Swashbuckling Leach, Red Raiders pillage Aggies

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach went to the Kentucky Derby for the first time last spring. Had a great time -- with one regret.

His wife, Sharon, wore the typical wide-brimmed Derby hat. Leach abhors typical. If he had been drawing up the fashion game plan for the first Saturday in May, the missus would have gone West Texas kitsch: a big ol' sombrero, complete with velvet fringe and dangly balls.

"Wouldn't that be great?" Leach asked Saturday, after his 4-1 Red Raiders stunned previously unbeaten Texas A&M 31-27 in Kyle Field, denying Aggies coach Dennis Franchione the meaningful victory he's been desperately seeking for 3½ underachieving seasons.

The Derby headwear story tells you all you need to know about the most eccentric, unconventional coach in college football. He is the figurative sombrero at the stuffy formal wear party.

Nobody in the game more successfully thumbs his nose at the establishment than Mike Leach. The establishment decrees that all offensive success is built upon an ability to run the ball, but Leach is well on his way to a seventh winning season in seven tries by throwing first, last and always. He's flouted ancient precepts and lived to laugh about it.

And make no mistake, he's not doing it with overwhelming talent. Leach hasn't won five of his last six against bitter rival Texas A&M with a bunch of NFL players. The next Red Raider drafted in the third round or higher will be the first under Leach.

Which makes you wonder what he might do if he could swap talent with some of the coaches at Cadillac programs. We may never know, because it's hard to see Leach kowtowing to convention enough to work at one of those places.

For now he's quite content to go for broke in a profession that collectively goes by the book. For proof, compare and contrast Leach (52-29 at Tech) and Franchione (20-20 at A&M) at the end of this game of dramatic ebbs and flows:

Franchione's team ran the ball 15 straight times in the fourth quarter. That was rock-solid strategy against a worn-down Tech front -- up to a point. A final run call on third-and-11 from the Texas Tech 20, with 2:16 left in a tie game, cemented the fact that the Aggies were playing for a go-ahead field goal -- not a go-ahead touchdown.

Cue Leach: "Touchdowns are better than field goals. Saves you a lot of aggravation. I'm not a guy who really plays for field goals anyway. I hate those things."

Leach was not second-guessing Fran; he was referring to his own quarterback's decision to throw what turned out to be the winning bomb with 26 seconds to play. In a situation where many in the crowd of 85,979 expected the Red Raiders to dink their way toward a tying kick and overtime, Graham Harrell went for the gusto.

When the Aggies' defense showed press coverage from the A&M 37-yard line, Harrell signaled the automatic audible to wideout Robert Johnson: go deep.

"They came out in press and acting like they were going to blitz," Harrell said. "I thought, 'No way they're going to do this.'"

It was only the second blitz A&M's first-year defensive coordinator, Gary Darnell, called the entire second half. The Aggies had shut out the high-powered Red Raiders for 29½ minutes after intermission, but this max blitz -- which put redshirt freshman cornerback Jordan Peterson in zero coverage against Johnson, with no help -- proved fatal.

"I thought they were about to bail out," Harrell said. "We snapped the ball and they didn't bail out. I was like, 'Man, that's great news.'"

So Harrell lobbed a pass right down the chimney to Johnson, who caught it over Peterson's outstretched arms to absolutely shock the eighth-largest crowd in Kyle Field history.

That's the freedom which comes with playing quarterback for Leach. You're in charge at the line of scrimmage, no matter the time and score. There's no check-with-me gawking at the sideline before snapping the ball, no micromanaging from the guy in the headset.

"It's a quarterback's dream," said Harrell, who was 32 of 45 for 392 yards and four touchdowns -- pretty standard numbers in the Leach pinball scheme. "Coach gives you free rein to check whenever you want."

Harrell is from Ennis, Texas -- closer to College Station than to Lubbock. But A&M never recruited him after receiving an early commitment from its current starting QB, Stephen McGee. No hard feelings, Harrell says, but the Red Raiders as a group have delighted in their feisty underdog status in a state that has always been ruled by the Longhorns and Aggies.

Leach says his program competes with Texas A&M often on the recruiting trail. But if you go by the Tech media guide, the Red Raiders must not win many of those battles. Only 13 of the 92 players in the guide listed being recruited and/or offered a scholarship by the Aggies.

Yet if you ask Leach whether he's doing more with less, he knows a rhetorical trap when he sees it.

"A deal like that's so complimentary, I could easily talk myself into that one," he said, before shying away.

Leach also backpedaled from his rep for needling the Aggies, which has helped make him Public Enemy No. 1 in College Station.

Poking fun at the corps of cadets who attend A&M games in uniform, Leach once said, "How come they get to pretend they are soldiers? The thing is, they aren't in the military. I ought to have Mike's Pirate School. The freshmen, all they get is the bandana. When you're a senior, you get the sword and skull and crossbones. For homework, we'll work pirate maneuvers and stuff like that." There were a few folks in pirate regalia at Kyle Field Saturday.

Last week, Leach also attributed the Aggies' improved pass defense in 2006 to playing a weak schedule. Turns out he was right. In the first half, when the Red Raiders were racking up 258 passing yards, A&M looked a lot like the team that was last in the nation in pass defense last season.

In the final analysis you can argue that the Aggies' 4-0 start against was a house of cards, and that Franchione's seat remains as warm as it was entering this season. But if it hadn't been for one big play -- a gutsy bomb against a vulnerable cornerback -- we'd probably be singing Fran's praises today for earning a big victory in come-from-behind fashion.

Rotating players liberally in a sun-baked first half left him with the fresher team in the second. A&M dominated after halftime, especially after it started pounding Tech between tackles and off the edge with the running game.

But playing for three in the end left the Red Raiders with hope, and enough time to turn that hope in to reality. And with the result, Franchione now has lost five straight Big 12 games, and hasn't beaten a quality opponent since Texas Tech in 2004.

Texas A&M isn't paying him $2 million a year for results like that. With four of the Aggies' final seven games on the road and all three remaining home games against currently ranked opponents, Franchione will have to earn that salary -- and a fifth season in College Station -- the hard way.

Meanwhile, Mike Leach looks like a bargain at $1.6 million. And Sharon Leach would look like a million bucks on the coach's arm at Churchill Downs, wearing a sombrero.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.