Mike Leach is far too early in his current job as football coach at Washington State for us to make any sweeping proclamations. But, you'd have to say, he had quite the October.
STANFORD, Calif. — Mike Leach has been described as a guy who doesn’t want a boss, somebody who is such a maverick he’s bound to make his superiors squirm. Or in the case of his last employer at Texas Tech, fire him.
He’s far too early in his current job as football coach at Washington State for us to make any sweeping proclamations. But, punctuated by Saturday’s razor-thin, 24-17 loss here at 19th-ranked Stanford, when the Cougars were banging on the door for the would-be tying touchdown in the final seconds, you’d have to say he had quite the October.
That’s assuming it’s finished.
On Oct. 8, he said some of his seniors had an “empty-corpse quality.”
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A week later, he called out his receivers, saying, “Hell, no, they’re not tough.”
Last week, he banned the use of Twitter by his players, and while some people are worked up about First Amendment rights, I’d suggest that any chagrin about a decrease in tweets is like lamenting the prospect of fewer election ads.
On the field, the Cougars went 0-for-the-month, although they turned in a very salty effort against the Cardinal, holding the Stanford offense to 256 total yards, 70 on a busted coverage by the secondary.
So what do we make of Leach? To panicky WSU partisans, I’d say two things: When you signed up for him at $2.25 million a year, you bought the whole package, candor with the coaching.
And let him do his work, unorthodox though it is.
There’s little doubt Mike the Maniacal has already torqued off a large segment of the populace — some players, some parents, and fans who expected an immediate translation to WSU of his 10-bowls-in-10-years portfolio at Texas Tech.
I don’t like his restrictive player-interview policies, nor his stance on a league-wide injury report. (He didn’t ask me.)
He’s maddeningly tight-lipped on player personnel. Last week, WSU’s second-leading receiver, Isiah Myers, was nowhere to be found at practice, nor did he play in Saturday’s game. But Leach said after the game that the Cougars have been happy with Myers, which implies he may be injured.
So it goes with Leach. He’s got the keys to the vehicle, and ain’t nobody else driving.
But while he’s as quirky as a two-headed calf, there’s substance beneath the style. One underappreciated, and misunderstood, aspect of the Leach approach is an almost compulsive attention to conditioning, and to detail. What may have looked like shtick at Texas Tech was in fact born of finely honed fundamentals.
He knows what he wants, and that carries over to mental makeup, where he has found many of the Cougars lacking. Maybe that’s what happens when you’re annually pretty much out of the bowl race by November.
For somebody who defines deadpan, Leach is big on being positive. Remember, when he was doing TV analysis of a WSU game in 2010, he made a telling comment about how it might help if Paul Wulff could work up a smile on his face on the sideline.
When I caught up with Leach last week, he said, “Clearly, we knew there were going to be challenges. But you don’t embrace challenges by some negative, defeatist attitude. You do it by pushing through, prevailing, expecting the best.
“To be quite frank, negativity and pessimism is part of our problem. The last thing in the world we need is to perpetuate it.”
Attrition has been considerable. The website Cougfan.com recently reported four little-used players having departed quietly. That brings to 17 the number of players who have left or been booted by Leach, who told me, “We’ll lose more.”
That also invites the question of whether his regime could run afoul of Academic Progress Rate conditions, like those inherited by Wulff that caused WSU to lose eight scholarships.
Apparently not. “We’re in as good shape as we’ve been in quite some time with the APR,” says WSU compliance director Steve Robertello.
“It looks like our single-year score (for 2011-12) will be our highest ever, and our four-year average is above a 940.” (A 930 would put WSU in danger of a one-year bowl ban.)
One of those players who left the team, receiver Blair Bomber, delivered what I suspect to be a representative bottom line for the outbound.
“I got a fair shot,” he told me, while lamenting the long rehab process from a knee injury. “The coaches here, they’re fair guys. It’s all about winning games. The guys that were ahead of me were just better than me.”
The growing pains of the Leach regime shouldn’t be surprising; he’s a stronger personality than the Cougars have had in the position in perhaps a quarter-century.
Let the man do his work. Yes, he’s going to need to win. Until that happens, the entertainment is pretty good theater.