In calling out his team for its lack of toughness, Mike Leach motivated them to rise to the challenge and play better

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Washington State coach Mike Leach publicly called out his team last week, delivering a fiery monologue about their lack of toughness, and declaring that his staff would be tougher on the players at practice from that point on.

In WSU’s 56-6 demolition of Idaho on Saturday, the Cougars finally showed some of that toughness that had been lacking in their first two games of the season.

WSU started slow for the third week in a row. But this time, by the middle of the second quarter, the Cougars emerged from their slump, sparked in part by Marcellus Pippins’ 72-yard blocked field goal return for a touchdown.

“I thought it was starting to take shape (by Pippins’ big play), but that was kind of the exclamation mark on that, you know?” Leach said.

From that point on, offense, defense and special teams all came together to engineer a complete win that gave everyone a glimpse of what the Cougars (1-2) are capable of when they play as one.

“I saw it partway through the third (quarter) and the middle of the fourth (quarter) is approximately where I thought it was the best,” Leach said Saturday when asked if his team played with the kind of toughness he had demanded from them earlier in the week. “I thought we had better focus throughout the week. It was a fairly intense week.”

The players felt the heat from their coaches too.

“Practice has been super intense,” said running back James Williams, who had 126 rushing yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. “Coach Leach and all the coaches were on us all the time, every time. There was no pat on the back. Every time we did a good play, it was expected. We just had to come out and do our thing like we’ve been coached all week.”

The coaches dialed up the intensity so much that the Cougars started the game against Idaho wound a little too tight. Running back Gerard Wicks said the team definitely walked onto the field feeling the pressure and thinking, “We gotta win, gotta win, gotta win.”

That pressure got to the offense. They went three-and-out on their first drive and punted on their second before they adapted to what Idaho was showing them defensively and started running the ball behind Williams, Wicks and Jamal Morrow to keep the Vandals honest.

That’s when things started flowing.

“We were fine when we just relaxed and played our game,” Wicks said. “It flowed all the way through on all three phases.”

The coaches see all this as progress, and they plan to stick with this more aggressive coaching style through the rest of the season.

“They’re gonna have to learn to adapt,” Leach said. “We tried the other approach. I didn’t care for how that worked out.”

It took Leach and his staff a couple of extra weeks to discover just how to get the best effort out of this group of Cougars, but as WSU heads into its bye week, the coaches are optimistic that they’ve figured it out now.

“Different teams have different personalities. But this team, it’s become apparent that a lot of the intensity has to come from us as coaches,” Leach said. “I think as coaches we could have done a better job of evaluating that and sorting that out earlier.”

These Cougars, Leach says, plays its best football when spurred by some old-fashioned tough love.

“We seem to have a group that will go soft a little bit,” Leach said. “I think as coaches we’ve gotta be on them all the time. I think it’s gotta be all kinds of intensity and a bunch that’s old fashioned that, if we’re ever going to maintain the integrity of the game of football, will have to come back in a hurry.”

Soft and encouraging are things of the past now. Instead, the Cougars’ coaches went old-school this week, adopting no-nonsense attitudes and demanding nothing short of perfection on every play.

“The way they coached us this week was high intensity. Everything had to be perfect,” Williams said. “So we played like that on the field and you can see a big difference.”

Leach’s challenge of their toughness “helped out a lot. It let us know what we needed to do and what needed to be done now,” said safety Robert Taylor. “Change happened quick and we plan to keep on moving with that.”