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John Blanchette: Now Mike Leach can become Mississippi State’s Starkville reality

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 9, 2020

Wonder if the folks at Mississippi State will enjoy discovering that their new coach considers the Egg Bowl to be just another game?

Probably not.

But here’s what they will enjoy:

  • Touchdowns. The Bulldogs managed 46 this past season. Anthony Gordon’s arm alone accounted for 48 at Washington State.
  • Critter talk. The new guy may have to brush up on possums, but he’s an open-field runner on raccoons.
  • Being a stone in some puffed-up program’s shoe. Ask Oregon about the Air Raid. Ask Stanford. Hail State won’t ever own Alabama or LSU, but who’s to say Auburn or Texas A&M won’t start stumbling over this date on the schedule?
  • The politics. Donald Trump carried Mississippi by 18 percentage points in 2016. There will be no outcry in Starkville or any other precinct if in 2020 the coach stumps for the president as he did for candidate Trump, and no donors bolting if he disingenuously tweets out doctored videos to own the libs.

Here? We’re due for a breather.

He made football at Wazzu fun again, but eight years of the full, rich spectacle that is Mike Leach was just about enough.

Now it’s Mississippi State’s turn.

Leach’s leap to the Southeastern Conference on Thursday was greeted with polar reactions: sighs of relief from those spent by Leach’s cloddish public turns and the hand-wringing of partisans convinced that no replacement can do what he’s recently done – 43 wins in five years, bowl after bowl, that GameDay business. As usual, the latter din drowned out the former.

So certain are they of impending apocalypse that they aren’t likely to be comforted even by WSU athletic director Pat Chun’s rosy view:

“I think this is one of the best jobs in college football in what Mike Leach has left us,” Chun insisted. “When you look at the total package relative to the league, what we have in place, we’ll get the right person.”

If that’s the case, some might ask, then why did Leach leave?

Well, he’s wanted out for several years, hasn’t he? At least he’s had his agent, Gary O’Hagan, shopping his name, and he would have been the coach at Tennessee this past season had the school president not beheaded his athletic director in midoffer. Between that unrequited romance and no more Gardner Minshew mania, it’s no surprise that Leach seemed less enchanted this season.

Now he seeks enchantment in Starkville, 2,000 miles closer to Key West, where he holes up for R&R, and to grandchildren. It’s in the heart of football country and a recruiting hothouse. There’s the professional challenge of testing himself in the SEC, and the opportunity to neener-neener those who maintain the Air Raid will be in for turbulence with regular exposure to college football’s best division.

And there’s the distinct possibility Leach himself felt he’d maxed out his Wazzu portfolio – that six-win seasons would be more the norm than the giddy 11-2 high of 2018.

His tired post-Apple Cup harrumphs about Washington’s superior recruiting hauls each year suggested as much. And if some of the league’s traditional powers ever get out of their own way, there would be more of that coming.

Nevertheless, he got the Cougars out of their own way, and in remarkable fashion.

The program had nine wins in the four years before his arrival. He managed that in two – with many more to come.

And he had immense help that no previous Washington State coach could imagine. State-of-the-art facilities. Squishy nonconference scheduling devoid of Power 5 ogres. Resources for support personnel that help the win total and the team GPA. And a sport so drunk on bowl games that it only takes six wins to get Leach his postseason bonus.

WSU stepped up – and tumbled into unconscionable debt doing so. Leach delivered – well, except for the hiccups against FCS teams, some unsightly bowl flops and his no-Plan B approach to the Apple Cup that defied reason and birthed the same blowout loss every year. This will test the Hail Staters who can’t bear to lose to Ole Miss.

Still, Leach filled the stadium and was national coach of the year in 2018, the second in WSU history – both men eventually scooped up by the SEC. At least Leach had the sense to sign his new contract on Day 1.

And those who got such a bang out of him eviscerating his own players and doing his Irwin Corey shtick on all subjects can still find the old highlights and new material from Mississippi on social media.

When the noise dies down, the Leach era will be hailed with few caveats – the way time and distance mellow most history. Now the pressure is on to find the right replacement, but Chun is right: There’s no reason the next coach can’t win six to eight games a year, too, and be in position for the occasional spike.

And maybe even upset the Huskies once in a while.

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