At age 55 and going into his 15th season as a head football coach, Leach firmly believes one reason he had success at Texas Tech and is now seeing success at WSU is that he never dwells on yesterday’s successes and never stops moving forward.

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Washington State football coach Mike Leach absolutely detests all questions about milestones and legacies.

He made this abundantly clear at Pac-12 Media Days in July when, sparked by a reporter’s inquiry about which questions he dislikes most, Leach dived into an animated two-minute response – complete with wild hand gestures and highly entertaining facial contortions – about how inane it is to ask a sitting football coach to define the significance of beating any specific team.

Does any coach ever have the time to sit on his laurels and ruminate, Leach asked aloud, to everyone and no one, sounding incredulous.

“Even when you get old and start messing with your grandchildren, you only have time to do it a little bit,” he said. “I don’t know when this happy little space exists.

Huskies

 

Cougars

“This is a business about scratching and clawing and you’re constantly trying to improve and get better and better.”

Regardless of Leach’s distaste for those questions, the coach would best steel himself for a consistent battery of them this season if his Cougars live up to billing.

Leach is entering his fifth season at Washington State and for the first time during his tenure, the team will consist entirely of players he recruited to WSU. This year’s team will have a Leach-era record 16 upperclassmen in the starting lineup and will also hold the distinction of being the first WSU football team this decade to begin the season coming off a bowl win.

It’s a milestone, surely. Just don’t tell that to Leach.

At age 55 and going into his 15th season as a head football coach, Leach firmly believes one reason he had success at Texas Tech and is now seeing success at WSU is that he never dwells on yesterday’s successes and never stops moving forward.

Healing

The story of Leach’s rise as a college football coach is well documented. The BYU grad never played football in college – he played rugby, actually – went to Pepperdine for law school, then realized he didn’t want to be a lawyer. He began coaching with some small schools in California, applied for a job on Hal Mumme’s staff at Iowa Wesleyan, and spent the next decade by Mumme’s side, conceiving the Air Raid offense that has become the hallmark of every Leach team.

At the time WSU athletic director Bill Moos flew to Key West, Fla., in November 2011 on a mission to win over an offensive mastermind, Leach’s story had been sidetracked and left with a question mark for an ending.

His 10-year tenure at Texas Tech ended abruptly in 2009 when Adam James, a Red Raiders player and the son of former ESPN analyst Craig James, said Leach had him locked in a closet after he suffered a concussion. Leach vehemently denied the accusation but the story spiraled, Craig James got involved, national media reacted, and university administrators took the opportunity to run Leach out of town.

Adam James later said he exaggerated, and the furor eventually died down. However, its effects linger today. Leach is still fighting Texas Tech, claiming, among other things, that he was not compensated for his work in Lubbock during the 2009 season.

The legal case is currently in a state of limbo because the state of Texas protects government entities from being sued unless the state has given consent. So Leach’s next move is to petition the Texas state legislature to allow him to sue Texas Tech.

“It’s a ridiculously complicated process,” he said recently.

But outside the courtroom, time and new ambitions have helped the healing process.

His time away from college football in Key West ended in a Marriott hotel room where Moos sold him on an ambitious rebuilding project.

“I think it might be safe to say that Cougar football might have been among the worst programs in the country at that time,” Moos said. “There was apathy in the fan base, there was probably the worst facilities in the conference. … Our talent pool was not real good. We had some good players, but not enough to be effective. Seats were empty, donations were just trickling in. It was not a good picture.”

Yet Leach and Moos bonded over a vision for long-term success. Moos saw Leach as a perfect fit for WSU. The coach had grown up in the small town of Cody, Wyo. (population in the 1970s when Leach lived there – 5,161), and preferred smaller communities such as Lubbock and Pullman to big cities and the media limelight that came with them.

Equally important was that the prospect of rebuilding a program that had won exactly nine games in the last four seasons combined didn’t faze Leach.

“If you don’t believe you can build it to begin with, you don’t take the job,” Leach said.

Leach has never been one to back down from a challenge. All through his life, when faced with a crossroads dividing the easy, natural fit from an uphill battle that could potentially be more fulfilling, Leach has generally chosen the latter.

“He just had this drive with whatever it was: dating a girl who was out of his league, or getting an ‘A’ on a test or whatever. Nobody could tell him he couldn’t do it. His thinking is ‘if you say I can’t, I’m gonna show you I can do it,’ ” said Mike Clayton, Leach’s college roommate at BYU.

