So here come the Cougars to Seattle, either to temper what has been a pretty productive football season at Washington State, or to visit all sorts of hell on the Washington program for the second straight year.
No doubt they’ll be motivated, though I don’t get the sense that the coach, Mike Leach, gets all frothy about the rivalry, at least in the public way of Paul Wulff or Mike Price or Jim Walden. He’s too much an eyes-on-the-prize guy, focused straight ahead. I’ve never ridden with him, but if he drives like he coaches, he wouldn’t be a texter, getting all distracted with too many things.
That’s just one of many contradictions of the actual Leach versus the perceived one. The one who has showed up on YouTube clips — the one who last year pegged some of his upper-class leaders as having a “zombie-like, empty-corpse quality” — is routinely nondescript in previewing the next game and often not very quotable. So, no “Cougars hunt and kill” warnings, a la Wulff’s introductory news conference, this week.
So much about Leach has been a Clayton Kershaw curveball in his two seasons. Remember last year, how he was going to swoop into Pullman and save the day with his 10-bowls-in-10-years résumé from Texas Tech? Well, the debut season was a resounding dud, save for the climactic comeback win in the Apple Cup.
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That undoubtedly dimmed perception entering 2013. But so did a rugged Pac-12 schedule, spiced with a daunting opener at Auburn. This was going to be another bowl-less season; Bill Moos, the athletic director, even cautioned that it was 2014 when he expected to see fruition in the program.
Well, surprise. The Cougars won three Pac-12 road games, are 6-5, and almost certainly will get themselves somewhere in December (I’m guessing the New Mexico Bowl, barring cataclysmic events this weekend).
This week, I asked Leach if it had been harder to get WSU bowl-eligible than the early years at Tech. He said it was tougher this time because the Red Raiders had been to bowls just before he got there. Which is another way of saying that the rebuild has been more arduous in Pullman.
Here’s another reason: His first year at Tech, the Red Raiders had a cushier road to a bowl. Leach was served up nonleague games with New Mexico, Utah State, Louisiana-Lafayette and North Texas, which combined that year to go 14-31.
There were also more tomato cans in the Big 12, two of them now-powerful Baylor and Oklahoma State. Leach’s team won seven games in that regular season, none of them over programs with a winning record.
This WSU team is born less of splash and sizzle — the kind of element often associated with Leach — than it is endless practice reps and a relentless, resilient approach.
An undisciplined, shoot-from-the-hip outfit? Not so, reflected by the penalty numbers of the Pac-12. The Cougars have a modest 60, ranking sixth, which, unless they go completely rogue against the Huskies (who have 93), will put them at fewer than anytime in the past six years, including all of the Wulff regime.
Trash talk? You see very little of that from the Cougars.
The book on Leach is full of false ceilings and trap doors. I can’t figure out why he plays starters deep into the fourth quarter of blowout games because he loses three-fifths of his offensive line next year, and those backups are going to need some worthwhile snaps. But he does it.
Wulff’s 2011 team might have gotten to that long-awaited bowl if quarterback Jeff Tuel hadn’t missed virtually the entire season with an injury, which would probably have saved Wulff’s job. But there’s little doubt Leach has forged a tougher, more resolute program.
Recently, I asked Tuel, now with the Buffalo Bills, about his take from the year with Leach. He hesitated.
“I mean, he wants to win,” Tuel said. “He’ll push the guys. He’ll get it headed in the right direction, whatever it takes.”
I dogged Leach a year ago for the yawning gap between the Cougars and the three other programs — UCLA, Arizona State, and Arizona — that ushered in new coaches with him, after WSU had just been competitive with all three before he arrived.
Now the road upset of Arizona, and the march to six victories against a pretty salty schedule, reflects major advancement.
As for today, the guess here is that the Cougars will find the Huskies too varied, too offensively diverse, to handle.
But everything about Leach says: Be wary. I think he likes it that way.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org