Washington State’s Mike Leach was the third coach to the podium Wednesday morning at Pac-12 Media Day, held at the Hollywood and Highland Entertainment Center. Leach broached a variety of subjects, including the handling of Tyler Hilinski’s death, the Cougars’ impending QB competition and recent rule changes in the NCAA.
Below are video links to Leach’s availability in Hollywood and a full transcript from the media session.
Q. As the offensive coordinator and head coach, how do you integrate position coaches for the players?
MIKE LEACH: You kind of do it the same way, it’s just that you have to wear a few more hats with regard to some of the organizational stuff and the head coach duties. So I meet with the quarterbacks every day, just like you would as a position coach. When it comes to meeting the offense, then I’d leave the meeting. It’s really pretty similar. The other thing that I like, it’s kind of a — you know, my sanctuary in the course of the day is practice. I mean, it’s like I look forward to practice. And I tell you, as a head coach, you look forward to practice, if you do it like I do, even more than you did as an assistant. All of a sudden, practice, the phone stops ringing, you know? We could do this, we could do that, we could do the other thing. Yeah, we could do all that stuff, and that’s great, except we’ve got practice. What are you going to be doing at some point? We’re going to be practicing. So, no, it’s great that way. So run the quarterback meetings, and then install the offense, and then, of course, putting the game plan in, that’s a long, long Sunday night, a real long Monday night. Then you go through the debates. The debates honestly aren’t as much on what to run, it’s limiting what you run. Because we think all of our ideas are very clever. So then pairing it down to where it’s a manageable number.
Q. How do you prepare and advise your team dealing with Tyler’s death and how did you handle that?
MIKE LEACH: Yeah, that all pretty much happened. There’s been a number of articles on it. You know, the biggest thing was as soon as it happened, we got counselors with the team. But then the other thing is just be present for everybody on the team. Then having the team itself, I think has been very helpful. Then we all have very fond memories of Tyler. We’re proud that we had the opportunity to know him, but then also he would want us to — we believe, anyway, or I do, that he’d want us to move on and have productive lives and elevate what we can do.
Q. Are those conversations of mental health bringing mental awareness for your team?
MIKE LEACH: Yeah, they did before, and of course they continue, yeah.
Q. How do you handle recruiting in Pullman? How do you try to get some of the top talent for Washington State? What are some of the advances?
MIKE LEACH: Well, the biggest thing, first of all, people are what you recruit first and foremost. So you have to figure out what they’re looking for, what they need and what they want. See and illustrate how what we have fits it. And the one thing that is, I think, pretty key for us, the Pac-12 is a fascinating conference. There is a lot of variety from one team to the next, but it’s also an urban conference. But we’re a college town, and we offer something they don’t. You know, you guys might love the traffic in L.A. A lot of great things about L.A. You might sit in the car, listen to the radio, look at the person beside you. You know, you get flipped off. I always thought it was kind of funny when somebody flipped me off, couldn’t help but laugh. You know, wait in line for stuff. Well, you don’t get to do that in Pullman, Washington. So there are sacrifices you make to come up there to Pullman, because you don’t have to plan ahead. It sucks if you want to develop your planning skills. You know, good food is right there. Well, I’d like to wait in line. Well, you can stand there, but I’ll be here at the counter doing nothing, so when you’re ready to order, come order. So we’re a college town. The other thing is 365 days a year, it’s the Cougs. They’ll remember a game you played the rest of your life. This isn’t a deal where you might have the game of your life and walk three blocks and they don’t even know you had a game. No, they know you had a game. They know it was a big deal. They’ll holler the thing out. We had a big win in the conference on the road. Came in at 4:00 in the morning, and the whole balcony of this dorm was just packed with people, screaming “Go Cougs,” it’s 4 a.m., meeting the bus. Yeah, it’s a unique place that’s all centered around the college.
Q. What was your reaction to Chip Kelly returning to the Pac-12?
MIKE LEACH: Exactly what it was when he was in the Pac-12. Just watched a bunch of film when we play them, and then put together the best game plan you can, and go play them. But we don’t play them for a year anyways, so. So I’ve got two years to obsess over the return of Chip Kelly. Some people could enjoy it for one, I could enjoy it for two.
Q. With not only Tyler but dealing with certain coaching staff and the athletic director leaving, how hard is it to keep the team together and on the same path during the offseason?
MIKE LEACH: Well, we’ve got — Bill’s fantastic. I talk to Bill all the time. You know, I’m excited to work with Pat, and Pat has done a good job. We’ve got a good relationship. So then as far as assistants on my staff, over the years I’ve had a bunch of guys get a lot of opportunities, and they’re quality coaches. It all starts with the qualities of what they can do. So a pretty big coaching tree as a result, as far as their hard work and what they’ve had the opportunity to go do. So we’ve got another group of guys in now, which it’s been a fairly seamless transition, and that’s one thing that’s beneficial offensively with me coordinating the offense as we get new coaches, all of a sudden we’re not reinventing the wheel. It’s the same deal. So just I’m there to plug everybody in and tell them what to do. The other thing, Tracy Claeys has worked with Jeff Phelps before, so I think that helped as well. We had a really good spring, and that’s the biggest way that I gauged it, and everybody stepped in. So we had a productive spring very quickly.
