McCoy, and a national championship in 2006. But the other big story was happening in an unusual place: Lubbock. Under head coach Mike Leach, the Texas Tech Red Raiders had gone from perennial Big 12 also-rans to high-scoring juggernauts capable of beating—dismantling, even—Texas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma. Leach had stunned the college football world with his “Air Raid” offense—a pass-happy system that sent multiple receivers scampering across the field in what seemed like an endless array of configurations. Even the best minds in football struggled to figure it out—and to figure out how Leach was beating them with players none of the powerhouse schools wanted.
It was a great sports story, not least because Leach was delightfully weird, a pirate-obsessed savant with a law degree who’d never played college football and liked to give out free dating advice. And, best of all for a writer like Gwynne, Mike Leach was one of the rare sports figures who could be unfiltered and transparent with the press. “In my relatively limited career of covering sports,” Gwynne said, “sports people are just paranoid assholes, and they’re mean and they don’t like you because they’re deeply distrustful of you.”
Leach was the opposite. In 2009, following a season that saw Tech come tantalizingly close to playing for a national championship, Leach invited Gwynne to embed with the Red Raiders during spring practice. Gwynne sat in on coaches’ meetings, hung out with players in the weight room, and spent one-on-one time with the Pirate himself. “Leach was just wide open,” says Gwynne. “He let me in. It was fabulous.”
Gwynne produced a seven-thousand-word profile of Leach for the magazine’s September 2009 issue, which featured the coach on the cover wearing—what else? An eye patch. The story peels back some of the mystery surrounding Leach’s offensive mind, the inner workings of the Air Raid, and how Leach identifies talented-but-overlooked players (Kliff Kingsbury and Michael Crabtree, to name just two) and turns them into passing and catching machines. At the end of the 2009 season, Leach wound up departing Tech under controversial circumstances, as Gwynne detailed in a follow-up story. But even after writing those articles, Gwynne didn’t feel like he’d come close to understanding Leach’s outsider genius—until he spent two and a half years working on The Perfect Pass, a book about the coach and his Air Raid offense.
Thirteen years later, Leach is still coaching. After eight seasons at Washington State, he landed at Mississippi State in 2020, where he still deploys a relatively pure version of the Air Raid.
Gwynne said he considers the Leach profile part of the “golden era” of his journalism career. At Texas Monthly, he was “just trusted to go do the story and to bring it back. And so, it was great fun.”