Since starting this website over three years ago, I have written hundreds of thousands in this very space on college football. I’ve written about two Urban Meyer retirements and the subsequent un-retirements that followed. I’ve written about the Big Ten expanding to 12 teams, the Big XII shrinking to 10, and the Big East no longer being “big” or strictly located in the East. I’ve even written about not one, but two pairs of McCoy and Shipley brothers at Texas. (Speaking of which, did you know that Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley were roommates at one time? Seriously!)
But in all those words and all those columns, one thing that I’ve pretty much never touched on is the Washington State football team. In my defense, there’s never been much reason to. Since I’ve started this site, the Cougars have not only been one of the worst AQ teams in college football, but they’ve done it without any of the flair or quirky trappings of historically bad teams. They’ve never had the overall feistiness of Vanderbilt, the-easy-to-make-fun-of head coach like Tim Brewster at Minnesota, and haven’t really ever found the spectacular ways to lose otherwise winnable games like Ole Miss has. Nope, worse than being bad, Washington State was simply uninteresting, their football team dull and drab. Kind of what I suspect Pullman might be like this time of year too.
Well, it’s safe to say that’s all about to change. In one day, Washington State has gone from dull and drab to innovative and exciting. That happened on Wednesday afternoon, when they went ahead and hired former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach to run their football program. And with all due respect to Urban Meyer at Ohio State, Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, and anything that might happen at UCLA, Ole Miss or Arizona State going forward, this will go down as far and away the best hire of the offseason.
Let’s start with the obvious and start with this: No matter what you think of Leach’s quirky personality, outspoken nature, or how things ended at Texas Tech for him, there’s no doubt the dude just wins football games.
In life, they say there are “lies, damn lies and statistics,” but when it comes to Leach, you can throw the lies and damn lies out the window. In his 10 years in Lubbock, Leach won nearly twice as many games as he lost (his overall record was 84-43), and he went to 10 bowl games in those 10 seasons as well. Considering Washington State hasn’t been to a postseason game since the 2003 season, and just four since 1994, that stat alone must be music to the ears of Cougs fans. I can’t imagine there’s any fan base in the country more excited about a potential trip to the New Mexico Bowl in 2012 than they are.
Really though, it’s not just about the fact that Leach has won games (lots of them actually), but how he’s done it. Not just with the fun style of play, but with the players he’s been able to win with.
I’m no recruiting expert (most would agree I’m not an expert at anything) but I’m pretty sure that during his time at Texas Tech, Leach was never known as a recruiting savant. Then again, it’s not entirely his fault either, since I’m guessing it’s pretty hard to convince an 18-year-old kid to spend his college years in Lubbock when he’s got pretty much any other options. The way I see recruiting to Texas Tech is kind of the way I see most college kids viewing an 8:00 a.m. class: If they’ve got no other choice, they’ll end up there. But only after they’ve looked over every other option.
Which is why I like Leach so much as a fit at Washington State, especially in terms of recruiting. He’s never been worried about signing the “best” players per se, so much as players who fit his system best. Big difference.
And really, that might be Leach’s greatest gift both in football, and in life: He doesn’t give a crap what you think. Nobody’s more comfortable in his or her own skin, and nobody is more comfortable doing things in an un-conventional way than Leach is. As a matter of fact, not only does Leach not care what you think, when it comes to recruiting, he also doesn’t care what Rivals.com or Scout thinks either. If Leach believes a guy can play in his system, he’s going to sign him. It doesn’t matter if the kid is a one-star recruit or five-star, if he’s got 100 scholarship offers, or zero. Leach is the judge, jury and prosecution in recruiting, and more often than not, he’s right.
(Staying with Leach’s recruiting for a second, I’m going to throw something a bit crazy out there. More than any other school in the Pac-12, I personally think that the program which could have the most to lose by Washington State’s success is Boise State.
Think about it. Washington State isn’t recruiting against the rest of the Pac-12 North, as much as the smaller schools around them. Looking across the landscape of the Pac-12 North, Oregon and Washington simply recruit a higher caliber of athlete than Wazzu does, Stanford can recruit from coast-to-coast because of academics, and Cal has plenty of players in their own backyard (whether any of them choose to play for Jeff Tedford is another story).
But Boise? Yes Boise has recruited well in Texas and California, but they also make their hay finding those overlooked, diamond in the rough guys in the Pacific Northwest. Sure Titus Young, Austin Pettis, D.J. Harper and others were from faraway places. At the same time, Kellen Moore, Byron Hout, Nate Potter are from right in the Pacific Northwest. All were either raised in Washington state or Idaho, and few had any other college options besides Boise.
Now, does that mean that Wazzu is going to get, or even be interested in every kid that Boise is? Of course not. At the same time though, Boise has never been as a team with much depth, and they’ve got next to no margin error because of it. At most positions, they’re one big injury away from having a gaping hole in their lineup. Meaning, that while they might be able to afford to lose a recruit or two to Washington State, if they lose three or four it could mean a major step back.
I'm not saying it will happen. It is something to think about however.)
Anyway, back to Leach, because I think there are a few other important points on him. None of those points is more important than the loyalty which I expect him to bring to Pullman.
Look, we all know what happened at Texas Tech and how things ended there. And well, it wasn’t pretty. We don’t need to get into the particulars here (I promise, we won’t), but at the same time, you’ve got to think that whole situation was pretty humbling for the guy. This was someone who had nothing but success for a decade, then one incident happens, and he gets screwed out of a job. How could that not be humbling for a guy?
And that’s where I think above all Wazzu got a steal with Leach: If he has success there, I don’t expect him to skip town for the “next big job,” but instead stay loyal to those who gave him a chance.
Again, Leach knows how quickly it can be taken away, and knows there’s no guarantee to ever get it back. He’s not some young first-time head coach who might be angling for a better job; hell, he knows he’s lucky to have any job at all. For that, you’ve got to think he’ll be indebted to Washington State for some time huh? Not to mention, how many chances did he have to leave Texas Tech? And how many times did he pass those chances up? Quite often actually.
Above all though, let’s go back to the beginning, and remember that more than anything the biggest tangible element Leach brings to Pullman is relevancy. Plain and simple relevancy. Forget the explosive offense, forget the quirky personality and remember that a week ago nobody was talking about Washington State football. Now the program is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. The New York Times had a column on his hiring. As did ESPN.com. And Smart Football. And now, here I’m writing about him.
And really, doesn’t that say it all? After three years of running this site and with so much college football coverage, I’ve never said a peep about Washington State. Now, I’ve already etched 1,500 words onto my screen, with hundreds more to come. That’s the beauty of Mike Leach though. He’s intelligent and he’s a great coach, but above all, he’s just a fascinating dude.
And in the end, that’s why I’m most excited for Washington State. I don’t know if he’ll turn the program into a college football super-power, get them to a few bowl games, or end up fired after three years and never duplicate the success he had at Texas Tech.
What I do know, is that he’s unequivocally made the team a lot more interesting. In that department, they’ll turn into “Pac-12 Must-See TV,” next year, along with USC and Oregon, even if they're not nearly as good.
That’s something we couldn’t have said a week ago, or even a year ago, or really at any point in the last decade.
But we are saying it now.
That's Mike Leach’s greatest gift.
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