The Seattle Times spent a day in the life of WSU coach Mike Leach. Despite his many obligations and the mounting pressure ahead of the Cougars' big game vs. Oregon and the ESPN "College GameDay" hype that came with it, Leach was still the curious and personable man he is portrayed to be.
PULLMAN — Just three days before perhaps the biggest football Saturday ever in Pullman, the Washington State band and cheerleaders welcome the trucks carrying the ESPN set next to Martin Stadium.
Not only are the Cougars playing Oregon in a Pac-12 showdown of nationally ranked teams, ESPN’s “College GameDay” is coming to Pullman for the first time.
The hype level is already at a 10, and it’s only Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Washington State coach Mike Leach is walking to work.
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The coach who has a reputation for being quirky, opinionated and curious about subjects far and wide says it’s “just business as usual” for him and his team. He agreed to let The Seattle Times spend a day with him and his staff before the game against Oregon — which Washington State went on to win 34-20 — had become such a big deal. And even with the high-pressure game looming, Leach was no different behind the scenes than he is portrayed.
Leach did several media interviews, and made people laugh. He intently went over film with his players and staff, but still had time to discuss movie reviews, water moccasins and the hometown of Baseball Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers. And he reunited with an old high-school friend.
It was a full day, in the middle of preparations for a huge game.
Leach has finished his 45-minute walk to work, arriving at the football complex later than normal. He arrives most days between 10 and 11, but today was delayed by an appointment.
This will be a short day, unlike the past few. On Sundays and Mondays, the coaching staff stays until about 1 a.m., dissecting film of the upcoming opponent. On Tuesdays, the game plan is worked out, and the coaches finish about 11 p.m.
“It tapers off as the week goes on,” Leach says of the hours of preparation.
Leach has already done a couple of phone interviews, liking to do those on his walk to campus. Now, upon arriving, he has an in-person interview with FOX, which is televising Saturday’s game.
The quarterbacks are seated on either side of a long table, chatting about the merits of the new version of the movie “A Star is Born.” Leach walks into the room and quickly joins the discussion.
“Coach, have you seen ‘A Star is Born’? ” one of the quarterbacks asks.
No, but he saw the version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson and didn’t like it despite generally being a fan of Kristofferson.
There is plenty of work to do, but Leach isn’t so busy he can’t chat about a new movie.
After a few minutes, the real work begins. Each play from the previous practice is being shown from several different angles.
Although only Gardner Minshew is expected to play Saturday, all of the quarterbacks are focused. Leach, at the back of the table, uses a laser pointer to show where he thinks an Oregon defensive player will be on a particular play (often different from where the WSU scout player is on the film), pointing to where a WSU player should have been.
Leach goes back and forth between criticism and praise.
“Horrible route, and not a good read either.”
“Nice throw and catch.”
“This is how it should look.”
Leach tells Minshew he can’t guarantee the defensive formations Oregon will be in. It’s clear he is giving Minshew the authority to change plays based on what he sees.
“Yes sir,” Minshew responds.
Leach emphasizes running plays where the offense has leverage.
“The offense is trying to create space and the defense is trying to restrict space,” Leach says. “I don’t think I’ve heard it put that way before, but that is essentially what is going on.”
The critique of plays from Tuesday’s practice is over. On the large screen is game film of Oregon’s defense, from WSU’s 33-10 win over Oregon last year as well as from Duck games this season.
“What do you like here?” Leach asks Minshew again and again, while looking at different Oregon defensive formations.
Minshew rattles off suggestions rapid fire and confidently, using language only those who play the game would understand. It seems there is no situation he does not have an answer for.
“Any questions?” Leach asks as the film is finished. Meeting adjourned.
While the players get suited for practice, Leach has another media obligation — this one for the Pac-12 Networks.
That finished, he is ready for practice at 3:30.
After two hours of closed practice, Leach approaches a few media members standing nearby. He always starts this meeting with, “Questions?”
He answers a couple.
“The energy at practice was good.”
“Oregon’s defense is similar to what it was last year.”
