PULLMAN – Dana Holgorsen wasn’t there for the birth of the Air Raid offense, but he was as close as one could get. If Holgorsen wasn’t in the labor room itself, he was right outside the door.
While Mike Leach and Hal Mumme were sketching out Mesh and Y-cross patterns on paper napkins at the local café in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, transferring their wild ideas to a chalkboard at Iowa Wesleyan and putting their brainchild onto an actual football field, Holgorsen was catching passes a few stop signs away at Mount Pleasant Community High School.
Holgorsen was eventually recruited by the two men responsible for forging one of football’s most influential offenses – “He was right in town … so that kind of recruited itself a little bit,” Leach said – and both by proximity and association, Holgorsen eventually became a branch of Leach and Mumme’s ever-evolving coaching tree.
Friday night, a Washington State team coached by Leach will take on a Houston team coached by Holgorsen in the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff, set to start at 6:15 p.m. at NRG Stadium (ESPN). They’ve met as foes before, in 2009 when Leach was head coach at Texas Tech and Holgorsen an assistant at Houston in 2009, but never under these circumstances.
Leach recruited Holgorsen out of Mount Pleasant High, coached him for two years at the NAIA school in rural Iowa, hired him at Valdosta (Georgia) State in 1993 to be a quarterbacks, receivers and special teams coach, then hired him again in 2000 right after Tech gave Leach his first head coaching job.
Leach and Holgorsen had hardly taken a seat at respective news conferences this week when they got the anticipated deluge of questions about their relationship, varying uses of the Air Raid and scheduled offseason trip to the Bahamas, which was nixed when Holgorsen was hired to replace Major Applewhite in January and quickly identified Washington State on the 2019 schedule.
Leach still enjoyed his time in the sun and sand, while Holgorsen, who’d spent the previous eight years at West Virginia, tended to matters in Houston, telling Sports Illustrated, “We can’t hang out,” in an article published this April.
“He was invited,” Leach confirmed Monday. “I think stuff came up, because when you first get there … I don’t know, you’d have to ask him. When you first take a job, it’s incredibly busy and your pile of tasks tends to grow each day. But no, I went, he canceled before we left.”
Less than nine full months into the job, Holgorsen is still seeking his paradise in Houston – the type Leach has found in Pullman, where the Cougars have won eight or more games the past four seasons and finished the 2018 season with a program-record 11 wins.
“A lot of these things are going to be brought up this week, and there’s 100 people that want to do interviews on what he was like. I can’t explain it, it’s unexplainable,” Holgorsen said. “He’s a unique guy. I was like, ‘Who’s that funny-looking guy in the corner with sweatpants and a sweatshirt and his hair going everywhere?’ It was just the genius Mike Leach way back in the day. He’s done such a good job at Washington State.”
Leach’s fashion sense hasn’t changed. Neither has his offensive strategy.
“It looks the same, but with better defense,” Holgorsen said. “What they’re doing offensively, it’s eerie how similar it is, and it’s just what they’re going to do and they’re really good at it. It reminds me of when we were at Tech. He’d lose a quarterback and we’d plug another guy in that was a senior and nothing would change.
“They lost a good one, they plugged in a guy that performed at a very, very high level yesterday in his first NFL game, Gardner Minshew. Then they plug in the (Anthony) Gordon kid and it doesn’t look any different.”
Meanwhile, many of Leach’s Air Raid pupils have tinkered with the offense, usually to fit personnel. That includes Holgorsen, who has edited his play sheet to suit D’Eriq King, a senior quarterback who set an American Athletic Conference record in 2018, accounting for 50 touchdowns – 36 passing and 14 rushing – and will be a big key if Houston wants to upstage No. 20 WSU on Friday.
“He’s tightened it up a little, more into a run game,” Leach said. “He’s had a couple of running quarterbacks, so he runs it more in some tighter sets. Runs it more. Still throws it, you still some stuff that’s similar.”
Both coaches have praised the other’s intelligence, with Leach telling ESPN last year, “However smart you think (Holgorsen) is, he’s smarter than that,” and Holgorsen touting his mentor as “one of the smartest guys I know.”
Leach also appreciated Holgorsen’s attitude toward coaches’ meetings because the assistant was never afraid to blurt out what he was thinking.
“They were good, just kind of free-form meetings,” Leach said. “We want people to say what they think, because you want to have as many eyes on whatever you’re looking at as possible and you want as much as input as possible, so you can check and test the good ideas and purge the bad ideas. So in the end you form a little stronger product, which is why political correctness is so destructive in this country, is because that doesn’t happen on a broader scale.
“So there’s no political correctness in that meeting. If somebody had something, if they thought something was a dumb idea, they’d tell you.”
While they’re unlikely to plan a tropical getaway anytime soon – Houston is scheduled to make a return trip to Pullman in 2020 – Leach and Holgorsen still connect when they’re in the same place.
“Really didn’t have to read his books,” Holgorsen said. “Already knew what was going to be in them.”
“If we’re in the same spot, we’ll see each other,” Leach said.
On Friday, that spot will be the 50-yard line. Down the road, perhaps Leach and Holgorsen will talk Air Raid lineage over umbrella drinks and reflect on their fateful meeting in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
But right now?
“Right now,” Holgorsen said, “we’re just trying to beat them.”