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Tennessee football, Mike Leach connected from Josh Heupel to almost-hires to Peyton Manning

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The nation and Tennessee football in particular mourned shocking death of Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Mike Leach. MSU confirmed officially confirmed the news Tuesday.

Rocky Top was more deeply connected to Leach than most. Current head coach Josh Heupel’s first year as Oklahoma Sooners quarterback was Bob Stoops’ first year there, and it was Leach’s only year as OU offensive coordinator.

However, this connection goes beyond just Heupel. It actually goes back to 1997, when Hal Mumme took over as Kentucky Wildcats head coach and brought along Leach as offensive coordinator.

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Those two had spent three years together with the Iowa Wesleyan Tigers at that point and another four with the Valdosta State Blazers. Now, they were about to test out their air raid on the SEC.

Steve Spurrier and the Florida Gators had already taken the SEC by storm in a pass happy offense, but Leach and Mumme were about to take it to another level. They did just that.

In their three years together, a time when the East was at its most brutal, they went 18-17 at UK and reached back to back bowl games in 1998 and 1999. Most notably, they turned Tim Couch into a No. 1 NFL Draft pick in 1999.

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Their impact was felt that first year despite going just 5-6. When Tennessee football visited Kentucky in November that year, the Vols got locked into a shootout with Couch.

Peyton Manning was forced to put together arguably his greatest game in orange, as he threw for 523 yards and five touchdowns. The Vols pulled away to win 59-31, but the air raid forced them to keep firing.

UK never beat the Vols with Leach and Mumme, but they proved themselves a force to be reckoned with. After Leach left, Mumme went 2-9 his final year there.

Beyond Heupel and that epic Couch vs. Manning matchup, though, the Vols have another history with Leach. Twice, they could have hired him, and twice they passed him up.

After firing Phillip Fulmer in 2008, Leach was a hot commodity. He had just gone 11-2 with the Texas Tech Red Raiders and led them to a huge upset of the Texas Longhorns that year.

It’s unclear how much of a candidate he truly was for Mike Hamilton and co. that year, but the Vols didn’t hire him. They chose Lane Kiffin. Rumors swirled of his quirkiness costing him big-time jobs, and UT may have been an example of that.

Nearly a decade later, though, Tennessee football had another chance to hire him. This one was much more real. John Currie had failed in his attempt to sneak through the hire of Greg Schiano. He was then rejected by a number of coaches.

Desperately trying to hold onto his job as athletic director, Currie tried to hire Mike Leach at the last minute. However, UT then forced him out, brought on Philip Fulmer as AD and hired Pruitt. There would be no Leach.

Nobody knows what would have happened if Tennessee football had hired Leach either time. It’s also sad that we will never know what he could have done at a big-time program.

Still, his legacy and impact on the game live on. Heupel’s offense is a combination of the air raid he learned under Leach and the system Art Briles ran with the Baylor Bears.

One of the great personalities in the sport, Tennessee football will miss Leach as much as the rest of the world. He was a treasure in the sport and in the SEC.

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