Amid much hoopla, Washington State introduced its new football coach, Mike Leach, on a beautiful day in Pullman. Now Leach will get busy installing his program and recruiting players.
PULLMAN — The day dawned cloudless and beautiful, as if it knew not to spoil the occasion.
The Cougars greeted Mike Leach on Tuesday with the joy and relief Tom Hanks must have felt after the ocean freighter happened along in “Castaway.” Coug-logo banners flapped downtown, support people wore “Welcome Coach Leach” T-shirts.
Cheerleaders pranced, the marching band played, and a couple of frat brothers got there early, wearing pirate hats and eye patches.
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Over in the ticket office they clicked past the 550 mark in new sales since the announcement last Wednesday of Washington State’s new football coach, and Bill Moos, the athletic director, said they’re at $300,000 in new money since he hired Leach.
“I came back to Washington State to go to the Rose Bowl,” Moos, an alum, told a crowd of 1,000 before he introduced Leach. “That’s where we’re going to go, and we’re going to have a lot of fun along the way.”
As coach’s introductions go, this was bigger and brassier than most I’ve seen. Of course, if you can’t get excited about the debut moment, when can you?
Before long, the hoopla morphs into hard realities. In the few days Leach has left before NCAA rules brake recruiting to a halt over the holidays, he’s going to be in the living rooms of recruits trying to make up for lost time. And some parent is going to want to know what happened with Adam James and that shed down at Texas Tech. You know, the incident surrounding a concussed player that got Leach fired and caused him to file a lawsuit, still pending.
“I don’t think that’ll be a problem at all,” he responded to my question, “because it’s well documented that’s a complete lie.”
Clearly, Leach had thought about this. He thinks he can use the James incident to show there won’t be favoritism based on having a famous father (ESPN analyst Craig James).
“I think it’ll be extremely clear you earn your job on the field,” said Leach. “And your son is not going to be mistreated by somebody having a political advantage, or some arm-twisting behind the scenes.
“The other thing is, if there’s lies and falsehoods perpetrated, those aren’t going to be tolerated, either. We’re going to have the integrity to stand up to those things.”
Leach brushed off the suggestion that if any program is inclined to recruit negatively — not that it ever happens — it could be a hindrance to his own efforts.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “Anybody that’s a player that wants a fair shake … consider this: What about players that don’t have fathers? Who’s campaigning for them? They’re going to be treated equally.”
Across the room, Moos was saying of the James charges, “That was an injustice, in my opinion. There’s part of me that’s glad it happened. I’m not sure we (otherwise) could have gotten Mike Leach from Texas Tech.”
Even before Leach gets into a living room, he’ll likely have most of his staff in place, another reminder of a business that can be cruel. He hinted that there might not be any retention from the Paul Wulff staff, which could mean old war horses like Mike Levenseller, Chris Tormey and Steve Morton will be turned loose.
“I do believe there will be a lot of changes, if not complete,” Leach said.
Added Moos, “He’s so well-connected. He’s kind of like the Pied Piper. He gives the signal, and they’ll come.”
This marriage began to take shape Nov. 16, when Moos flew to Leach’s home in Key West, Fla., where Leach doesn’t own a car. He pedaled his bike four miles and met Moos at a Marriott hotel, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, something Leach had cleared with his agent in a conversation with Moos.
Soon, Moos had made the decision. He drew up a contract with the help of an old CFO from his Oregon days, using salary figures from the Big 12 and Pac-12, offered a deal worth $2.25 million a year — far in excess of the biggest paid in history to any employee at Washington State — and says there was no negotiation.
Asked what he says to critics of the salary, Leach said laconically, “I don’t say anything at all. I just go out, work hard and do the best I can.”
And just 20 days after that 3 ½-hour rendezvous in Key West, Leach was having a meeting with his new players.
“He seems like he’s going to be real straightforward,” said quarterback Jeff Tuel afterward. “He seems like he’s going to put us to work this offseason. We know we’ve got to get on board and just move on. The quicker we acclimate to a new coaching staff, the quicker we’re going to be a better football team.”
“I can tell he’s ready to go,” said defensive end Travis Long. “Something he really harped on was, we’ve got to move ahead.”
Safety Tyree Toomer said, “I feel the dedication part is going to be huge. I feel he’s really big on accountability.
“And he said he likes to pressure. I got real excited when he said that. I love to blitz.”
On a brisk, clear day in the Palouse, it was all good. If Mike Leach is as irrepressible with recruits as he is with a passing offense, then the Cougars are truly on to something.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org