SEATTLE – The comforting response, if you’re a Washington State football fan, is to tell yourself that it was time – that the Mike Leach era had peaked and a change is welcome. The truth, however, is that it’s going to be hard to find anyone who can replicate his success.
The comforting response, if you’re a fan of the Cougars, is to tell yourself that Leach’s personality had grown tiresome – that he was more of a jerk than he was a jester.
The truth, however, is that will be nearly impossible for his replacement to be as entertaining.
When Leach accepted an offer Thursday to be Mississippi State’s coach, it ended one of the most successful and colorful coaching stints seen on the Palouse. The man was gifted in a headset, gifted on a podium and an eight-year gift to Pullman.
The gut reaction after this disappointing season might be to tell Leach “good riddance.” But in terms of WSU finding another coach of his caliber, I say – good luck.
Leach arrived in Pullman, long considered a difficult place to win and recruit top talent, in late 2011 after the Cougs had gone eight consecutive seasons sans a winning record. It seemed like a coup for Wazzu at the time of the hire, and even more so once Leach got to work.
After beating Steve Sarkisian’s Huskies in the Apple Cup in Leach’s debut season, WSU snapped a nine-year bowl drought the following year. The Cougs won nine games two years later, eight the year after that, nine the next year, and then a program-record 11 with Gardner Minshew at quarterback in 2018.
ESPN’s “College GameDay” finally came to Pullman under Leach. There was a win over fifth-ranked USC as well. Leach’s quote on TV during that postgame pandemonium?
“It’s like Woodstock except everybody’s got their clothes on.”
Tainting all that success, however, was that Leach’s Cougs could never get past Washington when it mattered. From 2016-18, a win over the Huskies would have put WSU in the Pac-12 Championship Game, but UW won all three contests by an average of 23 points.
Leach’s Apple Cup skid reached seven games this past November, and his frustration was clear as a summer sky. You don’t call a columnist a “sanctimonious troll” in the middle of a news conference without visible steam coming from your ears.
Then again, bullying media seemed to be a bit of a pastime for Leach. When USA Today columnist Dan Wolken criticized Leach after tweeting out a doctored video of Barack Obama, Leach said Wolken would be selling Big Gulps at 7-Eleven soon. Leach later went so far as to name one of his offensive plays “Big Gulp Left.”
But holding grudges was only a small part of Leach’s media schtick. Most of the time he was holding court – in the most entertaining fashion possible.
He’d riff on pirates, weddings and which Pac-12 mascots would beat which in a fight. He hung a shirtless, George Costanza-like photo of himself in his office.
From dating to politics to pizza, there is no non-football-related question he wouldn’t entertain.
“I’m a thin-crust pizza guy,” he once said. “I respect people who like thick crust, but in my view it’s mostly bread.”
Like most legacies, Leach’s is filled with bright spots and blemishes. He would unleash his Air Raid offense to bulk up the win column season after season, then disappear in the games that meant the most.
He would spawn laugh after laugh in news conferences when he won, then blame losses on his weak recruiting class.
All in all, though, Leach’s eight-year stretch in Pullman was one of prosperity and entertainment. His success was admirable, and his personality inimitable.
Critics can argue that his Cougs never got the big win. But Leach’s departure? That’s a big loss.
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