Mike Leach is a man who has been surrounded by controversy his entire career as a coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision. His newest exploits with the Washington State Cougars are no exception.
To understand how Washington State University could be surrounded with so much controversy, one must first understand the man in charge of it all; Leach is known as a coach with an eccentric personality, but with the talent to field winning teams.
As head coach he has never had a losing season (until this year) thanks to a prolific Air Raid offense. In the Air Raid offense you pass it, pass it, pass it some more then run it once in a while. When used properly it can be nearly unstoppable to defend, and Leach knows how to use it properly.
When Leach is brought in, there tends to be a circus that follows. After Leach’s Texas Tech Red Raiders took the field against the Texas Longhorns for their 2007 matchup, Leach had some choice words about the officiating. He noted that one of the referees resided in Austin, TX, the host town to the University of Texas.
“I think it’s disturbing that Austin residents are involved in this. People work too hard, too long, there’s too much money invested in these games to allow that,” Leach said. Big-12, the conference in which Texas Tech resides in, policy disallows coaches from complaining about the officiating. Leach received a fine for the incident.
“Am I condemning the crew? Hell yeah I’m condemning the crew.”
Leach was suspended before his team’s appearance in the Alamo Bowl as he was under investigation of the possible maltreatment of one of his players. Reportedly, Leach isolated Adam James in an electrical closet because James would not practice with a concussion. Two days later, Leach was fired.
Leach refuted James's claims, who later admitted that he placed himself in the closet, absolving Leach of the blame.
Several years later, leading into this current season, Leach was hired as the head coach of the Cougars. He was viewed as a possible saviour to a team that has not made it to a bowl game since 2003. Leach’s offense and tutelage of quarterbacks Jeff Tuel, a senior, and Connor Halliday, a redshirt sophomore, was seen by many fans as an instant path to a bowl game.
The season has not gone as many fans had hoped. The team finished 3-9 with only a single win in-conference. The failure to meet expectations hasn’t even been the main story for the Cougars. The off-field controversy has dominated headlines.
Banning the use of Twitter was the first divisive move Leach made for his football team. When asked why, Leach responded with, “Because I decided to. That’s what prompted that.” Bill Moos, the athletic director at Washington State backs him up on the issue, stating that “vulgar” tweets from athletes were poor representations of WSU.
The eccentric Leach used unconventional tactics, nothing new to him, in an attempt to fire up his team last month. He specifically called out his seniors. The coach compared some of his seniors to “zombies” and “empty corpses.”
“Some of them have had kind of this zombie-like, go through the motions, everything is like how it’s always been, that’s how it’ll always be. Some of them quite honestly have an empty-corpse quality. That’s not pleasant to say or pleasant to think about, but that’s a fact,” said Leach.
Certainly not content to relate his supposed team leaders to rotting flesh, Leach had more choice words after Washington State’s blowout loss to Utah. His offensive linemen struggled to block the defensive line of Utah, and Leach let his big uglies –a more appropriate group to compare to zombies– hear it.
“Our five couldn’t whip their two. Sometimes they only brought two (on a pass rush) … [Which] means, if five of our guys went in an alley and got in a fight with two of theirs, we would have gotten massacred. That’s just ridiculously inexcusable.
“It was one of the most heartless efforts up front I’ve seen, and the defensive line wasn’t any better.”
Not all of the blame was heaped onto the linemen however, as Leach turned some of the criticism around onto the coaching staff, which includes himself. “Our coaches, starting with me and starting with my assistants, we have to be able to reach our players and get a good effort. Square one is a good effort and effort was horrible.”
The lowest point of the season came against Colorado. Washington State looked poised to defeat the lowly Buffaloes until they gave up three touchdowns in the final seven minutes to fall 35-34, giving Colorado their only victory of the season.
Putting yet another nail in the coffin for the miserable season Washington State football fans have had to endure was the suspension of star wide receiver Marquess Wilson. Wilson reportedly walked out on team conditioning drills. Washington State’s all-time leader in receiving yards was dropped to the second string due to his head coach’s disdain of Wilson’s practice habits.
Wilson spoke with Moos, and while there was still opportunity for Wilson to return to the team, should Leach had permitted it. He never re-joined the team.
Instead Wilson put out a statement alleging abuse by the coaching staff. He said in a letter to Visalia Times-Delta, “I believe coaches have a chance to mold players, to shape men, to create greatness. However, the new regime of coaches has preferred to belittle, intimidate and humiliate us.”
He also says in the letter that this has endured all season. “It is not ‘tough love’. It is abuse.”
Washington State’s investigation of the claims has turned up no evidence of coaching abuse taking place.
The season finished with a bright spot for Leach and his Cougars however. They took the field in Pullman for the final game of their season, already assured a losing season, meaning no post-season bowl game. Their final game was the Apple Cup, matched up against their cross-state rivals, the Washington Huskies.
The annual matchup featured a surging Washington team ranked 25th in the country facing the struggling Cougars. In the Apple Cup, anything can happen, and anything did happen.
Tuel and his Cougars trailed 28-10 entering the fourth quarter. Things looked bleak, but Tuel led a 55-yard touchdown drive to pull his team within 11. Three plays later, Tuel had the ball back in his hands courtesy of a Keith Price fumble.
Within two minutes the score was 28-25 in favour of Washington, but with all momentum on the side of their opponent, the Cougars. After a stalled Washington drive, Washington State drove. They drove down the field to the Washington 28 where kicker Andrew Furney drilled a 45-yard field goal with 1:59 remaining.
Washington failed to score, with Travis Coons missing a field goal as time expired, sending the game into overtime. The Cougars intercepted an attempted Keith Price shovel pass and Furney hit another field goal to win it, with the fans storming the field.
Leach has since been linked to a head coaching position at North Carolina State, which he denies, and says that he is very happy at Washington State. After a season full of turmoil, Leach has told recruits that he plans on staying at the school that gave him another chance. It gave him a chance despite controversy.
Washington State knew the eccentricity they brought in to coach their football team would create headlines, for better or worse. The man known as Mike Leach has done exactly that. He did what all expected of him off the field. On the field the story is different, except for one night.