Several years back, an athletic director at a Pac-12 school surveyed Washington State’s hire of Mike Leach as football coach and told me the guy had a reputation in the business as somebody who didn’t want to have a boss.
Today, you hope John Cohen, the athletic director at Mississippi State, realizes that. He just hired Leach from Washington State, for better or for worse.
(To those who come to this space expecting the usual blog on Gonzaga basketball, indulge me. My experience is, there’s a sizable crossover in rooting interest between the Zags and WSU football.)
What a complicated legacy Leach wove at WSU, more nuanced than you realize.
Let’s start with this: The guy is a good football coach. While the easy (and erroneous) assumption is that he authors a pitty-pat finesse offense, his system is based on endless, repetitive drilling, to the point that reaction becomes automatic. He’s very good at what he does. In league play from 2015-18, his teams went 26-10, and it wouldn’t be outlandish to say that’s a standard nearly impossible to replicate at WSU.
He’s going to need every bit of sagacity he can summon to make it work at Mississippi State. He’s jumping into the fiercest division in football, the SEC West, where all you have to deal with annually is Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M, and never mind the hoi polloi – Florida, Georgia – of the SEC East.
His supporters trumpet that WSU has never been to so many bowl games, and while that’s true, it’s also true that never have there been so many bowl games. Covering the Drew Bledsoe Cougars back in 1992, I distinctly remember writing that even at 8-3, fresh off the unforgettable Snow Bowl upset of Washington, it was unclear whether there was a post-season place for WSU and next spring's No. 1 overall draft pick. (Turned out, narrowly there was, in the Copper Bowl.)
Performances in the bowl games – he went 2-4 -- were regularly perplexing, from the New Mexico Bowl clock-mismanagement bloopers in 2013 to the ineptitude against depleted Minnesota in 2016 to the wipeout by Michigan State in 2017.
Besides bowl availability, he had other assets, including a splashy new football-facilities building (engineered before his arrival) that his predecessors could only have dreamed about. You wonder what somebody like Mike Price thinks of Leach pulling down $4 million-plus to go to Mississippi State. Price, who took the Cougars to two Rose Bowls in five years, and who couldn’t squeeze upper-six-figures from WSU in 2002, three years after Washington introduced Rick Neuheisel at a mil per year.
That’s why slotting Leach in WSU’s pantheon of coaches is difficult. When he arrived in late 2011, he was signed for $2.2 million a year. His predecessor, the much-maligned Paul Wulff, made $600,000. You get what you pay for.
Yes, Leach was a character, like a lot of other former WSU coaches. But there the resemblance ended (along with the resources available). Cougar coaches of yore would every now and then rise up and swat down a superior Washington team in the Apple Cup – while often struggling against the rest of the schedule. Meanwhile, Leach managed fine against Oregon and Stanford, but his complete meltdowns against Washington will remain one of our state’s great mysteries. Leach’s unwillingness to do anything different – run a reverse, run a flea-flicker, hey, run the ball against a five-man front – was a total head-scratcher. It was almost as if doing such a thing would repudiate the honor of his system. So he lost, and he lost by the same damn scores every year – 38-13, 41-14, 35-14.
What occurred afterward revealed more about him. He came to cite that Washington’s players were higher-ranked recruits, which of course gave no credit to his bete noire, Washington defensive coach Jimmy Lake. Which, of course, blamed indirectly his own players, something he was good at.
Not to turn this treatise political, but he did it first. It’s no coincidence that Leach has voiced public support for Donald Trump. They study the same playbook. You never accept blame. You never apologize. It’s never your fault.
I read a comment recently about Leach being a great interview. What a crock. Yeah, if you’re seeking his opinion on Genghis Khan or Robespierre or flash mobs. If you cared to learn something about his WSU team or Pac-12 football, you were out of luck. All those meandering riffs merely enhanced his brand. And even on those occasions when he lambasted his own players, the outbursts only served to embellish the brand. You know, what a character, that Mike Leach.
Like wasabi, he was fine in small doses. Some of us suffered him in much larger quantities – I covered his first three seasons at WSU -- and were privy to times when he didn’t always treat people very well.
His last real act at WSU was his post-Apple Cup rant against veteran columnist John Blanchette in November, which was vintage Leach, a lamentable blot against WSU, and if he’d ever stopped to think about it, Leach himself. Predictably, he dived for cover under First Amendment protection, but this was never about his right to speak his mind. Of course he had that right. It was about whether it was proper and the right time and place to say what he did and how it would reflect on the school that was uh, after all, paying him.
So his reputation as a loose cannon grew. Early on, it was little indiscretions like regularly being late for post-game press conferences, and then it was introducing candidate Trump at a campaign rally, and then tweeting out a doctored video of former President Barack Obama. But Leach was generally winning games and his players were behaving and doing relatively well academically. Nobody ever seemed to try to harness him, and indeed, it was hard to tell if he had a boss. At the end, he was pulling down close to $4 million from WSU and pretty much doing as he pleased, and you wonder how that sat with people of influence around the school who might have been under the impression it was an academic institution first.
You might chuckle, but I think WSU may be a better job than Mississippi State. If it is, then I surmise that part of Mike Leach simply concluded he had worn out his welcome at WSU.
If so, I think he’s right.