College Football’s Billy Beane?

Michael Lewis writes in today’s New York Times Sunday Magazine about Mike Leach, the innovative coach of the Texas Tech football team. As Lewis describes it, Leach takes a totally different view of football and is on the cusp of revolutionizing the game.

It is a very interesting article, and beautifully written. As usual with Michael Lewis, there is a touch of not letting the facts get in the way of having a great story. For instance, Lewis makes a big deal in the article about how the the Texas Tech style wears down the other team and how Texas Tech offense learns and adjusts over the course of the game so that they completely dominate teams in the second half. Lewis highlights a series of games where this occurs to make his point. A quick glance at this year’s statistics shows, however, that Texas Tech this year has scored an average of 20.4 points a game in the first half and 21.7 points a game in the second half. Hmm…not so amazing after all. (Although in Lewis’ defense, in 2004 did do much better in the second half of games than in the first half.)

Like Moneyball, even though I am suspicious of parts of the argument, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

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[...] A new sports-related Michael Lewis piece in the New York Times magazine is always worth a link. However, the Freakonomics guys have a minor quibble. [...]


Ah, the irony of everyone's favorite PhD and JBC Medal winner giving "college" a nice fat typo in the title.

Stephen J. Dubner

bgriffs --

Thanks for keeping us in line.

Ken D.

While Leach's approach is unusual, Lewis overstates how original it is. One example: Mississippi Valley State had considerable success in the early 1980's with a nearly all pass, spread-the-field offense, featuring Jerry Rice as their No. 1 receiver. Maybe, just maybe, there are reasons why such schemes do not prosper in the win-prizing "economy" of college football except when they have novelty value.

Robert Schwartz

But it is Texas, not Texas Tech that is in the Rose Bowl. And Joe Tiller has not taken over the Big 10, which is dominated by Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. I will continue to believe that football games are won the bigger, faster, stronger, teams.


The success of Leach's quarterbacks is, statistically, Leach's most notable achievement. Leach is clearly an oustanding teacher of quarterbacks. But Ken D is right; the passing game revolution began long ago. Lewis could have written a very similar article about BYU in the 70s and 80s, and how guys like Norm Chow developed flexible and sophisticated offensive schemes to help compensate for lesser talent.

For an example of what a creative and highly flexible offense with loads of talent can do, see Steve Spurrier's Florida teams.

Wayne Cheeze

Hawaii's another team that's all-pass, by the way. There are teams across the country that adopted the spread because they cannot compete for athletes with the major powers.

I don't think there's anything magical about why pass-happy teams succeed at the college level. It's extremely difficult to field defenses with enough fast, skilled defensive backs and linebackers to contain all the receivers. At the professional level these systems generally have failed because the skill level (and perhaps coaching ability) is so much greater.

The challenge for spread offenses is to find ways to score when the defense has sufficient speed and skill. Few spread teams have decent running schemes--Northwestern being one of the exceptions. It's a difficult problem to overcome because the best running backs and offensive linemen tend to go to schools more dedicated to running.

Urban Shocker

"A quick glance at this year's statistics shows, however, that Texas Tech this year has scored an average of 20.4 points a game in the first half and 21.7 points a game in the second half."

well, one could argue that as halftime is when most teams make their offensive and defensive adjustments, that 21.7 points in the second half is fairly impressive.


I loved the article. thanks for posting. Didn't realize he was with the Hal Mumme KY teams. Turnaround was incredible there.

Norm Chow -offensive coordinator for the Titans (former USC) also runs many identical plays from different formations and emphasizes speed in and out of huddle. Titans just don't have much experience at the moment to run smoothly.


This is an incredibly silly article. Spread offenses have been tried at the pro-level and have had some success, but no championships. Warren Moon with Houston's Red Gun (no tight ends) offense coming immediately to mind.

But, when a truly genius innovator at the college level (Stanford) came along in Bill Walsh, he was given a chance to adapt it to the pros. The West Coast Offense ruled the NFL for years. And it was on display just last night in Philadelphia.

Though it was Seattle's defense mostly responsible for the 42-0 shutout, not Mike Holmgren's offense.


Also, it should be mentioned that the purpose of offense in football is not simply to score points, but also to prevent the other team from scoring points via controlling the ball, clock, and field position. It should also be noted that the defense may have also played differently in the second half considering that Texas Tech has many big leads going in. One would think the defense would be more focused on not giving up quick scores, which would lead to the oposition having more time of posession. One would also think that the offense would be more concerened with running the clock down than by getting quick scores. Simply looking at the points doesn't demonstrate or debunk anything about the Texas Tech system.


RikkiTikki is correct to point out that the West Coast offense actually originated with BYU, but the true mastermind was Doug Scovill not Norm Chow. Chow merely inherited the system from Scovill. Not to take anything away from Norm, who is one of the best OCs out there. Leach's offense has its roots in the BYU offense. Interestingly enough, Texas Tech's OL coach has gone to BYU as the OC and it's nice to see the old offense back where it belongs.


When did this trend to portray football coaches as intellectuals? Not that they aren't but it just seems there are all these books (the new David Halberstam one) and articles out now. remaindered links

Great profile by Michael Lewis of Mike Leach, Texas Tech's football coach


[...] (For a particularly wonky discussion of the Michael Lewis article that unveiled Mike Leach’s fascination with pirates, see this bit on the Freakonomics board.) [...]