WSU’s building blocks of success

Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach builds his football team amidst the construction workers who are also building a football program. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Moos, Leach have process designed to bring in the talent

PULLMAN – If the success of college football programs hinged on the recruitment of parents, Washington State would have long ago shucked its reputation as one of the Pac-12’s little guys.

Oh, Bill Moos remembers, the parents have never been the issue. In the early days of Moos’ tenure as athletic director (all the way back in 2010), the parents would come here with their kid, usually a 17-year-old prospective student-athlete trying to decide where he’s going to play football for the next four or five years, and WSU’s athletic director had no problem selling mom and dad on this place.

The safety. The familial bond with the rest of the student body. The crime, and how there isn’t any.

But the kids – “the SportsCenter generation,” as Moos has dubbed them – don’t want to hear about that stuff.

“The prospect’s looking around going, ‘that’s your stadium?’” Moos said. “‘Where’s the locker room? Where’s your indoor practice facility? Show me your weight room.’”

The gist is this: while a scant few among the thousands of players occupying Division-1 football rosters this season will ever sniff the NFL, the goal for college players remains to find a school that best allows them a chance to play on Sundays.

And, as Moos says, “if we’re not recruiting the caliber of athlete that could eventually be in the NFL, then we’re going to have trouble competing in the Pac-12.”

So the competition begins not on the football field, but with blueprints and renderings and fact-gathering missions to the locations of college football’s most polished palaces.

That’s why just beyond the west end of Martin Stadium sit large beams, myriad supplies, a really, really big crane and a bunch of construction workers welding and cranking and bolting everything into place, and it is there the Cougars plan to most efficiently eliminate their competitive disadvantage with the erection of a $61 million football operations building, the latest and perhaps most crucial addition to a program trying its damnedest to step into college football’s 21st century.

By May of 2014, Moos won’t have to answer those where’s-all-the-shiny-stuff questions from recruits.

“They’re going to see all those things, and it’s going to be impressive,” Moos said. “And I’d put it up against anybody’s.”

This coming from a guy who worked at Oregon.

• • •

Mike Leach, for the most part, does not give the impression that he is the kind of person enamored with state-of-the-art this or high-tech that. So it is telling that there is no greater supporter of WSU’s facility binge than the head coach, who is about as excited about the Cougars’ future football home as he is about anything.

That’s because, as Leach said, “our facility’s about to be the best, or one of the best, in the conference. And currently we’re the worst, you know? That’s just a fact.”

Other than the recruiting edge, it’s the consolidation that appeals to Leach most. As it is now, the coaches’ offices are scattered about the Bohler athletic complex, and Leach says much of his off-field interaction with players occurs in the hallway.

“Even most of the staff, we can see each other whenever we want, but you either call or you walk down there and get them,” Leach said. “It’s not quite the flow where you just run across each other that you’d like.”

Leach has done this before. He says “it’s fair to say” that when he arrived at Texas Tech in 2000, the football facilities there were worse than any in the Big 12, “and if they weren’t the worst, they were at least in the bottom three.”

So they renovated the stadium and added field turf. They sought Leach’s input on a new football training facility. And eventually, TTU had a serviceable if not spectacular home for its football program.

“Did we ever equal Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Nebraska?” Leach said. “No. But they were good enough to get your job done.”

Nobody in WSU’s administration wants visitors to deem their new building “good enough” once it’s finished. The goal is clearly beyond that. Because even if the Cougars will never have pockets as deep as Oregon or Southern California or Washington, the money generated by the Pac-12’s television contracts – and the revenue produced by ticket sales in the new premium seating structure at Martin Stadium – will at least afford them a chance to level the playing field.

Moos likes to remind folks that without money brought in by the Pac-12 Networks and its TV partners, WSU could never have afforded to pay a coach like Leach upwards of $2 million per season. The same can be said for the football ops building: the $46 million in bonds secured by the school to help fund the project will be paid solely with Pac-12 media-related funds.

“We had some catching up to do, and I think we’re doing a pretty good job of it,” Moos said. “You look around the conference right now, there’s over a billion dollars worth of facility enhancements, primarily focused on football. If we didn’t invest when we did, it was my feeling we would have been left in the dust.”

