Washington State fans watched their team lose in the Apple Cup for the seventh straight time last Friday, 31-13 in Seattle, but now it’s onto something that causes even more discomfort.
Mike Leach’s résumé in Pullman – an overall record of 55-46, five consecutive bowl appearances and a list of record-breaking quarterbacks – has allowed most WSU fans to brush off a frustrating skid against the cross-state Washington Huskies.
It’s also why they’re on their toes for almost a month every year after the Apple Cup, as major college football programs part ways with their coaches and comb the Power Five landscape for established names with proven track records to lead a rebuild.
Leach has done that twice already, leading a middling Texas Tech team to 10 consecutive winning seasons before pulling WSU out of the Pac-12’s cellar to notch at least eight wins in four seasons and a program-record 11 wins in 2018. So it’s no surprise Leach’s name pops up when the coaching carousel starts spinning.
The WSU coach seemed ready to bolt to Tennessee in 2017 after reports indicated he’d met with then athletic director John Currie in Los Angeles, but it was later learned Currie wasn’t authorized by university administration to meet with Leach. The Vols eventually hired Jeremy Pruitt.
The weeks wedged between the Apple Cup and the Alamo Bowl became unnerving for WSU fans last year, after the Lubbock Avalanche Journal reported that Texas Tech boosters were prepared to open their wallets if the school brought back Leach to replace Kliff Kingsbury. It’s unclear if Leach even met with the Red Raiders, who eventually brought in former Utah State coach Matt Wells.
With a handful of high-profile jobs open this year, and Leach’s name linked to a few, it’s fair to wonder if the Cougars will make it to their fifth bowl game with the 58-year-old still at the helm in Pullman. Below, we detail six places Leach could be coaching next season, and use a number scale (1 being the lowest, 5 being the highest) to determine why he would or wouldn’t be interested.
Current coach: Leach
The scoop: Sure, WSU fans would love to bring the Apple Cup back across the mountains sometime in the near future. But it certainly doesn’t detract from everything else Leach has accomplished on the Palouse, vaulting himself to third on the all-time wins chart and producing some of the most memorable moments in program history. Whenever Leach does leave, or retire, his top hits at WSU will include last year’s appearance on ESPN College GameDay, an upset of fifth-ranked USC in 2017 and the acquisition of grad transfer-turned-college football icon Gardner Minshew. The few fans who’d like to see the Cougars replace Leach with someone who’ll end the Apple Cup drought are overshadowed by the hundreds of thousands who’d sacrifice an annual loss in the rivalry game for the annual bowl trips, the record-shattering quarterbacks and the rousing Martin Stadium moments for which he’s been responsible. Why would Leach leave? No matter where he is next season, Leach will have to hire a new defensive coordinator and develop a new quarterback. So if he does have a desire to go elsewhere, it feels like a natural time to do it – especially at his age. Leach will be 60 years old before the 2021 season begins. While there are a few exceptions (Herm Edwards at Arizona State, Mack Brown at North Carolina), few coaches have the desire to restart somewhere new once they hit that age. Not to mention, few programs are seeking that type of coach. Plus, consider the options he’ll have this time around: three openings in the SEC and a big one in the ACC. The market is good for Leach if he wishes to pull the trigger – or, if other programs wish to pull the trigger on him. But he’d have to leave a great thing in Pullman first.
