Leach is poised to get the Cougars to a bowl game in his first season.
It’s impossible to ignore the awkward charisma of Mike Leach. He captivates in the strangest manner. He’s perhaps the most compelling football coach in our pigskin-obsessed country, and he doesn’t even talk about football that much.
Leach, the character, has risen to rock-star status, and he hasn’t even coached a game in 31 months. After two seasons away following his controversial firing at Texas Tech, Leach makes his much-anticipated return Thursday to lead his new team, Washington State, in a nationally-televised game against Brigham Young, his alma mater.
Call it the Pirate Bowl, since Leach is so enthralled with men who plunder at sea.
Then call it what it really is: A must-see event.
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It’ll be the first of many for the Cougars in the Leach era. The program will always retain its underdog charm, but it’s about to experience an unprecedented level of relevance. If you’re amazed at the attention Leach has brought to Pullman since athletic director Bill Moos hired him in December, wait until the nation gets reminded of how prolific and fun his offensive system is. Wait until Leach, the coach, puts winning with weird.
It’s going to happen. Quickly.
The Cougars will make it to a bowl game this season. If they win at BYU in Leach’s debut, they’ll do even better than the minimum 6-6 record.
Buried in the fascination with Leach’s quirky personality and pass-happy strategy is the most important fact about the coach: He can take just about any team, with any level of talent, and mold it into a winning squad.
He guided Texas Tech to bowl appearances in all 10 of his seasons in Lubbock, which is one of the greatest coaching jobs in the past 20 years of college football. His style is unorthodox, but it’s an unorthodox genius.
The question of whether Leach can build an elite team his way is another debate. But barring a shocking catastrophe, he is guaranteed to bring consistent competitiveness and a level of sustained success to Pullman.
Leach is already set up to do well, even though the Cougars are amid a nine-season bowl drought. With one of the nation’s best receivers in Marquess Wilson, with quarterback Jeff Tuel healthy and expected to be the starter, with enough core members returning from an offense that averaged 29.8 points and 422.4 yards per game last season, Leach has the weapons to produce his usual potent offense.
The Cougars will always be 40 points and 500 yards waiting to happen. Leach is that good an offensive strategist; only Chip Kelly rivals him in college football right now. The players are that capable.
Washington State will be a mess on defense, but if they’re consistently scoring more than 30 points, it creates a huge margin for error for the rest of the team. The Pac-12 remains a conference in transition, with Utah and Colorado still adjusting as second-year members, and new coaches walking the sidelines at Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA in addition to Washington State. It’s a league of diverse high-powered offenses, and it’s a league that will be wide open after you get past favorites USC and Oregon.
The parity means close games, and every small edge will matter. Leach can make a huge difference. Even if Leach hadn’t been hired, the Cougs would have bowl aspirations. Picking this coach made those hopes a lot more legitimate.
Leach isn’t hanging out in Key West and plotting his next move anymore. For nine months, he’s been working on this new project at Washington State. The coach was asked earlier this week whether he feels his life has sped up again.
“You mean, am I having trouble here in the fast-paced intensity, and it’s not as laid back where it’s hustle and bustle and meetings and iPods and stuff?” Leach asked in reply during his weekly Pac-12 conference call with reporters. “I’ve managed. I get by. It’s pretty laid back here. It’s every bit as laid back here as it is in Key West, so it’s been good. The demands of coaching are an intense business experience and all that, there’s no question. But as far as the locale, well, this place is at least as laid back and maybe more than Key West.”
It was classic Leach, meandering through a meaningless question and providing an oddly entertaining answer. His diction, dry humor and unconstrained intelligence make for an alluring shtick.
And we have yet to see him explode during an epic rant that turns into a national story.
Leach, the character, is more unconventional than all of Pete Carroll’s coaching tactics combined. He has entertained Cougar fans in this region for nine months already. But that was just an opening act.
Prepare to witness the eccentric brilliance of Mike Leach, character, coach and captain of a wacky ship that only he can steer.
Embrace the zaniness. Respect the ingenuity.
Success will never again be this delightfully daffy.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer.