Dana Holgorson spent much of his weekly news conference at Houston this week explaining why he doesn’t have time to reminisce at length about Mike Leach.
He needs to figure out a way to beat him.
But he did rustle up a fugitive memory or two, including what must have been his first impression of Leach, three decades ago: “Who’s that funny-looking guy in the corner with sweatpants and sweatshirt and his hair going everywhere?
“It’s just the genius Mike Leach, way back in the day.”
As Holgorsen mentioned repeatedly, Leach’s coaching tree has grown so large that these Air Raid vs. Air Raid story lines are becoming commonplace. Leach’s Cougars vs. Holgorsen’s Cougars is just another iteration.
On the other hand, it will be the first head-to-head duel between these men — two of the prime exponents of the Air Raid — since Holgorsen became a head coach.
The stage is pretty big: 6:15 p.m. Pacific Friday on ESPN as Leach’s 20th-ranked Washington State team (2-0) faces Holgorsen and the University of Houston (1-1) at NRG Stadium in Houston, home of the NFL’s Texans. Leach’s Cougars are favored by nine points.
Although several disciples of Leach and Hal Mumme have gone on to spread the Air Raid gospel as head coaches or coordinators, few of them have a longer history with the co-authors of the offense than Holgorsen.
He was a receiver at a high school in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in 1989 when the local college a few miles away, Iowa Wesleyan, hired Mumme as head coach and Leach as offensive coordinator. While the like-minded coaches began brainstorming sessions that led to the creation of the Air Raid, they also were successfully recruiting Holgorsen to their school.
So he was there almost from the start, learning the pass routes and philosophies Leach and Mumme were stitching together and making their own. He noted, among other things, the yearly sojourns they made to study offensive systems they admired.
“They would take trips to BYU and they’d go see Lindy Infante up in the Green Bay and Bill Walsh out in California,” Holgorsen said. “Mike’s been doing this stuff forever and ever. That’s one thing that’s admirable about him. As much as people have evolved, he’s pretty much just continued to do the same stuff.
“There’s never been a playbook (in the Air Raid),” he said, but that’s no longer strictly true, “but there have been books written about how it developed. Those were the guys were the beginning stages of what it was.”
Holgorsen and Leach were members of Mumme’s coaching staff at Valdosta State in the mid-1990s, and Holgorsen went on to assist Leach for his first eight years at Texas Tech, serving as offensive coordinator for the final three of those. He then spent two years at Houston and one at Oklahoma State before landing his first head-coaching gig at West Virginia in 2011.
It was considered an unconventional move this year when Holgorsen, after leading WVU to six bowl bids in seven seasons, abruptly jumped to Houston. After all, he was leaving the Power Five conferences for the Group of Five. By now, however, people are scarcely more apt to expect conventional thinking from Holgorsen than from Leach.
For one thing, he partially has rebelled against the Air Raid itself, mixing so many run-game elements into his system that Leach once jokingly booted him from the fraternity.
In truth, they remain friends. They intended to visit the Bahamas together this summer before Holgorsen backed out, claiming with an unknown degree of seriousness the looming matchup made the trip inadvisable.
It’s a big game on several levels, including the personal. In his news conference Monday, Holgorsen noted the richness of the story line even as he sought to distance himself from it. Leach was doing the same thing in Pullman that day, so their disavowals did nothing but underscore their similarities as men and as coaches.
One day a decade ago, they dueled as offensive playcallers when Holgorsen as Houston’s offensive coordinator rallied to edge Leach as Texas Tech head coach 29-28. But this is their first clash as the top guys.
Someone asked Holgorsen if his Air Raid bloodlines will be useful in game-planning against his old boss.
“Everybody trades ideas, everybody makes phone calls and tries to figure out the opponent,” he said. “This is another stop in the 2019 Air Raid reunion, I guess. We’ll do it again in a couple of weeks with Seth Littrell (at North Texas) and Sonny Dykes (at Southern Methodist) and all those guys.”
But he acknowledged this: He had spent an hour that morning in a meeting with his defensive coaches. Did he regale them with personal anecdotes from Iowa Wesleyan in 1989?
If so, probably not for long.
Dale Grummert may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2290.