PULLMAN – On Thursday, Washington State University football star Robert Barber was expelled from school. A day later, the athlete was arrested by Pullman police on felony assault charges.
And at a key moment in Saturday’s game against Idaho, Barber – who is allowed to play while appealing his expulsion – blocked a field-goal attempt that resulted in a 72-yard touchdown return, completely shifting the game’s momentum in the Cougars’ favor.
But it’s the momentum that is building off the field, with 29 player arrests in the past four-plus seasons under coach Mike Leach – including two arrests Friday for alleged felony assault – that has WSU answering more questions about the hits players are delivering at parties than the ones they are delivering on the football field.
The 29 arrests with Leach as coach is a number that leads all NCAA Division I schools. In that same time frame, the Cougars have won 22 games.
The majority of arrests were for small matters that probably wouldn’t attract the notice of police in bigger cities – a minor in possession of alcohol the day before his 21st birthday, for example, or throwing a snowball through a window. Charges have been dismissed in 16 of the 29 arrests under Leach.
And Leach and athletic director Bill Moos argue players are unfairly targeted in a town where they’re local celebrities, recognized on sight by many of the 20,000 students.
But there are also disturbing stories: the young woman who was punched by a player, knocked out cold with a concussion and less than a month later committed suicide. The young fan who never missed a football game in his years at Wazzu, then was allegedly kicked in the jaw by a player when he tried to break up a house party. A walk-on football player who was punched by a teammate – and ended up paying $2,000 out of pocket for his medical treatment.
Leach responded angrily this week – with his anger directed at the news media and Pullman police.
“The (legal) system has to be checked if with the number of people involved in these incidents, the only ones accused are football players. If that’s the case, then something is seriously wrong, which goes far deeper than whatever has even been alleged,” the coach said at a news conference.
A summit at the end of the week involving Moos, Pullman police Chief Gary Jenkins and WSU President Kirk Schulz produced more soothing words of cooperation and ensuring “fairness is given to all involved.”
Four felony arrests in the past month
The string of four felony assault arrests in the past month sparked the intense scrutiny of WSU’s program. Suddenly, the Cougars were national news, even a topic on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” but not for their heroics on the field. Far from it.
Defensive linemen Robert Barber, 22, and T.J. Fehoko, 19, were both arrested Friday on charges of second-degree assault in connection with an altercation July 23 in Pullman that left one student, Jackson Raney, with a concussion and a second, Alex Rodriguez, with a broken jaw.
Earlier in the week, linebacker Logan Tago was arrested on suspicion of felony assault and robbery after he admitted to police that on June 4 he assaulted a man and took his case of beer after the victim refused the football player’s demands to hand it over.
And on Aug. 24, officers arrested safety Shalom Luani on charges of felony assault in connection with a fight outside a local Domino’s Pizza that left one man with a broken nose and Luani with a concussion.
Three of those four players took the field against the University of Idaho on Saturday in Pullman; Fehoko practices with the team but hasn’t played.
Leach on Tuesday read from a prepared statement that accused the Pullman Police Department of unfairly targeting his players.
“It is irresponsible to this town, this community and everybody to have some kind of a double standard where we only focus on one demographic, one group of people and then drag their name through the newspaper with a bunch of irresponsible comments,” the coach said.
But the coach wouldn’t actually talk to the newspaper – or any media – about specifics. And neither would Schulz. They weren’t the only ones who couldn’t or wouldn’t talk. The team tightly controls which players are allowed to talk to the media, so none of the players involved were available to comment on the incidents or the aftermath.
Jenkins, the Pullman police chief, said Leach’s comments didn’t anger him. Jenkins, in fact, thinks a lot of Leach. He considers himself a big fan.
“I understand where (Leach) is coming from,” said Jenkins, who came to Pullman from Claremont, California, in 2010. “It seems like a lot at once.”
Moos said he considers the investigation of Luani and the altercation that injured Rodriguez different from the case against Tago, who confessed to stealing the beer.
“Look, there is no excuse for rude behavior,” the athletic director said in an interview with The Spokesman-Review. “But when it’s perceived that the people I’m responsible for are the only ones with the rude behavior, that’s offensive to me and my coaches. With all these incidents, with the possible exception to the most recent one, there was rude behavior happening by more than those representing Washington State.”
Sentence suspended after attack on young woman
On March 4, 2014, starting cornerback Daquawn Brown attended a dance. Witnesses said he began harassing a young woman, a fellow student, who was taking part in a stroll dance. A man asked Brown to leave the woman alone. They shoved each other, then Brown punched the man in the face.
Another young woman rushed into the fray to protect her friend, who was standing near Brown. Two witnesses told police they saw Brown turn and punch the girl who was trying to help her friend – punched her so hard that he knocked her unconscious, according to court records.
The woman sustained a concussion, two loose teeth and had nose bleeds for three days following the punch, according to court records. Less than a month later, she was found dead, apparently from suicide.
A coroner’s report indicated the woman had a history of depression; her grandmother, in a brief interview, said she believed the assault was related to her granddaughter’s death. Attempts to reach the student’s mother last week were unsuccessful.
Brown later pleaded guilty to fourth-degree assault, and all of his 180-day jail sentence was suspended.
Leach allowed Brown back on the team, and he led the Cougars in 2014 with 82 tackles. The school dismissed him from the team after that season without explanation. He transferred to Fresno State but no longer plays there. Attempts to reach him weren’t successful.
Asked why Brown was allowed to play after the assault investigation involving the female student, Moos replied: “You’re going to have to talk to Mike about that one. It’s hard for me to believe that he just opened the door for him.”
‘They are the good guys?’
Alex Rodriguez, 22, of Medical Lake, is the first in his family to attend college. He really didn’t care about Washington State until that letter arrived informing him that he’d become a Coug.
