PULLMAN – The best way to win the press conference is to make it a coronation, although they stopped short of having an old Albion farmer anoint Mike Leach with Hoelon.
Four years ago, Washington State introduced Paul Wulff as head football coach in a cramped meeting room, as old Cougars teammates made exasperated defenses of the hire and the athletic director sheepishly revealed a $600,000 annual salary, or what Oregon spends on shower fixtures in the locker room.
The presser, like most of the games that followed, did not go into the “W” column.
At high noon Tuesday, the Cougs introduced his successor, Leach – the acclaimed football savant from Margaritaville and late of Texas Tech, where he was fired for being too good at contract negotiations and crossing an ESPN gasbag with a kid on the team. For this occasion, they found the biggest ballroom on campus, closed the doors after 1,300 streamed in and struck up the band, barely resisting the temptation to rename the stadium after him. And as for Leach’s $2.25 million wage, not even the many students on hand flinched despite the prospect of their own 16 percent tuition increase next year.
Nor did he.
“I don’t worry about it at all,” Leach said, when asked his take on those salary perceptions. “They print it in the paper every six months so you kind of get used to it.”
The Cougs’ maiden voyage on Leach’s brigantine was everything they could have imagined. If he retreated into mostly name-rank-and-serial-number when the media closed in later, on the dais he was in turn wry, bold and just-plain-folks. To everyone’s delight, he did a few minutes on his pirate fascination. He triggered major applause by suggesting that “Why Washington State?” is “a stupid question.” He uttered variations on the word “excited” every other breath, even suggesting at one point that “the excitement around the community” was part of the appeal of the job.
Of course, lack of excitement around the community was pretty much the reason the job was open.
Though he hardly needed to win anyone over, Leach accomplished it when asked to put a timetable to his expectations.
“I tend to have one-day plans,” he said, “which is win one game a week.”
That was at least slightly more conservative than the vice president handling the intros, who already has the 2012 Cougs 3-0.
“It feels like we’re starting in a new direction,” safety Tyree Toomer said, “and it’s a good one, like he’ll take this program to the top and keep it there for a while.”
Ah, the magic words – a while. Having fired an avowed stayer in Wulff, the skeptics fret that a national figure like Leach would return Wazzu to the hit-and-run bad old days of coaching churn. He tried to allay those fears, too.
“It’s just like when I was at Texas Tech,” he said. “We won 29 games the last three years. I wasn’t in a hurry to go anywhere. I’m excited to be here and I’m excited to stay here.”
And then he brought down the velvet hammer.
“We’re off to a great start building things, but none of that happens without the partnership of the fans and people in the stands. It can’t just be done by players and coaches. When the fans and university share in the whole experience is where it’s more rewarding.”
In other words, if he looks up into the seats and sees 16,000 of them filled in November, well, it’s not going to be so rewarding.
Moos has already delivered this message more bluntly, and there has been immediate response. More than 550 new season tickets have been sold, and he said upward of $300,000 in new donor money has been pledged since Leach’s hiring was revealed last week. The new coach’s pitch should be even more persuasive.
Now the sales job must be aimed at recruits, and while fans presume players will line up to be a part of Leach’s insanely prolific attack, surely there are families that haven’t read his book and only recall that he was fired at Tech – and the vague, and fabricated, detail of Craig James’ kid locked in the closet.
“I don’t think it will be a problem,” Leach insisted. “It’s well-documented that it’s a complete lie, and the other side is I think it’s going to be extremely clear that you earn the job on the field and your son is not going to be mistreated by having someone with a political advantage or some arm-twisting behind the scenes. Your son is not going to be victimized by that. He’s going to get what he earns.”
And will rival recruiters spin it differently?
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Anybody who’s played wants a fair shake. Consider this: What about players who don’t have fathers? Who’s campaigning for them?”
And yet for the moment, the response of the holdover Cougars who have endured the miserable slog of losing is the most important of all.
“There are some players still struggling,” Toomer acknowledged. “A lot of people are afraid of change, and that’s what’s coming. We just have to make sure we do our part adjusting to a new system.
“We have to be mature about what happens, acclimating quickly, knowing that it’s not going to be easy if we’re going to be successful – and dedicating yourself even more.”
See, that’s the thing about coronations – the guy in the big chair doesn’t have to win over anyone. It’s the Cougs – inside the program and out – who have to win over him.