PULLMAN – Media encounters with Mike Leach are usually the last thing from predictable, but it was almost certain the Washington State coach would have to address three topics in each of his postpractice interviews, radio shows and conference calls this week leading up to the season opener at Wyoming.
One, he’d be pressed to name a starting quarterback (a spoiler: he didn’t). Two, he’d be questioned about the Cowboys’ stifling defense and three, he’d be implored to relive his childhood in Cody, Wyoming, another all-too-obvious storyline as the coach returns to his home state Saturday to open up year No. 7 with the Cougars (12:30 p.m. PDT at War Memorial Stadium, CBSSN).
The quarterback question got old quickly and a coach can only shower so much praise on his opponent before that too starts becoming monotonous. But hashing out the details of his childhood, and sharing some old stories along the way? Memory lane could keep Leach entertained for hours.
By this point, the WSU coach has been thoroughly prodded about his return to Wyoming, but Leach is quick to warn anyone who may be unfamiliar with the state map that Cody and Laramie aren’t exactly in bordering towns.
“From where I grew up it’s nearly 300 miles,” Leach said. “It’s on the other side of the state.”
But the WSU coach still has some definite ties to Laramie. A number of friends and acquaintances from his adolescent years left Cody to attend college at the state’s largest public institution. Some will be in the crowd Saturday.
And then there was the game.
The 1976 Wyoming AA State high school football championship was played on a frosty Saturday in Cody, on Nov. 13, between Leach’s Cody Broncs and the Laramie Plainsmen.
Just how frosty? There may be a discrepancy.
A Casper Star-Tribune article published the next day reports “the title game was played in 34-degree temperature with only a slight wind.”
Bonkers, Leach said.
“It was a bitter cold day,” he recalled after a practice in Pullman earlier this week. “Like, I don’t know, 10 degrees.”
In the 1970s, a coal and oil boom led to major economic growth for the state as an entity, but it also widened the gap between Wyoming’s largest and smallest public schools, therefore leaving high school athletic classifications fairly unbalanced.
Laramie was a Class AA power that prospered from the economic upswing. Relatively, Cody was a minnow that had gone in the opposite direction.
“We were the smallest school in the biggest classification,” said Leach, a sophomore in the fall of 1976.
Cody’s coach was John McDougall, an accomplished play-caller who’d pick up more than 150 wins by the time his career was over. But the Broncs seemed to be overmatched there, too. On the other sideline, 33rd-year Laramie coach John Deti had won more games than any other high school coach in the country and was seeking No. 208 against the Broncos in the ’76 title game.
“And it was his last game,” Leach said.
The WSU coach and Air Raid offense co-founder might cringe if he looked back at the box score from the title tilt. In an era of grind-it-out football, the Broncs and Plainsmen recorded 107 rushes for 286 yards. Compare that to the 12 passes that were thrown, for a whopping 23 yards.
Leach, a wide receiver and occasional outside linebacker for the Broncs, was resorted to special teams work in his second varsity year. He watched the heavily favored Plainsmen take an early lead, then expand it to 20-8 at halftime.
But a spirited locker room message from McDougall paid dividends in the third quarter.
“I told the kids they had too much pride to have their heads down,” McDougall said, relaying his words to the Billings Gazette afterward. “I told them to go out, have fun and play football.”
Cody had wiped out the deficit by the end of the third quarter, outscoring Laramie 12-0. The teams traded goose eggs in the fourth to set up overtime. They matched each other in the first frame and again in the second to make it 34-34 heading into the third OT.
The Plainsmen scored first, on a 1-yard blast from lead tailback Mike Newman, but the 2-point conversion failed, opening a door for the Broncs.
How was the game won? That’s a good trivia question for Leach, now 42 years removed from that bone-chilling night in November ’76.
“There’s a high probability that Rob Russell ran off tackle and scored,” he said. “There’s a high probability of that. He was our running back, he was one of the better ones in the state and there’s a reasonably high probability that was the case.”
Close. A 2-yard touchdown from Russell is what evened things up in the second overtime period. Cody’s fullback threw the winning punch.
Dennis Gaub of the Gazette detailed the sequence: “Just when it seemed the place couldn’t stand any more, Cody’s Kevin Inbody spun a yard and a half, Rob Russell kicked the all-important extra point, and the Broncs ruled Wyoming’s large schools.”
41-40 Cody in triple-OT.
“Surreptitiously, perhaps, the Cody Broncs must be pinching themselves, asking if their Wyoming Class AA football championship is for real,” Gaub wrote. “It’s not that the Broncs’ defeat of perennial champ Laramie Saturday was a fluke. Cody deserved it.”
The following week, Leach and his teammates raced to the store to pick up copies of Sports Illustrated, which featured a blurb from their upset win – “a big deal back then,” Leach assured. The Broncs returned to the state title game the following year, only to lose 34-22 to Cheyenne Central.
But the ’76 championship feat remains a precious memory for a man whose hard drive is certainly not short on memorable football games.
“We were the littlest school,” he said. “So it was quite an achievement.”
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