Any lingering critics who feel that Washington State University football coach Mike Leach will oversee an undisciplined program may now proceed to the nearest Whitman County waste treatment center.
They’re full of it.
Leach is certainly quirky. His offseason interviews raised more eyebrows than the entirety of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s WWE career. Michael Lewis’s sprawling New York Times Magazine piece on the former Texas Tech head coach in 2005 ignited the sort of Leach-crazy media attention usually reserved for members of the Rolling Stones. Pirate obsession and Geronimo inquiries aside, one aspect of Leach’s coaching philosophy that has gone largely unnoticed by national media are his “three golden rules.”
Leach has a trio of no-tolerance tenets that, if broken, will get a player kicked off the football team:
1. No hitting women.
2. No illegal drug use.
3. No stealing.
Second chances are unavailable. No questions will be asked.
Three former members of the WSU defense will testify to the absolutes.
In March, linebacker Sekope Kaufusi was dismissed two days after being cited for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. The sophomore recorded 42 tackles in 2011, providing an element of speed and athleticism the WSU defense lacked throughout the Paul Wulff era. Kaufusi was the second linebacker kicked off the team since Leach’s arrival in Pullman.
Oft-troubled former middle linebacker C.J. Mizell misbehaved his way out of a scholarship in February when he entered a frat party, then refused to leave after challenging a small section of WSU’s Greek community to a brawl. Instead of a worthy fight, he received misdemeanor assault and trespassing charges and a one-way stagecoach out of Pullman.
Then, a week before players reported for fall camp, another spell of outlandish stupidity struck WSU nose tackle Anthony Laurenzi. Let’s call it a “stroke moment,” as Sonics/Thunder owner Clay Bennett might have put it.
Laurenzi was arrested July 22 by Pullman police for stealing a pair of headphones worth less than $60 from Walmart. He admitted to the crime before local authorities charged him with third-degree theft. Leach dismissed him four days later.
No word yet on if the former nose tackle stole the headphones to listen to the newest Justin Bieber album.
“One big thing about being a football player is really wanting to be there and wanting to be a part of the team,” Leach said Wednesday in his season-opening press conference. “There’s nothing fun about it. You’d like to save everybody. That’s why you’re in coaching. You invest all kinds of time and effort to improve guys to make them as good a player as you can.”
Laurenzi’s departure leaves WSU perilously thin on the defensive line entering the first day of fall camp Thursday. Without Mizell and Kaufusi, the Cougars won’t return any starting linebackers from a 4-8 club that struggled to contain premier running backs in the Pac-12 Conference. Defensive coordinator Mike Breske plans to move defensive end Travis Long to outside linebacker as his unit transitions to a 3-4 defense.
The move doesn’t reek of desperation but was made necessary when Leach slimmed down the defensive herd over the off-season. Rare in college football is the coach who upholds his own principles while working under the must-win scrutiny that accompanies a $2.5 million annual contract.
“It becomes difficult when you see talent walk out the door,” he said. “If you have a problem with somebody’s behavior the first thing is can I change it? If you can’t change it then can you tolerate it? If you can’t tolerate it than you have to get rid of him. It’s about as simple as that really.”
The loss of three serviceable defensive players may cost the Cougars a win or two in 2012, but the first-year head coach likely feels that his no-nonsense disciplinary policy promotes a culture where sacrifices are made in the pursuit of winning. It will be interesting to track how the current crop of players respond to unprecedented sanctions that would make former Arizona State head coach Dennis Erickson quiver. The rest of the conference certainly hasn’t taken a similar stance on similar issues.
Oregon head coach Chip Kelly suspended former running back LaMichael James just one game after a physical altercation with his one-time girlfriend in 2010. Current WSU basketball coach Ken Bone suspended former guard Klay Thompson the same duration after Pullman police cited his star for marijuana possession during his junior season.
Leach said Wednesday he won’t hesitate to cut a player failing to make it in the classroom either, if the situation warrants it. However, he’d rather rehabilitate than immediately boot someone.
“Sometimes it’s just a confidence thing where a guy needs encouragement,” he said when pushed to explain his academic standards for players. “You try to build that, whether it’s through tutors, or personal counseling like a mentor, who helps guys go through day-to-day being a college student. You want to make it convenient for them to go to class.”
Few should be surprised that players from a previous regime failed to adjust to new, stricter rules. Turnover occurs at every sports level when a new coach is hired, regardless of whether it’s Olympic handball or the NFL.
Leach has yet to win a game at WSU, but his recent actions already make him the toughest disciplinarian in the conference. The word “lack of institutional control” won’t be thrown around as long as he roams Martin Stadium’s sidelines.
Kind of refreshing, isn’t it?