LOS ANGELES – Arizona football coach Rich Rodriguez did an admirable job warming up the crowd, calling out the Pac-12 hosts on their gaudy 100th anniversary décor and saying that “cold beer, lemonade or Bacardi and Coke” would be more refreshing than an experienced quarterback.
Rodriguez drew laughs and added life to a typically monotonous event that was noteworthy this year only for the lack of news it produced. But during the second day of Pac-12 Media Days he was still simply the undercard, and Washington State’s Mike Leach was the main event.
The Cougars coach has long filled a special role at these events, spinning stories to writers from other markets that are eager to draw out his screwball answers. Leach fielded questions he’s been answering for years about his opinions on the college football playoffs – he’s still in favor of a 64-team model, just like he was a decade ago. He still thinks it’s important to get your partner talking and eating on a first date, although at least he spiced up that canned response by recommending fishing for sturgeon as an alternative to sandwiches.
“It’s all right,” said Leach. “The alternative’s worse. You want to have people interested in your team and what you’re doing.”
He answered with humor – he’s a Hufflepuff, Harry Potter fans – and with fiction, saying that there are direct flights from Spokane to “nearly every area that exists in this conference.” He redirected as many questions as he could into opportunities to brag about WSU’s football facilities.
The answers were prototypical media day and they were quintessential Leach.
“It’s honestly just like having a normal conversation with the guy,” offensive lineman Joe Dahl said. “When he’s in team meetings, when he’s in position meetings, I know he’s the exact same way. He doesn’t act any different in front of the media than behind closed doors, I know that.”
But in the unserious setting, there was also pertinent information conveyed, and Leach spoke lucidly about why the Cougars finished with a 3-9 record last season and why he believes the team will be improved this season.
Defense was the obvious culprit in the majority of WSU’s losses a year ago, which led to the firing of defensive coordinator Mike Breske and outside linebackers coach Paul Volero.
“I thought we improved offensively,” Leach remarked.
When asked whether it was difficult personally to deal with such heavy staff turnover – special teams coordinator Eric Russell was let go midseason – Leach replied, “Well, yeah, but I thought defensively they were tugging against themselves. I think there were too many varieties of philosophy, so we had to end that. I don’t think that we had one message to the players because we steadily improved on offense and then we kind of stagnated on defense. It was tough because they’re good people and all that stuff but there’s a chemistry and cohesion that’s important.”
First-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will have to be able to produce a sharper, more cohesive unit immediately for the Cougars see much improvement. An ability to do so was the criteria used when hiring him, and Leach spoke to what he saw in the former Missouri safeties coach.
“He’s a clear-minded enough guy and that clarity transfers to the players, I think,” Leach said. “They’re decisive because he’s a decisive guy.”
With questions coming from different places on different topics, Leach addressed a laundry list of general questions about his team:
• Sean Krepsz, a freshman offensive lineman, has left WSU in pursuit of more playing time.
• Leach has been in contact with Connor Halliday, and said the former quarterback gave up football before the start of rookie minicamp with the Washington Redskins simply because he wanted his life to go in a different direction. That decision was a big surprise to his college coach and those that helped him prepare for the draft.
• He admitted that Luke Falk ended spring ahead of Peyton Bender in the competition to be WSU’s starting quarterback.
Granted, WSU’s coach got his biggest reaction of the day when he told reporters that he has raised the underwater treadmill players use for training and rehabilitation and “pretended I was walking on water.”
But at an event full of vapid questions, Leach managed some pretty decent answers.
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