Q. What do you think about the early signing period after the first year?
MIKE LEACH: I think it’s fair to say that it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. But I think the other way is still better. But I think it’s by a smaller degree than expected. The other thing is I think that we’ll have a better sense of it about two years from now because it’s sort of a ripple effect how coaches will spread around recruiting players and that type of thing. Then of course we’ve got a couple other rules that will shake that up so we’ll see. But it is what it is. People want to know what their boundaries are.
Q. What do you think about the red-shirt rule?
MIKE LEACH: The red-shirt rule. There are so many rules lately. Though I think that’s a good rule. I think that’s a good rule. It approaches five years of eligibility, which I’ve always thought would make things very simple, would be a smart way to do things. It would eliminate a portion of the rule book. Maybe there are those that would like to have as many rules as they can. But, you know, five years of eligibility, then you don’t have all of the appeals and the transfer stuff. But it’s a step towards that, and I think it’s really good for the student-athlete too.
Q. Sports betting is on the horizon…
MIKE LEACH: I think it always has been.
Q. Do you have concerns about that becoming an every day thing you have to deal with?
MIKE LEACH: Not really. Because I’m going to continue to not bet on sports. The injury thing, I’m not going to — well, okay. Here are your choices: You’ve got some conferences talking about, all right, having an injury report. Well, let’s start with the fact I’m not a doctor, so I’m not even qualified to say whether a guy is injured or not. But then you’ve got one federal law that says you’re not allowed to reveal someone’s medical information. Then you’ve got another law that says we have gambling, so we want to know all about their injuries. And I realize that this business of not talking about people’s medical condition gets run roughshod through every year in the NCAA. But you’re sitting there with two laws that contradict each other, so I’m going to be wrong one way or the other. So I’m not going to reveal injuries, even if I’m qualified to until I’m forced. And they might force me. I doubt it. But they might, and if they do, then I’ll try to figure out a way around it.
Q. You’re not worried about it effecting the integrity?
MIKE LEACH: Well, the players, it’s still illegal for players to, and it has been. I think some of what’s been going on is now just legal instead of, you know, go down to someplace on the corner and call somebody. It’s gone on with the NFL for a long time. So it really hasn’t damaged them very much. So hopefully that’s still the case, you know.
Q. You mentioned Coach Claeys a few minutes ago. What is on his plate and what are some things you are excepting from that side of the ball?
MIKE LEACH: He’s got a — that’s the thing. He’s kind of predictable from the standpoint he’s got a huge pedigree as far as being a defensive coordinator. He’s been at it for a long time, starting from small college to bigger schools. He’s always been successful. Always been good. I think it’s also good that him and our defensive line coach worked together before, so I think that creates more continuity. And schematically, what he ran was what we were seeking when I hired Alex Grinch, so it’s pretty close. It’s not like all of a sudden there is going to be a huge change scheme-wise.
Q. What is your quarterback situation?
MIKE LEACH: Had really good work in the spring. Had several quality quarterbacks. The challenge for us is going to be to select the right guy. But I think we’d probably have three or four choices, all of which would do a really good job.
Q. What does Gardner bring to the quarterback position.
MIKE LEACH: He’s older. Has some experience in kind of leadership quality, I think. He’s really accurate. Getting acclimated with our players and our schemes, somewhat, but his scheme, he’s been around our scheme some. So there’s that. But it will be a heck of a battle, because I thought Gordon and Tinsley both had really good springs, and I think both of those guys will be difficult to beat out. You’ve got a lot of talent in Cammon Cooper, who as he gets used to being a college football player, and he had a really good off-season. That will be exciting to see too.
Q. How important was it to get Peyton Pelluer back for a sixth year?
MIKE LEACH: I think that was pretty big, because Peyton has always been kind of a leader for us, and just a very instinctual player. I think, yeah, that was very big. It’s good to have Robert Lewis back too.
Q. What do you think of the new kickoff rule? Are we seeing the beginning of the end of kickoff season?
MIKE LEACH: Oh, they’ve debated it a long time. I mean, this is the furthest they’ve gone. I’m kind of curious how it goes. You know, I mean, I don’t know. I guess we’ll see. They did it quite suddenly, and I think you’ll see more kicks on the ground. If you’re really confident, your guy can put it through the end zone. You’ll still let him launch it I suppose. Then put it on the ground and hope he can pin him in there. But there will be a lot of stuff on the 25, I imagine. Which, honestly, there has been. You know, you do the kickoffs, and they do this and that, and you’re hoping a guy breaks it and he gets pounced on. You’re on approximately the 25. So there is the fair catch quality. We talked about this as far as muffing it on the 2, you know. Which I actually kind of like. You muff it on the 2, maybe you should have it on the 2. Develop better catching skills, you know?
