PULLMAN – The band played, the fans cheered, the cameras clicked.
Mike Leach stood on the dais in the Compton Union Building’s Senior Ballroom on Tuesday afternoon, taking it all in.
The crowd, estimated at 1,300 in the room, included another 300 to 400 watching on a video feed a floor below.
The Washington State uniform with his name on the back displayed No. 1.
Standing next to him was his wife, Sharon, and two of his four children, Cody and Kierstan.
The Cougars’ 32nd football coach, hired less than a week ago, took the microphone and told the WSU faithful what they wanted to hear.
“People ask me, ‘Why Washington State?’ Once I get past, in the back of mind, thinking, ‘Well, that’s a stupid question,’ then I immediately blurt out the very obvious answers,” he said as the crowd roared. “The commitment to excellence in every phase of the university, the excitement around the community, and the fact that you can win here, and win big, I believe.”
Leach, the former Texas Tech mentor who won 84 games in 10 years before leaving Lubbock in 2009 following an incident involving a player, Adam James, his father and ESPN analyst, Craig, contentious contract negotiations and lawsuits, was back in the coaching game at Washington State.
He couldn’t be happier.
“I just thought it was an incredible opportunity,” said Leach, who for the two years he’s been out of coaching has done television commentating, radio work and lots of bike riding in Key West, Fla.
That opportunity knocked last month when Leach met quietly with WSU athletic director Bill Moos – riding his bike the 4 miles from one end of the island to the other for the early-morning visit – and began the process that culminated in his introduction.
“I came back to Washington State to go to the Rose Bowl,” said Moos, the former Cougars player and administrator who became athletic director 18 months ago. “And that’s where we’re going to go. And we’re going to have a lot of fun along the way.”
If that’s a lot of pressure to put on a coach, even one who agreed to a five-year, $11.25 million contract, it doesn’t seem to bother Leach, architect of one of college football’s most prolific passing schemes.
“He won’t accept that they can’t win,” said Leach’s first WSU hire, chief of staff David Emerick, who worked with him in Kentucky and Texas Tech. “That’s not (the way its been) anywhere he’s ever been. He’s always won. It’s just not an option to lose.”
“I’m excited about the pieces here,” Leach said of a Cougars team that was 4-8 last season and 9-40 in immediate predecessor Paul Wulff’s four-year stint. “A lot of times energy is what connects people and there’s a lot of energy here.”
That energy was evident in the CUB ballroom, not more than a couple of long passes away from the early stages of the $80 million Martin Stadium construction project, whose main focus is to channel that energy into increased revenue for the athletic department.
After the almost 20-minute formal introduction, Leach met with the media for another half hour, answering questions about recruiting, his staff, returning players and even his exit from Texas Tech. When that was done, there were still people waiting around to have their picture taken with him.
It was all part of the fervor Leach said he perceived about WSU long before Moos talked with him about the job. As evidence, Leach, who has a law degree from Pepperdine University, cited a Saturday morning tradition.
“The flag-waving they have here at Washington State, just the thought of it’s incredible,” he said. “The notion they are at every ‘GameDay’ to make sure they are represented, not just there, but front and center.”
That fan base made it clear it hungers for a winner and Leach said he felt at least some of the pieces were in place to build from.
Starting with quarterbacks Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday.
“Obviously, they can improve, but they’re really good starting points as far as quarterbacks,” he said. “Sometimes you go to a place and there’s nobody that looks like a quarterback. Those two guys look like quarterbacks.”
But he also recognizes a need for more players who fit his system.
“The home state is always the most important,” he said of recruiting. “You certainly don’t want to fly over the top of somebody who could potentially play for you.”
He expects to keep the recruiting emphasis on California, both the northern and, more predominately, southern part. And he wants to keep a connection with Hawaii, which Wulff’’s staff mined recently.
That staff earned Leach’s praise, but not any job offers.
“They’re quality guys and I certainly wish them the best,” he said. “But I do believe there will be a lot of changes if not complete (change).
“Coaches are a team just like players are a team. How the team works together is the most important consideration.”
Leach said he will head back home this morning for a few days and return to Pullman later in the week. He wants to get on the road and start selling WSU with the same pitch he bought into.
“It just seems like a program that’s got some enthusiasm around it,” he said.
It does now.