He immersed himself in all things Wazzu: the school, the Cougars, the campus life. He bled crimson and gray.
The instant fan, a senior and human development and psychology major, never missed a game. He even traveled last year to Oregon and watched as safety Shalom Luani snagged the interception that beat the Ducks in a glorious double-overtime win.
But that was before this summer, when someone started throwing firecrackers into the crowd at his house party. As he and his roommate tried to get the mostly intoxicated throng to leave, both were punched from behind.
On the floor, someone kicked Rodriguez so hard it broke his jaw and caused nerve damage in his lip.
“For the past six weeks, I had my mouth wired shut and a liquid diet,” Rodriguez said. “And these people are out enjoying themselves and doing things they love and want to do. To see them get cheered on by the fans and the school, it’s hard to understand. They are the good guys? I feel like I have to root against my school.”
Rodriguez had to drop some classes while he was recovering.
“That’s what frustrates me the most,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out how to survive and eat and get everything I needed to keep my body healthy, and these people are out there playing and practicing.”
Moos, when asked about Rodriguez, replied, “I heard there was a lot of intoxication, possibly drug use and intimidation. Was that man involved in the fight? I don’t know.”
After being informed of Rodriguez’s injuries, and how he couldn’t use a straw to feed himself and had to strain his food through his teeth, Moos softened.
“I’ve got five children of my own. I wouldn’t wish that on any of the kids,” Moos said. “I hope he has a full recovery. Hopefully, I can sit down and visit with him.”
Coach ‘applies discipline’
The list of arrests, and recent investigations, has not put Leach on the hot seat. Not only is Leach’s $2.95million-a-year job safe – making him one of the highest-paid state employees – Moos credits the coach for attracting most of the program’s top recruits.
“I’ve been in this business a long time. (Leach) applies discipline, with regard to his players, more than any coach I’ve ever been around,” Moos said. “There are rules on drug testing, and hitting women and theft. And he’s tough on fighting, too.”
But Brown, the player who hit the young woman, continued playing. And Moos and Leach both stood behind a player who hit a walk-on three years ago, breaking his jaw in two places.
On Oct. 2, 2013, the team gathered for morning workouts. One of the players was late, which prompted a coach to discipline the entire team by making them do 75 “up-down” drills. From standing up to a plank position on the floor, over and over again, it’s the sort of drill that’s done as much to induce pain as it is for conditioning.
Walk-on quarterback Domenic Rockey had an injured ankle that prevented him from keeping up. A coach told him to keep up or leave, which he did, according to court records.
Later in the locker room, 6-foot-4, 245-pound freshman Emmitt Su’a-Kalio apparently mistook Rockey for the player who caused the extra up-down reps. Su’a-Kalio walked up and punched Rockey.
Leach and his assistants initially refused to comment except to say it would be handled internally by the team. The university also did not inform police: Rockey’s girlfriend reported the assault the next day after finding her boyfriend with a swollen face and a mouth that would not stop bleeding.
The only thing Su’a-Kalio said was “I’m sorry” because “coaches told him to,” according to court records.
Su’a-Kalio later pleaded guilty to a charge of fourth-degree assault. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail but a judge allowed him to serve that time, instead, through 240 hours of community service.
Su’a Kalio also was allowed to remain with the team, although he didn’t play in 2013. Of the four letters written on his behalf to the University Conduct Board, two were written by Moos and Leach.
In his letter, Leach wrote, “There are occasions of misrepresentation that can take place and when coaches constantly preach to ‘keep each other accountable,’ Emmitt (Su’a-Kalio) took this literally,” according to court records.
A civil suit was filed by Rockey and was dismissed, but that dismissal is on appeal.
Moos said last week he couldn’t remember the specifics of the Rockey case but said, in general, “my guys aren’t just walking in like the Gatlin boys and, like a western, clearing the barroom out.”
Of Su’a-Kalio and Rockey, Moos said, “There’s something that instigates it and to my knowledge, our guys aren’t starting the fights, which makes you wonder who wants to start a fight with these kind of guys.” He can’t recall what was said, he added, but “there were insults and verbal stuff, and bam, he got hit.”
A Pullman problem?
Keeping the peace can sometimes be challenging in a football-crazy town dominated by students.
“There are segments of the community that believe athletes get passes on things and things are swept under the rug,” Jenkins said. “I want to make sure that doesn’t happen. I also don’t want to target anyone.”
Moos backed up his coach, saying Leach’s pugnacious comments have merit.
“Is it just assumed the athlete was the one who was the aggressor because they look different and they are bigger and they are stronger?” he said.
Moos said the size of Pullman is both its greatest asset and sometimes its biggest curse. Pullman has a listed population of about 30,000 people, according to the 2010 census. About two-thirds of that population are students.
By way of comparison, Moos said, he’s confident the University of Washington doesn’t have 70 percent of the Seattle Police Department’s squad cars hanging around campus on Friday and Saturday nights.
“We are a huge fishbowl. Everyone on campus knows who our athletes are,” he said. “It’s hard to get lost. Lose two or three games in a row and try going to the supermarket. It ain’t easy.”
Just five years ago, Moos was answering some of the same questions after three of five starters on the WSU basketball team were arrested for marijuana possession. He was asked then if police were targeting the athletes.
“I have a concern about that,” Moos told The Spokesman-Review. “College Hill is not the collegial, fun, exciting place I remember as a student-athlete, or even working here 25 years ago. It’s become, in my observation, in the minds of the authorities in Pullman the ‘bad part of town.’ I don’t think that’s serving anyone very well.”
He added that there was a way to avoid the trouble.
“In a perfect world, if the Pullman police or campus police wanted to target our athletes, there would be nothing to target.”
Staff writers Chad Sokol and Jacob Thorpe contributed to this report.
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.