Blanchette: Cougars decide to play for keeps
On Tuesday, Washington State – in the view of one of its old guard – lost its innocence.
On Wednesday, the Cougars lost their minds.
In the very best way, of course – providing you’re not wedded to a 1980s way of how Wazzu fits into the football jigsaw puzzle or bearish on how universities do their sweaty show business nowadays.
For really the first time since college athletics became a runaway train, the Cougars have scrambled on board. Barely 24 hours after he’d officially lopped Paul Wulff and his $600,000 annual salary off the payroll as head football coach, athletic director Bill Moos leveraged $11.25 million of the school’s share of the upcoming Pac-12 television bonanza to hire a replacement.
What did he get for his money?
A one-time national Coach of the Year, a winner with 10 bowl games in his resume, a character, ranter, innovator, Renaissance man, law school grad, best-selling author. If not the Most Interesting Coach in the World, then surely in the Top 10.
Also, plaintiff in a lawsuit against ESPN.
That’s right – the guy is suing the media monolith which, indirectly, made it possible for Washington State to afford him. You decide where that falls between irony and karma.
Bill Moos landed Mike Leach. With one cast.
The delirium that set in among Cougs on campus and across the state dominated conversations and overwhelmed social media, to say nothing of the Cougar Athletic Fund website, which reportedly experienced a high-volume crash for a brief time Wednesday. Short of letting a Kardashian design the next set of football uniforms, the school couldn’t have done anything more to purchase a sliver of national buzz than hire this mad scientist of throw-and-catch.
And as a bonus, Moos had this report to his constituency on the nature of the negotiations that made Leach a Cougar:
“A lot of schools wanted him,” Moos said. “He wanted us.”
For an A.D. who had never before hired a football coach in stops at Montana and Oregon before WSU, it certainly didn’t take Moos long to get the hang of it – or to toss the ball back to his boosters.
“I opened my checkbook for you,” he told Cougar fans. “It’s time for you to open your checkbook for me.”
They wanted something to get excited about after eight years of mediocre-to-worse football? Moos gave it to them. They wanted to feel relevant in the expanded Pac-12? Leach made Texas Tech relevant and then some in the Big 12, taking on the big brands of Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska from little old Lubbock. They wanted to be able to measure their school’s commitment to compete at least by comparing price tags? Leach’s $2.25-million-per-year salary figures to be no worse than No. 4 among Pac-12 coaches.
That WSU now has the wherewithal to pony up like that for a coach and get facility upgrades off the ground must be a source of some wistfulness for Wulff, the former Cougar lineman who did the dirty work of repairing a broken program but managed only nine wins in four seasons. It was Wulff who said his firing with a year remaining on his contract revealed that “the innocence of Wazzu has been lost” – a feeling no doubt reinforced by the revelation that Moos first met with Leach back on Nov. 16.
The niceties of wooing a coach while you still have one in your employ is a rather icky sidebar of athletics, but nobody plays it straight anymore, if they ever did. Does it skirt integrity? Yeah. Is it necessary? If you plan on getting who you want, absolutely.
“If we had a chance to get Mike Leach, I had to set the foundation for that before the season was over,” Moos said.
That Leach is available, of course, is due only to the most bizarre of circumstances – his 2009 firing at Texas Tech and the triggering claim that Leach had ordered player Adam James – the son of one of ESPN’s most reviled blowhards, Craig James – in a storage shed and an electrical closet after it was determined he couldn’t practice because of a concussion. Depositions and statements gathered later showed the incident to be considerably less than that, and the litigation continues.
But Leach, who has since worked as a commentator, has had other opportunities to coach. Why Pullman? Bruce Feldman, the word mechanic on Leach’s biography “Swing Your Sword,” had this theory Wednesday:
“Every great thing that has happened to him,” he told KJR Radio in Seattle, “has resulted from him taking a big chance.”
Speaking of taking big chances, this may be the biggest for Moos, who showed uncommon vision in the face of the common wisdom that said you can’t attract a marquee name to Pullman – that, indeed, the Cougars exist to prop up the rest of the Pac-12.
“I didn’t come here to be a maintenance man,” he said after Wulff’s firing. “We’ve got to get the program in a position to compete and we’ve got to do it pretty quick or we’re going to get left in the dust.”
On Wednesday, he walked his talk. He decided to shoot for the moon.
And hit the planet Krypton.