• • •

But can they ever truly catch up? Oregon just unveiled its newest Nike-funded venture, a majestic overindulgence named the Football Performance Center that even Bruce Wayne might say is a bit much (biometric thumbprints allow access to the locker room). Washington is polishing its $250 million renovation of Husky Stadium, complete with suites, new locker rooms and a football operations center (it looks into the stadium, toward the water). USC a year ago opened the McKay Center, a 110,000-square foot home for the football program that includes an academic center and other amenities for all of the Trojans’ sports teams. It cost $70 million. California moved back into Memorial Stadium last season after a healthy renovation. Arizona spent $72 million on a stadium expansion that included the construction of the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility.

The Cougars are insistent their football operations building will measure up to any. Early in his tenure as athletic director, Moos, associate athletic director John Johnson, a team of designers and a contractor went on a tour of some of the nation’s top-notch football facilities – Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Nebraska, Oklahoma State and LSU – and cribbed what they felt were the best features from each stop.

They first applied those ideas to the premium seating and press box structure on the south side of Martin Stadium, a project that came in under budget at $65 million and opened last season. Visitors to the new football operations building will see similar touches. It will be five stories high and will house new locker rooms, coaches’ offices, a football-only weight room, the WSU hall of fame, barber chairs, dining areas, televisions and as much new-car-smell as one can handle.

Johnson, an affable veteran of this business, sat in his office last week, flipped through a multi-hundred page construction plan and beamed as he spoke of the future. He acted as point-man on these projects, continuing his legacy of construction that began during stints as athletic director at Eastern Washington and Weber State. Johnson might be proudest of the way the new facility will integrate the rest of campus: a staircase will take students past the building as they walk to class, and the walkway outside the window looking into the hall of fame will serve as the main thoroughfare between the Compton Union Building and the north side of campus.

“It’s not every stadium that gives roughly a third of its seating to our students,” Johnson said. “Because that’s part of Washington State’s culture. You talk about facilities and building them. You want to make sure it fits within the culture of our campus and our program. And I think we’ve done that with our design as we go into construction.”

(Here, we have an example of WSU maintaining its innocence. In contrast: the renovation of Washington’s stadium forced the student section from its old location – between the 20-yard lines – to the end zone. Culture? What culture?)

• • •

It will take more than a fancy new building to turn a 3-9 team into a contender, and Moos knows that, and Leach knows that, and it might take a minute or two before the recruiting benefits are felt in a truly impactful way.

Leach seems to be pleased with the work the Cougars have put forth in preseason camp. Cohesion will be the key to progress for a team that begins the season with road games at Auburn and USC. Participating parties swear the offensive line (which allowed 57 sacks last season) and the running game (which was the worst in the country by any objective measure) have improved significantly, and fourth-year junior quarterback Connor Halliday appears to have a more mature grasp of the Air Raid offense than he did during the best-forgotten season of 2012.

Or maybe they shouldn’t forget it. At least not how it ended, that 31-28 overtime victory in the Apple Cup you know will be referenced as the turning point if Leach gets thing off the ground.

“The thing we did in the Apple Cup was realize the value of finishing a game,” Leach said. “We had all kinds of ups and downs and hardships and all that. But you just keep plugging away, you worry about winning your next individual battle and see where it takes you, and look at the scoreboard at the end of the thing, which I think was a huge lesson for us. Finish the game. Win your individual battles.”

For too much of last season, Leach said, “we were a team that was awfully quick to worry about final results rather than the process to get there, and the process to get there is important, because if that’s not what’s important, then it’s pretty tough for all this to be worthwhile. You spend a lot more time on the process than you do the destination, and once you hit that, there’s going to be another destination. You better enjoy the journey to get there and what it takes to do that.”

These days, it takes more than bench-press repetitions, wind sprints and film study. The journey is now marked by building supplies, concrete and, for the 1-percenters in Eugene, the finest hand-woven doo-dads.

Leach is right: there is no progress without process. It’s just that the process now begins long before the 17-year-olds – or their parents – ever step on campus.

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