ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – When Washington State athletic director Bill Moos hired Mike Leach in November of 2011, he hoped that by 2014 the Cougars would be in position to perennially play in bowl games while occasionally winning eight or nine games.
Sitting at 6-6 with a chance to win a seventh in Saturday’s New Mexico Bowl, Leach’s Cougars are satisfying Moos’ time line just fine.
“I felt before this season that we were going to be better but I thought we had a tough schedule,” Moos said. “As it turned out, we sure did – the second toughest in the country. The facilities weren’t completely done yet so I looked at 2014 as the year that we could legitimately feel like we could compete with all schools in the conference.”
Moos added that more than WSU’s progress on scoreboards, doubling the number of wins (three) from Leach’s first season, he is impressed by the quality of athletes in the program.
“We were pretty thin in some areas and still are a bit,” Moos said. “But I’m impressed with how the players are developing and I’m every bit as impressed if not more with regards to the recruiting classes they’re putting together.”
One person who has been impressed with the program’s rapid improvement under Leach is former WSU head coach Jim Walden, who guided the Cougars to their first bowl game in more than 50 years in 1981.
While Walden says that it is regrettable that former coach Paul Wulff wasn’t given an extra season to turn the WSU program around, he also believes that Leach has done well during his two years in charge.
“The thing that’s impressed me the most this year is the coaching of Connor Halliday and the defense,” Walden said. “I just felt like they kept getting better and better as the season progressed.”
Walden added that it’s important not to overexert the team with the schedule, and that the current college football format rewards teams for scheduling teams that are easily beatable. Nearly every metric used to rate strength of schedule lists WSU as having one of the most difficult slates in the country.
Still, the Cougars benefitted from games against Idaho (1-11), Cal (1-11) and FCS school Southern Utah.
“Let’s face it, three of the six wins, who wouldn’t beat those three teams?” Walden asked. “… You’ll hear everyone say they went 6-6, you won’t tell a soul who the six were.”
As for Leach, he said that he has simple benchmarks for gauging the team’s success. The time line for success, according to Leach is measured by whether or not the Cougars maintain an upward trajectory.
“Get better every day, improve every day, which I think we have, for the most part,” said Leach, when asked if the team’s improvement was ahead of schedule. “We’ve got a lot of young guys more experienced and they’re progressing as we speak.”