Former AD Bill Moos traveled to Key West to get WSU's Mike Leach. Here's the tale of how the trip went and how the Cougars' football future would be decided on Splash Mountain at Disney World.
On Nov. 29, 2011, Washington State fired one of its own: Paul Wulff, a former Cougar offensive lineman, was let go after four dismal seasons.
At the press conference to announce Wulff’s termination, athletic director Bill Moos was asked about the composition of the search committee.
“You’re looking at the search committee,” he said.
Unbeknownst to the public, Moos’ work was already done.
At the time, Washington State was the lowest of the low, having won just four of 32 conference games under Wulff. Ticket sales, donations and energy were as bad as the on-field product.
Moos had known for months that a coaching change might be required and had a short list ready. The name atop the list: Mike Leach.
In October, after blowout losses to Stanford and Oregon State — the first at home, the second at CenturyLink Field in Seattle — Moos made the decision to dismiss Wulff at the end of the season and do everything possible to hire Leach.
“I thought the Air Raid would entertain the fans while we built the program,’’ Moos told the Hotline last week. “It would bide us time to get the facilities and recruit the players.”
Leach was out of coaching and living in Key West, having been fired two years earlier by Texas Tech after a controversial incident with the son of former ESPN analyst Craig James.
(Moos said the incident wasn’t a concern and that he received no pushback from the WSU administration or donor base: “I had done my homework. That wasn’t a factor one bit.”)
With more than a month remaining in the season — and knowing that several schools would likely pursue Leach — Moos knew speed and stealth were of the essence. Through an intermediary, he made contact with Leach’s agent, Gary O’Hagan.
A face-to-face meeting with Leach was scheduled for Key West. Moos used a personal credit cards to purchase a plane ticket and hotel suite — his university-issued versions would be subject to public records requests — and rounded up the materials for his pitch.
Three connecting flights later, he was in Key West.
“I get there and it’s like, ‘Did I just see Ernest Hemingway?’ What a place that was.”
The morning of the meeting, Moos arranged his suite. On the coffee table, he positioned renderings of WSU’s plans for $100+ million in facility upgrades, pictures of new Nike uniforms and copies of university policies and procedures. He had soda, coffee and pastries available.
He had sent word to Leach that the meeting would be casual. To Moos, that meant slacks and dress shirt but no tie.
“I go to open the door,” Moos said, “and there he is in a white V-neck T shirt, cargo shorts, flip-flops, three-day growth and a Styrofoam coffee cup.”
They shook hands and looked each other over.
“I got a message that this would be casual,’’ Leach said.
Moos asked if Leach needed his parking validated.
“Nah, I rode my bike.’’
And then it hit Moos.
“At that point,’’ he recalled with a laugh, “I’m wondering what have I gotten myself into.”
They headed for the large, wrap-around couch in the middle of the suite, next to the coffee table with Moos’ presentation.
Moos began to lay out his vision for Cougar football.
“Within five minutes,’’ he said, “the conversation had turned to Winston Churchill, George S Patton, Geronimo and snow blowers in Cody, Wyoming.”
After an hour, Moos steered the conversation back to football, but it was clear the two men had hit it off.
Eventually, Moos brought up WSU’s new drug policy, particularly as it involved marijuana.
“We have a strict drug-testing plan: Three strikes and you’re out.”
Leach thought for a moment.
“What do you think about one strike and you’re out?”
Moos was all ears.
“I find that stuff divides the locker room,” Leach explained. “I’ll probably have to cut a couple starters, but the message will get across.”
The meeting lasted four hours.
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As Moos walked Leach to the door, he handed him a folder.
“This is my background.”
“I know all about your body of work,’’ Leach said, “and it would be a privilege to work for you.’’
The cargo pants disappeared into the Key West afternoon, and Moos felt he had his man. At the same time, he worried about the competition. Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State would all be active in the 2011-12 hiring cycle.
(Moos later learned that other schools made the trek to Key West.)
By then, the season was coming to a close. Moos conducted no other interviews and instead focused on Leach, working with O’Hagan and school officials to lock down his new coach.
The Apple Cup came and went. Moos had a memorandum of understanding ready for Leach to sign. What he didn’t have, was Leach.
“So I called O’Hagan and I’m like, ‘Gary, where’s Mike? I need him to sign the memorandum of understanding. I need to pull the trigger on this.’’’
“He’s vacationing with his sister in Florida,’’ O’Hagan explained, “but I’ll have him call you.”
Later, the phone rang.
“Hey Bill, it’s Mike.”
But Moos had trouble hearing Leach over the background noise — a thunderous whooshing sound.
“Mike, I need you to sign the memorandum.”
“Yeah, OK, sure. I’ll sign it.”
“Mike, I can hardly hear you. Where are you?”
“I’m at Splash Mountain,” came the response.
“Hey, have you ever been on it? I just did it three times. It’s my second favorite ride, behind Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Leach signed the MOU that day.
The next day, Wulff was terminated.
The day after that, the Cougars announced Leach had agreed in principle to a five-year deal.
“A lot of schools wanted him. He wanted us,” Moos said at the time.
He laughed at the memory of the Key West meeting — of the cargo pants and the three-day growth, of Patton and Churchill and snowblowers and Splash Mountain.
And he became a quick study in Leach’s unlimited curiosity.
“I met with all my coaches regularly,’’ he said, “and with Mike, I would always go to his office. That way, I could leave when I wanted, otherwise the visit could last three or four hours.”