Former coach: Chad Morris
The scoop: Of the two SEC West programs that will bring in someone new this offseason, the one in Fayetteville, Arkansas, seems to be the one best suited for Leach. The Razorbacks are already courting him. It’s unclear if Arkansas administrators met with Leach in Pullman or Fayetteville, but FootballScoop.com reported Tuesday that the parties have met. USA Today’s Dan Wolken followed that up with another report that Arkansas has already conducted an interview with Leach. The Razorbacks are also pursuing Tulane’s Willie Fritz and Florida Atlantic’s Lane Kiffin, according to Wolken. Arkansas is a low-pressure job in a conference in which that’s extremely tough to find. The Razorbacks won two games and none in SEC play during Morris’ final season, so Leach or any coach hired in Fayetteville will have some leeway his first two or three seasons before they’re expected to push for eight, nine or 10 wins. The Razorbacks frequent Texas on the recruiting trail and Leach’s ties in the Longhorn State would be an obvious bonus. Former Arkansas player/coach Barry Switzer has already endorsed Leach for the job, saying on the O’Colly Media Group podcast, “I don’t know if he’d be interested in the job, but the best guy out there is Mike Leach. He has an instant credibility. He’s won everywhere he’s been. He’s taken second-division clubs and made them winners at Texas Tech and what he’s done at Washington State. Quarterbacks and receivers all around the country in high school know what he’s like.” While Leach’s Air Raid would be an intriguing addition to the SEC, it’s fair to wonder if it could thrive there. The Cougars have had trouble against teams like Washington and Cal, so once SEC West foes – and longtime defensive juggernauts – like Alabama, LSU and Auburn got a handle on Leach’s scheme, how successful would it be, especially with the coach’s stubborn approach to making offensive tweaks?
Former coach: Matt Luke
The scoop: A social media spoof Monday morning suggesting the Rebels had hired Leach already induced agitation from WSU fans. The fake graphic showed Leach wearing Ole Miss garb and the coach’s signature above a text box reading “Ole Miss football head coach.” While Leach has been named a candidate for the vacancy in Oxford, CBS Sports odds released on Monday indicate he’s only the sixth-most likely candidate to take over for Luke. Unlike Ole Miss’ rival in the SEC West, there’s been nothing actually hinting the Rebels have formally met with the WSU coach. But, Oxford is a smaller college town that resembles the other places Leach has coached. Similar to Arkansas, the coach would presumably have a good deal of autonomy at Ole Miss. Leach has shown he can thrive in environments where there aren’t administrators or boosters breathing down his neck, and we can presume he’d have the same freedom in Oxford that he’s enjoyed in Lubbock and Pullman.
Former coach: Barry Odom
The scoop: Similar to Arkansas and Ole Miss, Missouri would offer Leach an opportunity to jump to the SEC without the stakes that come with most SEC jobs. Leach’s name has come up a few times in the search to replace Odom, but he doesn’t appear to be among the favorites, let alone a top-five choice. Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson has met with school officials about the opening, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as has Willie Fritz, per Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports. The SEC East is much more manageable than the West, so if Leach had his pick of the litter, Mizzou wouldn’t be a bad destination. Still, Leach-to-Mizzou has gained little to no traction. I’d guess the Tigers would be more apt to hire Leach’s former DC, Alex Grinch – the nephew of ex-Missouri coach Gary Pinkel – than the WSU coach himself.
Former coach: Willie Taggart
The scoop: It’s been almost a full month since the Seminoles parted ways with Taggart and almost that long since Leach’s name has popped up as a realistic candidate to fill the opening in Tallahassee. When Sports Line released its odds on the next FSU coach, seven names were floated, but none of them Leach’s. We’ll be the umpteenth news outlet to point out that, yes, Leach has a vacation home in southern Florida and the proximity to the white sand beaches in Key West would be an obvious perk if he were to consider FSU. But there’s nothing to suggest the Seminoles are considering him. Bob Stoops, Mark Stoops, James Franklin and Mike Norvell seem to be the lead candidates – and coaches at FSU aren’t given much of a cushion, as evidenced by Taggart, who was booted after just 19 games.
The scoop: Last June on the “Clay Travis Show,” Leach told the radio host he’d “definitely listen” if he got a call from the NFL. The coach’s Air Raid schemes are spreading, and in many cases thriving, in the NFL ranks, and there should be a handful of positions open this offseason – in addition to the ones that already are (Washington, Carolina). Despite Leach’s comment last summer, the coach has never stated a desire to move on to the next level, nor has his name been tied to any NFL vacancies.
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 Cougs newsletter
Get the latest Cougs headlines delivered to your inbox as they happen.