Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now
Sports >  WSU football

Washington State coaches running on fumes as NCAA’s new early signing period approaches

UPDATED: Sun., Dec. 17, 2017

Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach and his assistants have been on the recruiting trail. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach and his assistants have been on the recruiting trail. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Derek Sage has treated his Pullman residence more like a hotel than a home since the Cougars closed out the regular season in late November.

The Washington State outside receivers coach generally checks in Friday, stays two nights, then checks back out on Sunday. Since the Cougars played the Huskies in the Apple Cup, 23 days have elapsed and Sage estimates he’s spent just five of those under his own roof.

December has always been a key month on the recruiting calendar and now it’s an essential one for college football coaches across the FBS landscape. The NCAA debuted its early signing period this season – it runs Dec. 20-22, or Wednesday through Friday of this week – and most coaching staffs have been in scramble mode since the regular season ended, trying to secure the maximum number of signatures during this new three-day window. The traditional National Signing Day is still in place and will take place the first week of February, as usual.

“I think we would’ve been out (recruiting) anyway,” Sage said. “Coaches are like creatures of habit, so you kind of get on a schedule and every year you kind of expect that schedule. Now it feels like January. It’s January, it’s home visits, bringing the head coach in and closing on this class.”

Added running backs coach Jim Mastro: “It’s a whirlwind.”

For 76 of the 130 teams playing college football at the highest tier, it’s also something of a juggling act. That’s how many programs were invited to bowl games this season, including WSU, which makes its second straight appearance in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 28 against Michigan State.

Many of the WSU coaches didn’t return home after a loss to Washington in the Apple Cup in order to get a head start on the in-home visits, which consume a majority of the month. The Cougars regrouped for their first bowl practice on Dec. 8, so the coaches retreated to the Palouse that day, or the one before, to begin preparations for Michigan State. Well, most of them.

Mike Leach, inside linebackers coach Ken Wilson and a few others experienced some major travel setbacks – indicating why this time of year is maybe more precarious for coaches in a remote outpost such as Pullman than those in, say, Los Angeles.

Their connecting flight from Seattle to Pullman was first delayed and then turned back after it was determined that there was too much fog on the Palouse to make a safe landing at Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport.

With Leach, Wilson and a number of their recruiting prospects in tow, the plane returned to Seattle-Tacoma International.

Before the WSU coaches could make their arrangements, they had to attend to the five recruits – and their families – who were making their official visits to the campus in Pullman. Leach and Wilson booked hotel rooms in Seattle, arranged meals and rescheduled flights for all five.

Their prospective student-athletes taken care of, the coaches then booked their own flights, which arrived in Spokane at 1 a.m. Leach and Wilson were back in Pullman two hours later. They woke up for an 11:30 a.m. bowl practice then spent the rest of the day visiting with players they hope sign their binding agreements this week. Another practice followed the next day and later that night, most of the coaches were boarding flights for another round of of in-home visits.

“We’ve seen a lot of the air and sky and clouds and the fog for the foreseeable future,” Wilson said. “I’m kind of tired of that now.”

Recruiting and bowl prep aside, WSU’s coaches have also taken out chunks of the last few weeks to guide their players through the final days of the academic session.

“You’ve just got to put on a lot of different hats,” Sage said. “They’re long days, but they’re long days anyway. You’ve got to be wise with your time on the road recruiting and know when you’re going to come back and you can’t take any preparation from these players because that’s what it’s all about.”

Finals week is over now, so the early signing period figures to be the next exam for the WSU coaches. If the Cougars can ink a large haul of recruits this week, it would certainly be a stress-reliever for the coaching staff heading into the Holiday Bowl.

“It’d be nice to get a win in the Holiday Bowl and kick back on the beach for a little bit,” special teams coach Eric Mele said. “Then go back out and be prospecting for next year’s class versus really trying to have to close down a bunch of guys.”

For all of the obvious reasons, programs are eager to collect as many signatures as they can this week. The drama that’s made the recruiting world such an exciting attraction for fans – players toggling between their options in the weeks leading up to NSD or players flipping on the day itself – can also make it a stressful environment for coaches.

That’s one reason many of them favor of the addition of an early period.

But Mastro cautions: “You also don’t want to rush through your class either. You want to make sure you get the right guys. So that’s why it’s kind of a work in progress.”

However, the new system could prove fortuitous for programs that don’t get exactly what they want, or fill the voids they need to fill, the first time around. WSU coaches will likely evaluate their initial batch of signees, inevitably giving them a better idea of what they have to hunt for for in January.

For WSU, a new set of outside receivers could be on the wish list, given they just lost a sophomore and junior who, until just recently, were expected to be part of the equation next season.

“You should have a better idea of what exactly your needs are after the 20th,” outside linebackers coach Roy Manning said. “… I don’t know if it’s an advantage over another team, but it definitely is an advantage in-house to know where you stand and it’s on these kids to make a decision and kind of figure out where they’re going.”

A late bowl game inherently gives the Cougars some advantages over other programs, including one in the same division of their own Pac-12 Conference. Oregon accepted an invite to the Dec. 16 Vegas Bowl, so the Ducks had to put many of their recruiting plans on hold. That included telling a group of recruits who’d planned on making official visits to Eugene this weekend that they’d have to reschedule.

A bowl in the middle of the month also detracts from the number of in-home visits a program can make. The Cougars were probably allotted two additional weeks on the recruiting trail by getting a post-Christmas bowl.

“We’re excited about a bunch of the guys that it looks like we’re going to have signed,” Leach said. “As far as whether the rule’s ideal, I haven’t sorted that just yet.”

Either way, just about everyone’s still getting adjusted.

“All the coaches I see on the road are asking, ‘How are you doing it? How many did you sign and how many did you sign? Are you keeping some scholarships?’” Wilson said. “So I think there’s kind of some feeling our way right now and we’ll see how this first one goes.”

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Cougs newsletter

Get the latest Cougs headlines delivered to your inbox as they happen.