Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
PROVO — After a two-year hiatus from coaching, Mike Leach returns to the college football sidelines this week.
Fittingly, Leach will make his Washington State debut at LaVell Edwards Stadium Thursday (8:15 p.m., MT, ESPN) when his team visits BYU, which happens to be his alma mater, and the place that helped inspire his famous "Air Raid" offense.
Though Leach didn't play football in Provo, he has fond memories of living at Helaman Halls and then King Henry apartments, where he met his wife. He played rugby for the Cougars, and he graduated from BYU in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in American Studies.
"There's way more (memories) than I can remember," Leach said during a 30-minute teleconference with reporters Saturday. "There's a lot. I mean, I went to college there, and that's one of the most memorable times of your life … I have great memories there. I met my wife there, the whole thing. It's a great spot. I'll have some family and friends come to the game."
As Leach embarked on his coaching career, he spent considerable time watching BYU football, which heavily influenced the roots of his relentless offensive attack, known as the "Air Raid offense" that gained national notoriety at Texas Tech.
And he has a deep respect for legendary coach LaVell Edwards.
"He's easily one of the greatest coaches that ever coached. I think that's indisputable. I know him a little. I'd like to know him a lot better," Leach said of Edwards, who was BYU's head coach from 1972-2000. "He's a guy that never overreacted, didn't panic ... He trusted good people to do things. In the end, it was a product, an environment, of trust and focus. It's a foundation that still survives at BYU to an extent. Football-wise, it's very hard to imagine what BYU would be like without LaVell Edwards and also football in America what it would be like without LaVell Edwards. I'm not the only person that LaVell Edwards influenced on throwing the football."
Leach's version of the old BYU offense, which he has worked to install at the Palouse since his hiring last November, will be on display at Edwards Stadium Thursday.
"The argument could certainly be made that offensively, we may look more BYU than BYU does, if you reflect on the LaVell Edwards days," Leach said. "There are plays that we got from the Golden Age, back then at BYU, when LaVell Edwards was there. We run it like they did back then, except maybe we've adjusted this route or that route."
In the 1980s, Leach watched BYU spring practices with then-BYU assistants Roger French and Norm Chow, learning as much as he could about the passing game.
"It influenced me directly and specifically — the core of a lot of the things we do offensively, in general the philosophy of attacking the whole field," Leach added. "(LaVell Edwards) has had an impressive legacy."
Despite his many ties to BYU, Leach said he's not going to get sentimental about this game, which will mark his first as a coach since he was fired from Texas Tech in controversial fashion after the 2009 season.
"Once the game starts," he said, "your attention is kind of confined to the field and your sideline ... I'm looking forward to (the game) … As coaches, we're out there practicing ourselves. It doesn't have that quality to me of, 'Oh wow, it's the first game since I've coached since.' I realize it's the first game, but I've been at it for several months now."
While Leach admitted he doesn't know BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall well, he did say he would like to talk to him about at least one non-football-related topic.
"Bronco's a good guy," Leach said. "Probably one of the more interesting things about Bronco is that he's a really good surfer. Bronco's an interesting guy and he does a lot of interesting things. I'd be more interested in talking to him about surfing than football at this point."
Right now, though, he's focused on preparing his team to play BYU.
"They're a good team, like they always are," Leach said. "They're a team that has a tradition of winning for several decades. They're not trying to reinvent the wheel. They're just doing the same stuff they've done over the years. They play hard, they have a lot seniors, they're well-coached. Great tradition, great setting."
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