This column originally appeared at SeattleWeekly.com
This is what the end of an affair looks like. Irritation turns to anger, public outbursts and separation. Mike Leach has hit for the emotional cycle as he maintains a tenuous grip on the perpetually beleaguered football program at Washington State University.
Leach will not be fired as head coach now, after this season, or maybe not even after the next. But maybe he should be. His recent string of bizarre, self-destructive coaching behavior already has sown the seeds of a big fail in the Palouse.
When the Leach era reaches its conclusion at WSU, the beginning of that end might be traced to Saturday, when he roasted his players and trotted units of them in front of befuddled media members following a 49-6 loss at Utah. The custom is for reporters to request players, who appear for interviews in a room reserved for such. Leach instead paraded them “like suspects in a police lineup,” as KING5.com columnist Steve Rudman put it, or “much as you might march your kid down the street to apologize to a neighbor,” as Bud Withers wrote in The Seattle Times.
Leach preceded that display by publicly questioning the manhood, abilities and effort of his players, employing comparisons to the undead for the second time in weeks. And Sunday night, he apparently lost a rising star, junior Marquess Wilson, who was widely reported to have quit the Cougars shortly after he was suspended for violating team rules.
Even if his coach despised Wilson for slovenly play and preparation, the receiver’s loss is a major blow. Leach’s system, though deployed more in pop-gun fashion this season, seeks to shock and awe opponents with aerial pyrotechnics. Not only does Wilson’s departure drop the talent level on a roster barely treading in the Pac-12 pool, it deprives the Cougar staff of an important recruiting lure for quarterbacking and skill-position reinforcements. And, of course, the national media is sounding the alarm in there-he-goes-again fashion, which cannot sit well with an alumni base already lashed to within an inch of its patience and sporting self-respect.
The Cougars are 2-7 with no conference wins, and out of bowl contention for a ninth straight season. This cannot be entirely surprising. Leach inherited Wilson and two promising quarterbacks in Connor Halliday and Jeff Tuel, though neither played a majority of last season’s snaps. Otherwise, the remaining players return from teams that went 9-40 under Paul Wulff, or were scrounged up during a highly compressed recruiting period.
That Leach was so utterly insulated from the reality of his talent scarcity is what surprises. The collision of that near-sightedness with Leach’s belief that he could quickly shape any pile of goo into art created the vortex that has the Cougars circling the bowl–as in toilet, not game. It also finds Leach in the kind of save-my-legacy cycle on which many emotionally detaching coaches embark.
Blaming losses on lack of execution or effort is coach-speak for, “It’s not my fault.” The inference is that success would have been had if the players had the drive or ability to carry out the brilliantly conceived plays and game plans. Usually the blaming and berating takes place behind closed locker-room doors, but Leach crossed the threshold on Oct. 10, after a third straight Cougar loss, saying during a press conference that some of his seniors had “an empty corpse quality.”That remark, and others similar, was tantamount to Leach farting in public, then immediately sniffing the air and crinkling his nose, as if those actions crossed him off the list of likely perpetrators. However, as we all know, a dog smells his own stink first. Leach’s next act was banning his players from using Twitter, the kind of shuttering from the public eye, much like closing practices, to which increasingly insecure and paranoid coaches resort.
If the Cougars go 8-5 with a bowl appearance next season, revisionists will mark this as a period during which Leach “laid down the law” and pulled the program out of its spiral the way the Denzel Washington character miraculously rights his airliner in Flight. The catch is, Leach’s most important constituents, his players, will not confuse public humiliation for discipline. It’s a widely held, but highly bogus, belief that this generation of young athletes wants only to be coddled. On the contrary, they crave structure and will abide discipline, but will demand respect the way their predecessors wouldn’t dare.
Sure, every coach wants his “own guys.” Only the craven run off undesirable upperclassmen and take on whipping boys, instead of trying to instill mental fortitude or, simply, running players during practice until they vomit. A new coach doesn’t get to say his job doesn’t really begin until he has, say, three of his own recruiting classes in place. Old school isn’t ripping players in front of media; it’s Chuck Knox playing the hand he’s dealt. It’s Steve Sarkisian taking a bunch of Tyrone Willingham recruits and upsetting No. 3 USC, then developing one of them, Jake Locker, into the No. 7 overall pick in the NFL Draft. It’s Pete Carroll churning talent without insulting the churned.
The problem with Leach’s way is that the insensitivity may as well be lit up on a marquee for all potential recruits. The best of them will have other options, and their helicopter parents will make sure they take one of those. No one wants her or his precious to play for a coach who resorts so quickly to open belittlement. Even if a recruit isn’t aware of recent events, the nice folks at Washington, Oregon and Oregon State, for starters, will be happy to illuminate.
A cow town like Pullman already is a hard enough sell; Leach’s 2013 recruiting class was ranked by Scout.com as No. 7 in the conference – the bottom half – and that’s before the present circus went into full effect. Even a coach with a smoke-and-mirrors offense needs a little bit of talent. The resemblance of Washington State to Texas Tech, a program Leach turned around in Lubbock, a Pullman-like college outback, was highly overstated. Lubbock at least is in Texas, one of the nation’s great banquets of football recruits, where one can put together quite a feast just with leftovers from Texas and A&M.
Even Cougars monitoring events through the most Crimson-colored lenses should have seen this coming. Leach had a controversial tenure and well-chronicled flameout at Texas Tech. Even more than that, it’s difficult to imagine Washington State, because of its geographic challenges, being much more than a stepping-stone program. Flush with newly minted TV money, Bill Moos, the WSU athletic director, went shopping in the boutiques instead of hidden-gem hunting at bargain jewelers. At 50, with his background, Leach really can’t expect to ascend from Washington State to some elite post. You really can’t blame him for taking an annual salary of $2 million, plus incentives, to interrupt his sunny exile, and study of pirates, in Key West, Fla., but you can blame him and Coug supporters for being so massively unrealistic.
Washington State’s administration, present and future, should come to grips with being on the perpetual lookout for the next great, young coach. Snare him, milk him for a turnaround, lavish some of that TV money to keep him for an extra season or two, and have the next one teed up by his inevitable departure. Once in a while, you might get a Mike Price, but mostly it’ll be a turnstile through which the likes Jackie Sherrill, Warren Powers and Dennis Erickson pass, and that’s more than OK.
Attempting or expecting more should invoke a cautionary rumble from one of WSU’s most esteemed alums, Keith Jackson: “Whoa, Nellie!”