Leach also likes to be an advocate for the underdog. Before he gave up a legal career to become a football coach, “he wanted to get in the courtroom and stand up for the little guy against big corporations,” said his wife, Sharon Leach. “I always think that if I wasn’t watching him in the stands at his football games, I’d be watching him in the courtroom.”

So in many ways, coaching at WSU — one of college football’s farthest flung outposts — in hopes of reviving a struggling program, was the perfect landing ground for Leach to set down roots and get to work on his second act.

“It’s always fun to build, but I wanted some place that was undervalued, some place where our team, our players and our staff would make a difference,” Leach said. “And I wanted a college town and a place that was committed. There are always places that aren’t committed and they just continue mistakes of the past.”

Renaissance

Leach has always said he loves the vibrancy of college towns and the way these communities rally around their football team.

Janeen Clark, Leach’s eldest daughter, who holds a medical degree from Texas Tech, said her father “had such an amazing relationship with the (Texas Tech) fans.”

She added: “I’ve got T-shirts that say ‘King Pirate’ or ‘Renew Leach’s contract now.’ They were the nicest fans ever, and when the opposing team came to town, they were brutal.”

Leach hasn’t yet attained quite the same cult status in Pullman, but the town has definitely begun to rally around him.

As he makes his daily 45-minute walk from his house to the WSU campus on a sunny spring day in April, the coach attracts the attention of a steady stream of well-wishers along the way.

Some, such as the couple out for a stroll downtown outside Café Moro – Leach’s favorite coffee shop – just stare hard and exchange excited whispers, “Is that Coach Leach?”

Others, like the enthusiastic student Leach encounters as he passes through campus, sometimes come up to him to say hello. It’s been four months since WSU’s bowl victory, but the Cougs’ success last season is still very much at the forefront of the fan base’s collective consciousness.

“Very good to see you. You had good games last year,” the student said, beaming at Leach.

Leach nods, brow furrowed as if considering this praise, then in characteristic fashion says, “Yeah, well we’ve got spring ball going right now, so hopefully we’ll be better.”

As far as the coach is concerned, last season has already been archived as a memory. This spring, this upcoming season, this team are all that matters now.

He walks briskly, but never hurriedly. Every time someone approaches him, he’ll slow down to say hello and chat for a couple minutes. This, to Leach, is part of a college town’s charm, and he’s come to love Pullman and its small-town familiarity.

The first three years were tough for everyone as Leach and his staff tried to get a losing program back on track on the field and on the recruiting trail.

More than 17 players left the team in Leach’s first season, which got more bad publicity when receiver Marquess Wilson quit the team and alleged abuse by Leach and his staff. Wilson later recanted and apologized to Moos via text message.

After last season, it appears the ship has been righted.

“It took us a little longer than we wanted to get the culture embedded, but we have that now,” said WSU offensive line coach Clay McGuire, a career Leach assistant who played under and then worked for Leach at Texas Tech until 2009.

WSU found the leadership it needed in players like first-year starting quarterback Luke Falk, veteran linemen Joe Dahl and Gunnar Eklund, receiver Dom Williams and linebackers Jeremiah Allison and Peyton Pelluer.

“The ownership the kids are taking in the program is phenomenal,” McGuire said. “There were years at Tech when there wasn’t a lot of coaching going on because of how hard they played, and we were just correcting little things.

“That’s kinda what you saw last year. The accountability our kids took in the program, how hard they practiced and how much it meant to them to win – it was amazing just to see that team gut it up, and how much it meant to them to win.”

The core of the 2015 team that went 9-4 with a Sun Bowl win is back, and the starting 22 are mostly still juniors and sophomores.

Talk to Leach or the members of his staff who were with him at Texas Tech in the late 2000s and it’s clear they feel like they were forced to leave before that program truly peaked.

Leach thinks the pieces were in place for the 2010 Texas Tech season to be “even better than 2008” when the Red Raiders went 11-2 and earned a trip to the Cotton Bowl. From that standpoint, this second act for Leach at WSU is all about discovering how far he can advance the program.

McGuire left a job at East Carolina to rejoin Leach’s staff at WSU in 2012 because “I didn’t feel like we finished what we were doing at Tech,” he said. “We’re looking to compete for championships here and build some consistency in the football program. I definitely see myself here in five years, and us better than we (are) now.”

For Leach, WSU isn’t just part of his journey. It’s his final destination.

“I’ve always seen it that way,” he said.