Mike Leach has built his coaching career while setting up shop in some of the most remote outposts in FBS college football — Texas Tech and Washington State. He’s done so by playing to his programs’ strengths and maximizing resources.
Mike Leach has built his coaching career while setting up shop in some of the most remote outposts in FBS college football.
What happens on an official visit to WSU?
As told by WSU Football Chief of Staff Dave Emerick
• Recruits and their parents arrive, flying in to either Spokane, Pullman or Lewiston (Idaho) airports.
• They get to observe some team workouts in the football weight room.
• They get taken to dinner at the Grey W Legends Lounge dining hall in the Cougar Football Complex.
• Breakfast is provided, then the recruits tour the WSU football locker room, and get to see the Cougars’ Nike gear, including the official jerseys.
• They tour the stadium and the weight room, where they get to meet strength coach Jason Loscalzo.
• Lunch is a catered meal in the Martin Stadium press box. During lunch, recruits have meetings with academic advisors from majors they’ve listed as areas of interest. They also meet with some professors from their department of choice, as well as the athletic department’s academic advisors.
• Recruits then get a full campus tour.
• Thereafter, they return to the Cougar Football Complex to meet with position coaches, watch some film and meet with head coach Mike Leach.
• Dinner is served in the dining room in Todd Hall, which houses WSU’s School of Hospitality Business Management. Students in the program cook the meal.
• Recruits and their parents meet the coaches for breakfast at Banyans on the Ridge, the restaurant at the Palouse Ridge Golf Club.
• Recruits and their parents depart Pullman
Texas Tech and Washington State have traditionally been known as tough places to recruit to. They are located in areas far from main population centers – Pullman is almost as far from Seattle as Lubbock is from Dallas and Oklahoma City – and the football programs have long lived in the shadow of other in-state counterparts.
Yet, over the past 15 years, Leach has managed to revive middling programs at Texas Tech and WSU, and as any college football fan knows, how many games you win in the fall often correlates with how many recruiting battles you win in the spring.
The Cougars’ recruiting prowess has been on the uptick ever since Leach took over in November 2011.
With national signing day less than a week away, WSU now has 27 players in its 2016 recruiting class, which includes highly-regarded receiver Isaiah Johnson from West Palm Beach, Fla. – who reneged on his Florida commitment to sign with WSU in January – and Keenen King, a 6-foot-4, 297-pound offensive lineman from Las Vegas who picked WSU despite an offer list that included Arizona State, Colorado and Oregon State.
The Cougs also won the commitments of notables like running back Romello Harris from Tulare, Calif., who had offers from Washington and Duke, and defensive end Lyric Bartley from Taylorsville, Utah, who picked WSU over Utah, Vanderbilt and Purdue.
“Right now, it’s a pretty solid class. I think it’s Washington State’s best class in a couple of years,” said Greg Biggins, Scout.com’s national recruiting analyst. “Looking at their class, I feel like they’ve done a much better job of getting quality guys.
“There’s been years past where I didn’t even know half these names on (WSU’s) list. These guys are good players.”
Of course, the Cougars’ success last season has also helped. WSU finished 9-4, with a victory over Miami in the Sun Bowl that marked the Cougars’ first bowl win in more than a decade.
So how has Leach and his staff managed to raise WSU’s recruiting profile? And with Washington State spending less on recruiting compared to other Pac-12 rivals, how have the Cougars maximized their resources?
Play to your strong suit
A quick look through tweets disseminated by WSU football’s official Twitter account over the last month will tell you all you need to know about the Cougars’ recruiting sales pitch.
A few weeks after the Sun Bowl win, WSU football tweeted a graphic headlined “Early playing time at Washington State,” accompanied by action shots of underclassmen starters – QB Luke Falk, CB Darrien Molton, DL Hercules Mata’afa, OL Cole Madison, LB Peyton Pelluer and RB Jamal Morrow.
Recruiting territories for the 2015 WSU coaching staff
Defensive line and assistant head coach Joe Salave’a: Hawaii, American Samoa, Utah.
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch: San Diego, Orange County, Calif.
Outside linebackers coach Roy Manning: Los Angeles.
Inside linebackers coach Ken Wilson: Inland Empire region of California.
Special teams coach Eric Mele: Seattle and Oregon.
Running backs coach Jim Mastro: Bay Area region of California.
Offensive line coach Clay McGuire: Northern part of Los Angeles.
*Outside receivers coach Graham Harrell: Sacramento and Fresno, Calif.
*Inside receivers coach David Yost: Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Bay Area region of California.
*No longer on staff
When the Leach era first began at WSU, the ability to offer recruits a chance at early playing time was a central selling point, and even today, Leach says he’ll forever be grateful to the players from last year’s senior class who signed with WSU.
Leach inherited a WSU program that had – as he likes to tell it – all of six offensive linemen on scholarship. In 2011, the final recruiting cycle of the Paul Wulff era, WSU’s class was ranked 73rd nationally by Rivals.com.
The rebuild at WSU was considerably more challenging than the rebuild he faced when he took over the Texas Tech program, he says.
“At Washington State, they’d been to 10 bowls in the history of the program and we were way down, and anything over two wins a year was somewhat successful,” Leach said. “There’s a certain amount of rebuilding that needed to be done. That’s why I really respect guys like Destiny Vaeao and Jeremiah Allison. They did a certain amount of that on faith and helped build a lot of the success we had this year.”
