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John Blanchette: Mike Leach the last man standing from his Pac-12 hiring class after Rich Rodriguez’s dismissal at Arizona

Washington State  head coach Mike Leach firmly believes in his latest recruiting class. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State head coach Mike Leach firmly believes in his latest recruiting class. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Mike Leach has been called a number of things in the week since his Washington State Cougars fainted in the Holiday Bowl.

Here’s a new one: survivor.

Because whoever took him in the Adieu Pool, you lose.

With the whirlwind beheading of Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, the Pac-12’s celebrity football hiring class of the winter of 2011-12 is now down to a single, improbable oddment – though, yes, he tried to be gone, too.

But when his flirtation with Tennessee ultimately went unrequited, Mike Leach trundled back to Pullman, first to cash in on the typical administrative panic that got him a nice pay raise and then to coach up the Cougs in their bowl game. You all know how that worked out.

It was a little like splurging for a Lexus for your Secret Santa partner and getting a lint brush in return.

But here Leach is, and gonzo are the other three guys – all four of them hired within 24 days of each other in 2011.

UCLA started breaking up the band back around Thanksgiving when Jim Mora was walked Spanish down the hall, and not long after Arizona State gave Todd Graham the boot so they could resurrect the old Chicago Cubs college of coaches strategy. Then on Tuesday came the news of RichRod strutting around in his undies and having subordinates beard for his extramarital affair and out he went.

Sure hope they arranged one of those last-man-left tontines with a bottle of 50-year-old brandy that Leach can open to toast his fallen pals.

Of course, the three fired coaches can afford their own hootch. Together they’ll collect around $30 million in buyouts, yet another example of how football lifers and their agents are making brainy academics and wealthy alums look increasingly foolish.

Now, these dismissals are solid ammunition for Leach’s legion of supporters, who are rightfully thrilled to see Wazzu winning nine games a season, even if they have to towel off after the Cougs bellyflop in their Gatorade in the final scenes.

And yet there are some stats here worth a look:

  • Mora, 47-31 record, 2-3 in bowls, average Pac-12 division finish of 2.6
  • Graham, 46-32, 2-3 in bowls, average finish 2.5
  • Rodriguez, 43-35, 3-2 in bowls, average finish 3.8
  • Leach, 38-38, 1-3 in bowls average finish 3.8

Also, each of the other got his team to the Pac-12 title game once. And Mora’s record came without a single FCS opponent on the schedule, while Graham’s teams played the likes of Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Texas A&M outside the conference, among others.

What trumps that? Timing and trending.

Leach’s best years have been the last three. Those other schools have been a collective eight games under .500 in the same span. From a woeful starting point, Leach’s teams are on an undeniable uptick, with no suggestion that regression is around the corner.

Surely this was on his mind when he got a little pissive after the Holiday Bowl with a questioner who dared point out the big-game shortcomings.

“You can do all your little stats and scenarios and all those goofy things,” Leach sniffed, “but you can also review how Washington State has done prior to our players and our staff getting here and maybe then you can find some answers there and you seem like a sharp young man. Next?”

So to review: Leach gets credit for the wins, and any failures are goofy scenarios that slide from Teflon shoulders. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Leach’s dalliance with Tennessee enough for his supporters to urge WSU president Kirk Schulz to open the vault in contract renegotiations that were already under way. The theory went that only Leach could do what Leach has done and must be made happy at any cost, including a pass for any public cloddishness that must be swallowed as the price of doing business.

What never gets said is that he was paid quite well – as are many head coaches – to accomplish just that, and that he accomplished it with scads of advantages his Wazzu predecessors never had. Start with facilities the coach himself has called the best anywhere in the Pac-12. Add support staff numbers that would make old coaches weep, all games on television, nutritionists and other resources. Not to mention seven home games the past two years – and every year but one through 2021.

As it should be. Wazzu deserves a chance to compete to its best advantage, as its rivals do.

But let it be said that the newly unemployed Jim Mora, Todd Graham and Rich Rodriguez did considerably more in their first three years than Leach has done in his last three, and more in the last three than he did in those first three.

He just happens to work at a place with patience. Mostly because Wazzu can’t afford not to have it.

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