CORVALLIS – Though he’s never worn a black and orange polo, never roamed the home sideline at Reser Stadium and never tried to convince someone to play college football in the small community of Corvallis, Mike Leach understands Jonathan Smith’s position.
It wasn’t all that long ago the Washington State coach was sitting in a similar chair.
No two outposts in the Pac-12 may be more similar than Corvallis and Pullman, so no two coaches in the conference face as many handicaps as Smith, in his first season with the Beavers, and Leach, now in year No. 7 with the Cougars.
When WSU (4-1, 1-1) visits OSU (1-4, 0-1) at 6 p.m. Saturday in Corvallis, Smith might look over at the other sideline for some encouragement, even if the scoreboard isn’t giving him much in a game the Cougars are favored to win by 17 points.
Leach is the prime example of someone who’s thrived in the Pac-12 despite the so-called deficiencies that a place like Pullman, or Corvallis, can present for a head coach. He’s 42-39 in nearly 7 1/2 seasons at WSU and 30-14 excluded the first three years that typically represent the most challenging part of a rebuild.
Leach isn’t selling Arizona’s sun rays, USC’s tradition or Oregon’s Swoosh, but he’s 19-8 in Pac-12 play the last three seasons. The Cougars are closing on a fourth consecutive bowl appearance – something that’s never happened in WSU’s history.
“Continuity,” said Smith, a former Washington offensive coordinator for Chris Petersen and a one-time quarterbacks coach at Idaho. “I look at them and their identity offensively never really changed. He came in there and he continued to fine-tune the thing, but they were what they were offensively all seven years. … I think they’ve done a good job, too, in recruiting, in regards to they know the type of player they’re looking for and you can look at their recruiting classes and they’re pretty consistent on that type of player.”
Prior to Leach’s arrival, the Cougars had become comfortable residing at the bottom of the Pac-12 and won nine games in four years under former coach Paul Wulff. Leach inherited a roster with shortfalls at almost every position group. WSU’s facilities were well behind those of its peers, making it harder to lure talented players to a small farming town in Eastern Washington.
“Oh shoot, he thinks it’s tough (to rebuild) there,” Leach said of Smith, “he ought to try it at Washington State the first year.”
Smith took over a program that’s been successful recently. The Beavers won only seven times in the years before his hire – Gary Anderson coached OSU for two seasons, but exited just three games into his third – though prior to that, they’d been to eight bowl games in 12 years under the affable Mike Riley.
They’re already forming an identity under Smith as one of the top rushing teams in the Pac-12, averaging 199 yards on the ground. OSU’s 12 rushing touchdowns rank second in the conference and true freshman running back Jermar Jefferson leads the Pac-12 at 145 yards per game.
“They’re getting better at every phase when I watch them play,” Leach said. “They’re getting more efficient offense. They weren’t quite in the hole Washington State was because they’d been a pretty good team within recent years. We were in a little bigger hole when we started out here.”
The Beavers still have plenty of smaller holes. Facing the league’s top rusher every day in practice hasn’t made OSU any better at stopping the run. The Beavers have allowed more than 800 yards on the ground the past two games and they’re giving up 303.6 per game.
They’re also allowing more than 240 passing yards per game, second worst in the conference, and they’ve conceded 226 points through five games. By comparison, Chip Kelly’s winless UCLA team has only allowed 151.
The Beavers haven’t won a Pac-12 game at home since the end of the 2016 campaign and may not be favored to do so this season.
But Leach learned early in his own rebuild the growth a team makes isn’t always evident in the win-loss column. Smith might be able to take something from that.
“The thing is, and every team searches for and battles for this, but you search for and try to create an identity for your team, like plays and key things that bring everybody together,” Leach said. “So I think they’re starting to develop that and they’re getting tougher and tougher.”
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