Is Oregon a good matchup for Washington State, with the Cougars winning the last three games? Leach expertly avoids answering.
“They’re a good solid team. The biggest thing is, they run well so you’ve got to attack the whole field.”
Interview over. It took just 90 seconds.
It’s almost dinner time, but another media obligation beckons.
ESPN is doing a story on the WSU “Popcorn Guy” to use on “College GameDay,” and the network wants to interview Leach.
The coach gives ESPN more than it could have hoped for, but its cameras malfunction. No matter. Leach doesn’t say a word and is even funnier in the second take, making the entire crew laugh.
A couple highlights:
“He became an iconic figure in the midst of all the carnage,” Leach said of the footage shot during WSU’s 55-17 loss to Stanford in 2013. “It was uplifting to see he was still having a good day.”
“He’s kind of a guardian angel to our program and he’s helped us elevate us to the point we have gone over the years, and we couldn’t have done it without him. And I would just want to thank him.”
That finished — and ESPN more than satisfied — Leach heads to dinner.
The athletic dining room overlooking Martin Stadium is bustling with athletes from all sports, plus coaches and professors.
A few years ago, WSU started a program where football players invite professors to dinner the week before home games.
One of the invited professors, John Snyder, knew Leach from growing up in Cody, Wyo. They were teammates on the Cody High School football team. The two had not seen each other in decades, and Leach was unaware that they were at the same university.
Leach is happy to be reacquainted. They go through the cafeteria line and sit with three other professors. Leach asks most of the questions, showing genuine interest in each.
“Watching film can get kind of monotonous, so this is a nice diversion,” he says.
Speaking of film, he tells them he has to watch some more. Leach clears his plate and puts his dishes in the appropriate bins.
It’s time to get back to work.
The offensive coaches are in the same room the quarterbacks were in earlier, still awaiting Leach and receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr.
The coaches are intently watching the MLB playoffs. Leach walks in and wants a score update. Spurrier seems to be the lone assistant not interested in baseball. Somehow, the chatter strays to his story about the last time he went to a big-league game, in Toronto, and the impressive handlebar mustache seated beside him.
“Rollie Fingers,” several correctly identify at the same time. Leach wonders out loud where Fingers was from (Steubenville, Ohio, a Google search reveals).
That settled, baseball is turned off and film from today’s practice is turned on.
This is a friendly, collaborative meeting. Leach is in charge, but everyone makes points.
On one play shown, a normally sure-handed receiver drops a pass. The position coach debates whether to bring it up with the receiver.
“Don’t say anything,” Leach says. “He drops one pass every five practices.”
Leach changes the subject to one of the team’s student managers, who never drops a ball.
“I am not sure I shouldn’t get that guy onto the field, and get him some receptions,” Leach says.
It’s amazing how seamlessly the coaches go from seriously analyzing plays to something completely off topic, then right back to watching film intently as if there had been no interruption.
“It’s always like that,” Leach said of the quick topic changes.
With Leach leading the way, they talk about the TV drama “The Blacklist,” (“You need to live a little,” Leach tells an assistant who says he doesn’t watch it), the woolly aphids invading Pullman, the opponents Valdosta State “owned” when Leach was the offensive coordinator there and the water moccasin snakes he encountered there in southern Georgia.
“They aren’t like most snakes,” he says of the water moccasins. “They will stand their ground or come at you. The people in southern Georgia are tough. They treat them like roaches.”
WSU sports information director Bill Stevens enters the room. A print journalist from Oregon wants to speak to Leach in the morning. National radio broadcaster Scott Ferrall wants an interview in the evening, and Leach says he will do it while walking home from his weekly radio show at a local restaurant.
Stevens asks Leach about possibly making an appearance on “College GameDay” on Saturday morning. Leach says doing so would upset his game-day routine.
Leach asks if other coaches appear on the show, and he is told that many do.
“Well, I’ve got a game to coach,” he says.
As he begins his walk home around 9 p.m., it’s clear this was just another Wednesday for him.
But for most, it was a week like no other in Pullman.