Washington State scores biggest victory in years by landing Leach
Washington St. did what other schools couldn't: It got past Mike Leach's baggage
He probably won't turn Wazzu into a power, but he will reinvigorate the program
Leach's personality may have been an issue elsewhere, but it's perfect for Pullman
It's remarkable, really. Washington State has not been to a bowl game in eight years, going 9-40 over the past four seasons. Tucked in one of the most remote towns of any BCS conference, the school would seemingly be hard-pressed to attract a high-profile coach.
Instead, Wazzu just landed a coach that took a Big 12 program to 10 straight bowl games, went 84-43, earned national coach of the year honors in 2008 and is considered one of the greatest offensive innovators in the sport.
The Cougars just scored their biggest win in years.
Mike Leach's two-year exile from coaching is over because a moribund Pac-12 program was able to do what Maryland and so many others could not: It got past the baggage. As a result, the Cougars won't be moribund much longer.
Washington State AD Bill Moos -- Oregon's athletic director from 1995-2007 when it began its push toward more national visibility -- knew exactly what to look for. Just as he did more than a decade ago at Texas Tech, Leach will give fans a reason to pay attention to Washington State football. He will produce high-scoring offenses and 5,000-yard passers, put fans in the stands, keep reporters busy, and, if history repeats itself, graduate players, reversing a problem that helped sink the Cougars several years back.
What he probably won't do is win a national championship or turn Washington State into a perennial BCS bowl team. He never got there at Texas Tech, and the obstacles are arguably greater in Pullman, where he's not sitting in a state overflowing with high school talent. But with Leach, it's a much safer bet he'll win games than it will be with many of the coaches you see get hired this offseason.
That's because most college administrators prefer hiring "safe," even if unproven coaches over one with a controversial history, even if much of that controversy has since been debunked.
I wrote about it last January, when Leach had just gone through the first coaching carousel since his ouster without garnering the interest many expected. "Wherever he is hired, it's going to be difficult not to have that opening press conference and those opening profiles include what happened at Texas Tech," a college administrator told me, referring to the tumultuous events surrounding his ouster two years ago. He came close to getting one job, Maryland, but the school's higher-ups got cold feet at the last minute and settled for the more conservative Randy Edsall -- a move that's completely backfired what with Edsall going 2-10 in his first season. The usual disgust you'd expect from Terrapins fans has been amplified tenfold knowing they could have had Leach.
Meanwhile, several fan bases at schools with openings this year -- UCLA, Arizona State, Ole Miss -- would have loved to land Leach. While we don't yet know whom those schools are pursuing, you can be sure Leach looked into them before accepting the Wazzu job. Either they weren't offering the reported five-year, $11 million contract he's getting in Pullman, or they simply weren't interested. Not many schools are comfortable hiring a guy with pending lawsuits against his former employer and ESPN. Leach probably could have improved his prospects by dropping the cases, but he's determined to clear his name.
What exactly happened between Leach and Adam James that fateful day at a Texas Tech bowl practice depends on which side you believe, but Leach's best-selling autobiography Swing Your Sword, released last summer, included e-mails and depositions that debunked some of the more damning images that emerged in the initial burst of coverage -- most notably, that he never locked a concussed player in a shed -- and exposed conspiracies both by school regents to oust him over contentious contract negotiations and by Craig James' hired P.R. agency to portray Leach in the most negative light possible.
That doesn't mean Leach is without flaws. He's unmistakably brash and unconventional. He says whatever's on his mind, which on several occasions has been insensitive. (He once blamed his team's struggles on his players' "fat little girlfriends.") He's not going to fit at a place where the fans and media demand a more polished, traditional coach.
That's why he's a perfect fit in Pullman. The coach that led the Cougars to two Rose Bowls (in 1997 and 2003) was a certifiable oddball (and that was before his infamous strip-club visit at Alabama). It worked out just fine. While no coach operates in anonymity anymore in the age of YouTube and Twitter, there aren't a zillion reporters and cameras camped out at Washington State news conferences. Leach will be free to be himself.
And he'll win. Obviously Oregon is head and shoulders above the rest of the Pac-12 North right now, and while the idea of Leach's and Chip Kelly's offenses going head to head is mouthwatering, it might be a couple of years before it's a fair fight. But much of the rest of the division, and conference, is in flux. Four teams will have new coaches next season. (One of those: Arizona's Rich Rodriguez. If you thought the Pac-12 was an offense-dominate conference before, it's only getting started.) Stanford is losing Andrew Luck. Oregon State is down, Cal is vulnerable. Leach's new archrival, Washington, is trending upward with standout quarterback Keith Price. It will be Leach's first priority to close the gap.
As bad was Washington State's record was under Paul Wulff (including 4-8 this season), one thing it has is offensive weapons. Freshman quarterback Connor Halliday threw for 494 yards and four touchdowns in his first start against Arizona State. Sophomore receiver Marquess Wilson had 82 catches for 1,388 yards and 12 touchdowns this season. As Leach cryptically tweeted Nov. 20: "College football very volatile right now. Lots of front-runners went down. Next year is a good year for undervalued teams to make a move."
The guess here is Washington State makes that move. It won't go to the Rose Bowl, but it will go to a bowl. For the first time in eight years, fans beyond the West Coast will tune in to Cougars games. When they do, they'll probably see a revved-up crowd (start stocking up on pirate gear, school bookstore) enjoying another 48-45 shootout. If any of those viewers happen to be fans themselves of struggling midlevel programs, they'll probably ask themselves: Why didn't our athletic director hire him first?