Late, Legendary Mike Leach Greatly Influenced New Clemson OC Garrett Riley

Garrett Riley (Jason Priester All Clemson)

Clemson offensive coordinator Garrett Riley calls Mike Leach, who died on Dec. 12, 2022, while he was the head coach at Mississippi State, “one of the biggest influences” on his life.

Garrett Riley was connected to Mike Leach before he even played for the late, legendary head coach. 

Riley, who officially became the new offensive coordinator at Clemson on Jan. 15, grew up in the small town of Muleshoe, Texas, which is about an hour northwest of Texas Tech, where Leach’s coaching career took off. Because Riley’s brother Lincoln was playing and working for Leach at Texas Tech, Muleshoe High School started running what was becoming the famous Air Raid offense. 

We were able to kind of implement some of those things early on and was one of the probably first high schools to do it, at least in our region,” Garrett Riley said during media day at the National Championship Game earlier this month. “That was kind of the first experience to be in that offense. And, you know, for me as a player doing it at Muleshoe and able to see it there with Mike and Lincoln and (now TCU head coach) Sonny (Dykes) and all those guys was pretty cool at that point in time.

It was so cool that Riley jumped at the chance to run that very offense as a quarterback at Texas Tech and play for Leach, who really gave him a taste of a system that he plans to bring to the Tigers, from 2008-09.

Riley attended the memorial for Leach, who died on Dec. 12, 2022, while he was the head coach at Mississippi State, and called Leach “one of the biggest influences” on his life.

“Totally the reason I wanted to coach,” Riley said about Leach. “Was there at Texas Tech when the run they were going on at that point in time and kind of opening your eyes to cutting-edge offense and an offense that was kind of taking college by storm and…playing for a guy that was as unique and entertaining as he was. It was like, ‘Hell, this coaching thing looks pretty cool. Maybe I need to try that.’ So, he was, like I said, a huge influence on me.”

Leach didn’t invent the Air Raid offense, but he certainly made a system that gets the ball out quickly in a shotgun, four-receivers, one-running back formation popular. Leach picked it up from Hal Mumme during their time at Kentucky in the late 1990s, and after introducing it to the Big 12 as an assistant at Oklahoma in 1999, Leach became the head coach at Texas Tech and it really took off as more than just a gimmick in the 2000s. 

In his 21 combined seasons as a head coach at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State, Leach’s offenses ranked in the top 50 nationally in points per game 17 times. In ten of those seasons, his scoring attack ranked in the top 20 nationally. 

Meanwhile, Riley was learning concepts of it as a player and eventually a coach as he worked his way through the profession, picking up different offensive ideas along the way and adding them to Leach’s Air Raid principles. 

When he got his first OC job under Dykes, another Air Raid disciple of Leach, at SMU and followed him to TCU for a season, Riley integrated more of a power running attack into it. That helped him lead TCU this past season all the way to the College Football Playoff and to the final game, which the Horned Frogs lost to Georgia. 

Still, so much of the basis of what he does and what he’ll be doing at Clemson comes from the late, eccentric Leach. 

“I just think the overall philosophy and the way you game plan, the way you scout, the way you develop your players, the way you practice, like all that stuff is really some of the biggest carryovers (from learning from Leach),” Riley said. “Our offenses are different, but there’s a lot of things that are a derivative.”

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