Mike Leach, right, was introduced as Washington State University's football coach in December 2011. Credit: Courtesy of Washington State University
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The news that Washington State's athletic program and the Pac-12 Conference were beginning separate investigations into Marquess Wilson's controversial departure from the Cougars football program, called to mind one of the most bizarre episodes in sports history. One for which I bore witness on behalf of the Seattle P-I: The 1997 heavyweight fight in which Mike Tyson chose to make an appetizer of Evander Holyfield's ear.
Pull up a chair. The conclusion of the match, sufficiently outrageous, was only the beginning of a perverse evening. The Tyson disqualification caused thousands of fans at the Las Vegas MGM Grand arena to rain down any unfastened objects upon the ring. Officials, journalists, boxers and their entourages made haste for the cover of the dressing rooms.
If that wasn't sufficient mayhem, after interviews were done, I walked back to my hotel room through the shopping mall that connects the arena to the casino. Suddenly, in the distance, the pop-pop of gunfire could be heard, followed seconds later by a mass of scared patrons and employees sprinting out of the casino, followed in a few more seconds by police officers with guns drawn.
Wow, I thought. The wildest boxing outcome in history just was topped.
Then I walked into an alternate universe — a 24-hour casino devoid of people. Silent, except for the electronic chatter of slot machines. Toppled stools, coins in untended drink cups, coins on the floor. Finally, I found a casino croupier, sitting alone in a chair, struggling to light a cigarette with her shaking hand. She filled me in: An argument broke out at a VIP craps table between followers of the two fighters' camps. Push led to shove, then gunfire, then panic. She didn't see who did what because all she was
watching were the people running in front of her that she was trying to pass.
The next day came another turn that connects the events of ear-bite night to empty-corpse days in Pullman. In local media coverage, the panic in the casino was ascribed by police to have been generated by either a champagne bottle dropped on a marble floor, or a metal stanchion, supporting velvet ropes, also being knocked down.
Um, no. As I walked through the casino, I could smell sulfur and I discovered a bullet hole in a wall. The look on the croupier's face had wet-eye, dry-mouth truth all over it.
The police were saying, in effect: Nothing to see here, people. Move along.
Absent dead or wounded bodies, neither the Las Vegas police nor the casino saw any reason to bleed the community's lifeblood, tourists, by suggesting it was possible to be shot in a casino. No matter what the video cameras may have captured regarding the shooter(s), the cops understood that the risk to the city's business was not worth the reward of capturing and charging publicly the miscreants.
And so we get back to Pullman, and really, any institution that is charged with internally investigating an episode of misdeed absent hard evidence: Would any school or any conference risk damaging its reputation (and recruiting ability) by honestly evaluating the apparently subjective claims of a whistleblower?
It's highly unlikely that Leach and his coaches broke any laws and they probably didn't exceed the bounds of coaching customs — at least as far as they have been stretched by coaches such as retired basketball bully Bobby Knight, who also once coached at Texas Tech.
In any event, it will be difficult to find the truth because every player, coach, staffer and most students and faculty at WSU have a vested interest in Leach's potential success. Even ex-players who departed since Leach's arrival may not find worthwhile the hassle of honesty.
The issue here is not the veracity of Wilson's claims, nor the methods of Leach's coaching, nor Washington's State's house policy. The issue is whether any big-time university, whose profile and financial welfare is increasingly subsidized by growing media revenues in a hyper-competitive business environment, can afford to take a hit where it lives — credibility with incoming athletes.
Wilson has put WSU in the difficult position of potentially rebuking its star player; one who risked his standing in the NFL draft to publicly admonish his former school by letter sent to media outlets. Many will criticize the letter as a self-serving cover up for his inability to handle Leach's tough demands. That could be true. But if it isn't, it's hard to imagine, given the current stakes, Leach and the school owning up to the complaints.
An admission creates doubt among recruits and their parents — who already can read the five-year record — about just what Cougars football is about under Leach. And even if a premier recruit can excuse it, can he be sure other potential incoming classmates will do the same?
That is why the big-time schools need to create an independent board for athlete welfare, where players can get a fair hearing for grievances. It can only help both sides.
Right now, the NCAA monopoly is answerable to nothing but its own self-interest. It's always been that way. Now, however, the major conferences — not the NCAA — are negotiating rights-fee deals in the billions that threaten to cleave schools from one another and warp university mission statements. The pressure to win, once only white-hot, has increased to win even more often, so as not to get left behind the gravy train.
That's why Leach, at $2 million per, was hired as the state's highest-paid employee. And it's why, sooner than later, the biggest conferences will break away from the NCAA's governance: It's an antiquated impediment to more revenues.
Even though Washington State is part of the very successful Pac-12, the Cougars are getting left behind competitively within the league. The last thing WSU needs is the controversy that Wilson created. But Wilson reached for the only tool he had, short of the courts — public exposure.
I don't know who is telling the truth in this saga, but no one independent of either party has been invited into the discussion. Until that happens, any outcome lacks credibility.
I'm sure the Cougars don't much care about my opinion, but WSU — and every other school — might care about the opinions of its difference-making potential recruits. A school doesn't want these players asking, "If it can happen to Marquess Wilson, will it happen to me?"