UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. – No longer is it true that Mike Leach has yet to win anything as Washington State’s head football coach.
It will be more than a month before the Cougars actually play a game. But Leach was the undisputed champion of Tuesday’s Pac-12 media day, breaking up a fairly mundane parade of standard preseason questions and answers by introducing his character and unique style of conversation to the gathered reporters inside the Gibson Amphitheater at Universal Studios.
The location was evidence enough of the Pac-12’s attempt to glitz this event up a bit. There are changes to introduce, after all. Including Leach, the conference has four new head coaches this season. The Pac-12 Networks will launch in August. Big-time money from television contracts is on the way.
Still, Leach managed to steal the show, drawing laughs from reporters by answering questions – with serious, thoughtful consideration – about such topics as who his preferred hunting partner would be among the Pac-12 head coaches (he settled on Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, citing his familiarity with the mountainous Salt Lake City region) and which former war generals compare most favorably to quarterback Jeff Tuel and linebacker Travis Long (Stonewall Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant, respectively), the two players who accompanied Leach in representing WSU.
That the questions were even asked is an indication of Leach’s growing celebrity: the other three newcomers – Jim Mora of UCLA, Rich Rodriguez of Arizona and Todd Graham of Arizona State – responded to typical questions about installing their offenses, building a winning atmosphere and such.
Leach? Bear hunting. War history. And a comment about how nearly every conference touts the merits of its member schools, and “the Big East would, but that argument didn’t get quite the credibility.”
When a reporter mistakenly referred to Leach as “coach Price,” an obvious slip of the tongue, Leach took the microphone and softened the awkwardness by stating that he would answer “on behalf of coach Price.”
Tuel himself said that while he appreciates the efforts of the previous coaching staff to rebuild the program, the attention on his school is something that wouldn’t have been possible before Leach’s hire.
“… Coach (Paul) Wulff was doing such a great job of recruiting (after) the program was at such a low,” Tuel said. “I think coach Leach would tip his cap to some of the recruiting he did. What this new coaching staff has done with this program is, I think, safe to say something the old coaching staff wouldn’t have done. The level of confidence that they bring to this program and the level excitement they bring to this university is tremendous.”
There is, of course, work to be done. WSU was picked by the media to finish fifth in the North division, ahead of Oregon State and behind Oregon, Stanford, Washington and California, in order. (USC was the overwhelming – and unsurprising – pick to win the conference championship, taking 102 of the 123 votes.)
That’s an upgrade from last season, when the Cougars were picked – and finished – last. But it’s also proof that Leach’s presence alone hasn’t convinced many that considerable progress is likely this season.
Not yet, anyway.
“You worry about what we can control,” Leach said. “We can control our ability to improve, we can control how hard we work. We can control how hard we focus. I worry about that. That’s all I can really control.
“Expectations? Nobody expects more out of us than we do out of ourselves. I think with coaches and players it’s more meaningful for us to do the best we can and manifest our actions the best we can.”