Q. After dealing with what you guys went through with Tyler this year, how important do you feel it is for athletic departments in general to really focus on the mental health of their athletes?
MIKE LEACH: I think that’s always been a part of it. You have a staff as far as team doctors and all of that, and everybody has counselors on, which is that is one thing at Washington State. We had counselors around the entire team, a huge number of counselors within an hour, so I think that was a big deal. But I think it’s a constant emphasis, and it needs to remain that way.
Q. Have you seen it kind of become more of an issue than in previous years, or like years ago, 10, 20 years ago?
MIKE LEACH: No, not really. Not really. I mean, because, you know, I’m trying to think even like at the smaller schools I’ve been at, you know, like lower budget places, there always was a counselor that you could send guys to that were having problems. You’d try to — and the training room tends to see it first, you know? But there was always, every place I’ve been, a counselor or psychiatrist or somebody in town that you could, you know, send somebody to to try to get them help. Of course, from there, everybody is trying to evaluate and address the problems the best they can.
Q. Has it made you more aware of things as you watched your team throughout the summer?
MIKE LEACH: Well, you’re constantly — you constantly look for something to improve and make things better. You constantly look at that. Then, of course, a lot of that is out of my hands; a lot of that is pretty much into the doctors’ and the experts’ and the medical team and stuff like that. With regard to my advice on how to do their business, they’re really not that interested, you know? So, yeah.
Q. So what is the most interesting experience you have, not with a recruit, but what is the most bizarre, interesting, or unique recruiting you’ve ever had?
MIKE LEACH: Oh, geez. There’s a lot of them. You know, they range from going to a place and, you know, drop into the couch and it’s a real low couch and your knuckles are on the floor and you get to the edge of the carpet and you’re feeling around, and it’s dirt under the couch, you know, you’re on a dirt floor. Then, you know, neighbors and relatives come out of the back room with bags of alcohol to celebrate the signing of the player and the arrival of the coach. Then you go to some palatial, gated community where they have a seven-on-seven field out there where the quarterback — and they play seven on seven, a big pool with a fountain in it, a couple tennis courts, a batting cage, a concert piano in the thing as you come into the house, and half the kids are really good at playing the piano. So you get the extremes. The extremes of it are pretty wild. Just the general personalities of the families. I’d have to think about it. I mean, that’s more — shoot, you get in the middle of six coaches telling stories, and it reminds you of it. You know? It’s always an adventure, though. It’s always kind of wild and kind of an adventure. The other thing is occasionally 16-year-old girls are deciding where their boyfriend superathlete is going to go to school. Or you also get the one where everybody wants the kid to go somewhere else, and he tells them no and comes to your place or goes to another place. So, yeah.
Q. What is the background story on Jimmy Buffett writing a song about you?
MIKE LEACH: He hasn’t, that I know of.
Q. Old Pirate?
MIKE LEACH: He wrote that before he — I’ve never met Jimmy Buffett. I know some of the people around him, yeah.
Q. Is there a favorite part of the country to go to for a period, not for a player, but the uniqueness?
MIKE LEACH: Well, in our case, you know, outside of the state of Washington, Southern California in particular is huge. Some of that has to do with just the demographic of where we’re at. That’s in the Pac-12 footprint. There’s non-stop flights. There’s a huge number of athletes. Whole bunch of good players. When Washington State has been good, they’ve always had a connection to Southern California. You know, as far as visiting, that’s different than recruiting. Recruiting is based on production and players, who you can get. You know, so, the nicest parts of Southern California aren’t necessarily the best players. I’ve always thought that the as far as regions of the country that people brag about, as far as top talent, the Inland Empire is awfully hard to beat. You hear about the Golden Triangle and Texas, and you’ve got the South Florida stuff, then the Panhandle. Well, the Inland Empire is in there with any of them, indisputably.
Q. Talk to me a little bit about Jalen Thompson. What improvements have you seen, and what are your expectations for him this season?
MIKE LEACH: Well, he came to our place pretty ready to play. He was one of those guys that didn’t really have any physical filter or anxiety. He just exploded out there on the field. He’s stronger and more athletic than he looks. He’s whatever size he is, but he’s stronger than that. When he hits somebody, he just flies. His vertical jumps off the charts, and he just plays with a passion and intensity that rubs off on other players, because they see it and it energizes the unit out there. No, he’s an impressive guy to have. He’s gotten just kind of incrementally better as far as because he got older. But he had a pretty good running start out there as far as being a good player for our team from the beginning, you know?
Q. Do you think being an early graduate kind of helped that process, getting him in early with your guys’ program?
MIKE LEACH: Yeah, the most important thing with that is you’ve got to be inclined that way. You’ve got to be ready to do it. If you’re sitting there wishing you were still in high school, going to prom, finishing out track season or whatever, well, then you need to stay in high school. But, no, the day he walked in the door, he was ready to go, and he was excited. He’s one of those unique guys that didn’t have this big adjustment where you have the whole “I’m not sure what I should do here.”
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