When Mike Price was the head football coach at Washington State University, he used to conduct an annual clinic on the one-back offense that served him and the Cougars so well.
Among the many assistants who made their way to Pullman to pick Price’s brain during the late 1990s was Mike Leach, who was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Hal Mumme at Kentucky at the time and tutoring a sophomore quarterback named Tim Couch.
Price was impressed with Leach from the onset of their relationship, and was quick to praise WSU athletic director Bill Moos for luring the 50-year-old Leach out of his brief hiatus from coaching earlier this week to replace Paul Wulff as the Cougars’ head coach.
“I love him, he’s a great guy,” Price said during a phone interview from El Paso, Texas, where he has spent the last eight years as the head coach at UTEP. “I’m really disappointed they didn’t give Paul one more year, because I felt like they were really close in a lot of games this year.
“But Mike Leach is a really good get for Washington State, and Washington State is a really good job for Mike Leach.”
Few head coaches understand what it takes to make it work in Pullman better than Price, who put together three 10-win seasons during his 13-year run at WSU, leading the Cougars to five bowl appearances.
Price, who had his contract at UTEP extended for another year on Thursday, is convinced Leach – even with the high national profile he developed at Texas Tech, where he took the Red Raiders to 10 bowl games in 10 years – is a perfect fit for the small city tucked between the rolling wheat fields of the Palouse.
“No way, absolutely no way,” Price said, when asked if Leach’s ego might be too large for Pullman and WSU. “I’m telling you, he’s a character – a lot of fun, and a bit off the wall – but he’ll fit like a glove in Pullman.
“He’s a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy. He’s been around and done it at bigger places, but he’ll enjoy the heck out of Pullman, and Pullman will enjoy the heck out of him.”
One of the things that should play well in front of WSU fans, according to Price and a couple of defensive coordinators who have tried to slow it down, is Leach’s spread passing game, which was the most productive in the nation during six of his 10 season in Lubbock.
“Having played against it, it’s one of the toughest offenses to prepare for,” said Bill Young, who is in his third season as the defensive coordinator at Big 12 Conference power Oklahoma State, and also spent five years (2002-2007) matching wits with Leach as the defensive coordinator at Kansas.
“It stretches you from sideline to sideline, and from goal line to goal line. And it really puts a lot of pressure on your cornerbacks, because they run vertical routes all day long and by the fourth quarter your DBs are gassed and ready to pass out.”
Eastern Washington’s John Graham made his debut as an NCAA Division I defensive coordinator against Leach’s Texas Tech offense in the Eagles’ 2008 season opener.
“Yeah, that was a lot of fun,” Graham recalled of Eastern’s 49-24 loss, in which Red Raiders quarterback Graham Harrell threw for 536 passing yards and two touchdowns. “They make you defend the whole field and really, really spread you out – not just with their receivers, but with their offensive line, as well.
“I was amazed how big the splits were on their O-line. Basically, they’re taking your defensive ends out of the game by lining them up outside (of the tackles), and then they get in the shotgun and get rid of the ball in hurry, which makes it really hard to get to the quarterback.”
Tech had Michael Crabtree, a first-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers in the 2009 NFL draft, at wideout against Eastern. While the all-American receiver caught nine passes for 73 yards and a touchdown, it was teammates Detron Lewis and Eric Morris who gashed Graham’s secondary by combining for 327 yards on 18 catches.
“We did a pretty good job on Crabtree,” Graham said. “What hurt us was their slot receivers catching the ball in space, and our linebackers trying to chase them down. Five- and 6-yard passes were turning into 15- or 20-yard gains, which is the way that offense works.”
Graham said he never expected to have to deal with Leach’s high-octane offense again. But as scheduling luck would have it, Eastern’s second game next fall will be against Washington State in Pullman on Sept. 8.
“I think he’ll be just like he was at Tech, honestly,” Graham said in looking ahead to that early-season showdown. “The strength of WSU’s offense is their quarterbacks (Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday), and they’ve got that one really good receiver (Marguess Wilson), so I think he’s going to take full advantage of that and try to spread things out and do what he’s always done.”
Price’s UTEP team lost to Texas Tech 38-35 in El Paso in 2006 and 45-31 in Lubbock in 2007.
“It was always exciting,” he said of coaching against Leach. “Mike is like a mad scientist, and he’s going to do it his way. Sometimes you might think, ‘What is he doing?’ ” but, believe me, there’s a reason for everything he does.
“He’s little off-beat, because he marches to a different drummer, but that’s the way he wants to be. The Washington State fans should really be fired up. They’re going to love him.”
Young echoed those sentiments.
“I think it was a great hire for Washington State,” he said. “I have so much respect for Coach Leach and the job he did at Tech, and there’s no question his offense will be very entertaining for the fans.
“It’s similar to the offense we run (at Oklahoma State), and we’ve got some great wideouts that make it work. And I’m sure Washington State, if they don’t have some now, will get some real soon just because of the coaching staff that’s coming in there and everybody knowing how much fun it is to play in that style of offense.”