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The Cougs still sell the prospect of early playing time, and they can point to guys like Molton and fellow cornerback Marcellus Pippins as examples of players who started as true freshmen.
But now, they can also play up the notion that this is a program that’s ready to compete on a larger scale. This year’s class is currently ranked 47th by Rivals.com. If the class stays the same, this will be considered the best recruiting class Leach has assembled in his time at WSU.
“Us going to two bowl games in the last three years, people feel good about what we did last season,” said Associate Athletic Director and Football Chief of Staff Dave Emerick, who oversees WSU’s recruiting operations. “People expect Washington State to be a program that continues to do well.”
Also, the Cougars proudly tout their campus’ college-town environment as one of their greatest merits. On Jan. 25, WSU football’s Twitter account posted a picture with the slogan “Destination Pullman: One of America’s Last True College Towns” floating over an artist’s rendering of Martin Stadium on game day.
“One great thing about the Pac-12 is that there’s a lot of variety to it. We have deserts, oceans and mountains,” Leach says. “But the one thing we do have the monopoly on is that they’re all urban campuses, except us and Oregon State.
“I think a lot of what makes the SEC exciting is that the vast majority of them are in college towns. It’s exciting when the whole town knows what’s going on.”
That logic has helped WSU win over several big-city recruits this cycle, including San Diego receiver Dezmon Patmon and defensive end Danny Bender.
There’s been years past where I didn’t even know half these names on (WSU’s) list. These guys are good players.” - Greg Biggins, Scout.com
“It’s just a different environment than San Diego,” says Patmon, who played at Patrick Henry High and picked WSU over offers from Cal, Colorado, Colorado State and San Diego State. “It’s like a small college town. It’s just fun that the whole town is wrapped up in the team.”
Leach tells anyone who will listen that the football stadium’s location smack dab in the middle of campus makes for a unique game day environment, and that really appealed to Bender, a defensive end from El Cajon, Calif., who was originally committed to San Diego State, but switched his commitment to WSU this week.
Growing up in San Diego, Bender attended numerous Aztecs football games at Qualcomm Stadium, but never found the environment as electric as he wanted it to be.
“I’ve gone to all the San Diego State games, and only the first layer of the stadium is somewhat packed. But you see on TV the college stadiums that are packed to the bleachers. I always wanted to play in a packed stadium with that atmosphere,” Bender said this week. “My main goal is to play in a huge college town.”
Focus your resources
WSU football’s expenses in 2014 totaled more than $68.1 million, but that pales in comparison to Oregon’s $110 million, Washington’s $86 million or UCLA’s $86.4 million.
To maximize their recruiting budget, the Cougs focused their efforts more intensely on states within the Pac-12 footprint, along with Hawaii and American Samoa.
The bulk of WSU’s players hail from Washington and California, but the Cougars’ 2015 roster featured players from 15 states and Samoa.
They only dip into places like Texas, Louisiana or Florida on occasion, and only after a prospect has shown serious interest in playing at WSU.
That was the case with Belle Glade, Fla. native Tavares Martin Jr. last year, and with West Palm Beach, Fla. native Isaiah Johnson this year.
Johnson “wanted to play in our offense and that was the biggest draw to him. He wanted to catch balls,” Emerick said. “He came on his visit and saw what Washington State could do for him, and from that point we went down and saw him and actively recruited him.”
Often, as in Johnson’s case, Leach’s signature Air Raid offense is a brand that sells itself.
“Coach Leach is really well known,” Scout.com’s Biggins said. “At least around the quarterbacks and receivers. With them, it’s an easy sell.”
The allure of playing in the Air Raid has been working to Leach’s advantage since the mid-2000s, when Texas Tech rose to prominence behind offensive stars like Kliff Kingsbury, Wes Welker, Michael Crabtree and Graham Harrell.
On the defensive side, one of WSU’s biggest assets has been outside linebackers coach Roy Manning, who came from Michigan last year and has built quite the reputation on the recruiting trail.
“Them getting Manning was huge. He’s really well respected,” Biggins said. “Manning has hit the Los Angeles city and Southern California areas really hard. He came from Michigan where he was one of their top recruiters, but it’s easy to recruit to Michigan, right? A lot more goes into getting a kid to come to Washington State.
“But he’s extremely likeable, energetic and puts in a lot of effort. When you’re at Washington State you have to outwork other coaches to get guys.”
Manning was the primary recruiter in the courtship of cornerback Jalen Thompson, from Downey, Calif., and linebacker Derek Moore, from Los Angeles.
This year, WSU also changed its strategy on official visits, opting to bring prospects onto campus only after football season instead of trying to juggle visits and games on the same weekend.
So far, they feel like the change in tactics has paid off.
“This way, it keeps WSU fresh in their minds if we have more visits in December and January, and you’ll have less decommitments because we’re fresh in their minds,” Emerick said.
That’s what the WSU coaching staff is hoping anyway.
As Emerick notes, no matter how solid you think your commitment list is, there’s always an air of uncertainty that goes along with signing day.
“You never know what’s going to come in,” Emerick says. “We make it a priority to call every single one of our kids who is supposed to sign the day before and the morning of, and then we just sit and wait.”