PULLMAN — When Washington State athletic director Bill Moos took stock of the football program after hiring Mike Leach in 2011, he thought that in three years the Cougars would be primed for a breakthrough season.
The Cougars turned the corner a year ahead of schedule by qualifying for a bowl game last season, but instead of adding to that success in 2014 the Cougars finished with a 3-9 record.
But Moos says the program is still building in the right direction.
“We stumbled out of the chute with Rutgers and Nevada, and then we had the slump in the middle, not unlike a year ago. Then we lose the No. 1 passer in the country (quarterback Connor Halliday) with basically four games left,” Moos said. “Those aren’t excuses, those things happen, but when I look at the program we’re still in the process of building it. We’ve made all the strides necessary in facilities, scheduling and certainly in recruiting.”
Moos said he is disappointed but not frustrated with the football team’s backslide this year, because he believes that the overall health and structure of the program is getting consistently better, and cited WSU’s three sold-out home games against Arizona, Oregon and Washington as evidence of increased fan interest.
The Cougars averaged 30,794 fans at games at Martin Stadium, the best average attendance since 2006. WSU filled 93.5 percent of its stadium capacity this season, fourth-best among Pac-12 schools.
One indication that the program is not entirely healthy, however, is the fact that three assistant coaches were fired either during or immediately following the season.
Only three members of Leach’s original WSU coaching staff remain, but Moos said he believes that the Cougars have consistently upgraded when hiring new assistants.
“Look at David Yost, who was an offensive coordinator at Missouri, replacing what was basically a first-year coach (Eric Morris),” Moos said. “(Linebackers coach) Ken Wilson, who has been a tremendous addition and is a super recruiter, so there are a lot of people that would like to be a part of this program and that’s why I think we’re getting a lot of interest in the open positions here.”
The Cougars had a young team this season – particularly in the defensive secondary, where five freshmen started at various points this season. Out of 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams the Cougars fielded the nation’s No. 115 scoring defense, which resulted in the dismissal of defensive coordinator Mike Breske and outside linebackers coach Paul Volero.
Moos said he believes Leach would like to hire their replacements sooner, rather than later, while keeping in mind that some attractive candidates may not become available until after bowl season or as other coaches move to various open positions.
But so much youth means that the Cougars will have most of their starters back next season, a reason the athletic director believes the team is still trending upward.
“They got to develop earlier than is ideal on the field, but it in the end I think it will help them,” Leach said after the Apple Cup. “I think the experience will help them a lot. It’s a rough start but I think playing a bunch as freshmen, that’s what recruits all say they want, so they got it.”
WSU also struggled on special teams, allowing three punt return touchdowns and three scores on kickoff returns. Moos said he is unsure whether Leach will hire a new special-teams coordinator.
Eric Mele served as the interim special-teams coordinator following Eric Russell’s dismissal midseason.
Every year Moos has the option of rolling over a year in Leach’s contract so that it remains at five years. Doing so resets the buyout either party would have to pay in the event that they choose to terminate the agreement.
Moos has exercised the rollover provision after every season since Leach came to WSU and intends to do so again this year.
“This wasn’t going to be a quick fix,” Moos said. “It’s unfortunate that we didn’t get more wins this year but we’re going to learn from it, flush it, and go forward. The answer isn’t making changes every three or four years. When you feel you’ve got a good coach and the pieces are there, the facilities are there, we’ve got to do everything we can to establish stability and consistency here.”
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