We're not in Lubbock anymore, Coach Leach

The WSU Cougars' coach, Mike Leach, saw criticism this weekend after he humiliated his players on national TV. The trick: He knew exactly what he was doing.
Mike Leach, right, was introduced as Washington State University's football coach in December 2011.

Mike Leach, right, was introduced as Washington State University's football coach in December 2011. Courtesy of Washington State University

Scroll down for original video from Crosscut contributor Art Thiel. 

After Mike Leach offered such flattering terms as "zombies" and "empty corpses" to describe his Washington State football team (I'm still checking with the Seattle PD forensics to explain the latter), the temptation is great to continue this end-of-life Palouse motif with "dead man walking."

But that would be wrong. Because for all the gasps, shudders, swoons and chortles Leach is producing with the castigations of his team, the 2012 season is his first, last and best chance to clean house.
 
Never will he have a stronger hand to play than in his first year, when the WSU administration and athletic director that hired him have the leverage to forgive him his trespasses.
 
Leach probably knew in the first five minutes of his first practice that he did not have a competitive team for the Pac-12 Conference, but amid all the genuflection that attended his arrival, there was no way he could say anything.
 
He had to wait for others to see the evidence. It started rolling in with the first game, a 30-6 loss at Brigham Young, and climaxed Saturday with a 49-6 lost at Utah. The Cougars were a tidy 12-79 in the Beehive State, making them as welcome at the Mormon tabernacle as a buttermilk kegger.
 
Looking at the football talent level, Leach has decided many of the recruits of his predecessor, Paul Wulff, aren't going to help him win. A messy business, this. He wants them to go away, and the NCAA rules make it convenient because athletic scholarships are renewed on an annual basis, not a four-year ride as the mythmakers once claimed.
 
But if Leach simply throws them out without the proper foreshadowing, he risks alienating parents, high school coaches and his overall recruiting reputation. He has to first make a case. Sadly, his players are making it for him, as he knew they would, going 0-6 so far league and 2-7 overall, with little hope of winning in the final three games.
 
Harsh as has been his language and attitude, Leach will likely get a pass from the Cougars' legions, who are more sick of losing than they are worried about hurt feelings. If fans cared more about feelings, helpfulness, courtesy and pleasantness, Washington State would have hired C3PO. Fans don't care about those things, so AD Bill Moos hired Darth Vader.
 
In his first year of a contract that makes him the state's highest-paid employee at more than $2 million annually, Leach knows that his bosses have his back, because to even censor him, much less fire him, would make them look like morons for having failed utterly to understand what made him good during his 10 years at Texas Tech and what made him fired.
 
Simply put, Leach eventually wears out people around him. Same was said about former Mariners manager Lou Piniella. Both are bright, passionate men who understand people and their industries well. But they are demanding to the point of recklessness. As the saying goes, they are high maintenance.
 
Leach is betting that the survivors of his first season, coupled with players recruited to his specifications, will come together fast enough that that success will allow all his transgressions to be forgiven.
 
Worked in Lubbock. Might not work in Pullman.
 
At the time of Leach's hire, many compared the two college towns as similarly small, forlorn specks in the empty spaces of civilization, but the analogy fails because Texas, along with Florida and Southern California, are home to America's greatest collections of prep football talent. There's a reason "Friday Night Lights" was not written about, nor cinematically examined, in Pullman.
 
Every football-playing kid growing up in Texas or Oklahoma believes he will one day star for one of the two giant state universities. When they don't get recruited to either, these thousands end up at lesser schools like Texas Tech, all heated up to bring down the miscreants who slighted them in recruiting.
 
There is no similar wellspring of talent in the Northwest, where perhaps two or three dozen players annually will become big-school starters in their college careers. Still, a lot of players end up at Washington State and are thrilled -- because they aren't in the Big Sky Conference or worse. Leach has tasked himself with finding recruits who will fill his roster from vast distances and who are unwanted by the other 11 conference schools, all of which are more attractive to a a greater number of players.
 
Big job, requiring odd tactics.
 
It is certainly true that former WSU coach Mike Price once had three consecutive 10-win seasons in Pullman. It is also true that America landed men on the moon in the 1960s, but can no longer. Times change. That was then, this is now. Despite great advances in technology, the moon is farther away than ever. So is Pullman.
 
Leach has begun to set fire to the Palouse football landscape. We can tell by the empty corpses. He needs to move fast to avoid joining them.

Art Thiel is co-founder of Sportspressnw.com, a former sports columnist for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and author of the 2003 regional best seller about the Seattle Mariners, Out of Left Field.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Tue, Nov 6, 8:24 a.m. Inappropriate

You are probably spot on, Art, but why oh why do the Coastie sports writers forget about the circumstances in the Palouse, i.e. TWO, not one, D-IA schools, although it might be argued that Idaho is D-1Az. You probably know last week former WSU defensive coordinator under Mike Price and five-year head coach, Robb Akey was fired and replaced with another WSU alumnus, Jason Gesser who has absolutely no business heading up a D-1Az program. My point being with two D1 universities within 8 miles of one another, multiple issues arise when it comes to milking the cash cow of football. For these land grant schools, the udders are empty as there simply isn't enough feed for both. Next year Idaho gets the D-1A boot, but will go Independent next year instead of going D1-AAz.

Maybe the time has come for WSU and Idaho to be industry leaders, if you will. It won't be long before players are paid, in which case the football programs will likely become quasi-private entities. When that happens, Idaho and WSU ought to combine their football programs to become Palouse U. I have no doubt the region would rally around a unified team, especially if it meant revenue sharing and perhaps a few more wins. Right now, with the exception of a few Mike Price coached teams and Keith Gilbertson/Dennis Ericson coached Idaho teams, the track records are dismal. It's time for a new approach for the region and Palouse U has a nice ring to it.

Bluesky

Posted Tue, Nov 6, 11:54 a.m. Inappropriate

As a WSU grad, I prefer honesty to the mealy-mouth statements of previous coaches that "we are making progress." The fact that it is done publicly is not a problem from my perspective. As to merging U of I and WSU and creating Palouse U: Love it, although who would walk from Pullman to Moscow or vice-versa if the traditional humiliation of the losing team in this series was no more?

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »