Mike Leach has his annoying ways, but there’s no doubt the Cougars coach weaved a spectacular path to the Pac-12 summit. One of the best coaching jobs ever.
Reporters who helicopter, or wagon-train, into Pullman for one-off interviews invariably find Mike Leach amusing, irreverent, original and iconoclastic, especially for his industry. However, reporters who deal with the Washington State football on a regular basis often find him circumspect, contentious and surly. And, often, late.
But for the men and women in the latter category, at least we now know we’re not alone in our peevishness. He annoys his peers, too.
Washington coach Chris Petersen Monday recalled the Pac-12 Conference media day meeting in July in Los Angeles in which the only coach missing was Leach, delaying the start a half-hour.
“We were all looking at our watches thinking, ‘This might not turn out good for him,” Petersen said Monday. “He walks in with this In-N-Out burger and milk shake. We’re all like, ‘Really?’ And waiting for somebody to say something.
“He’s just happy as a clam, eating away, and we’re like, ‘Why didn’t we do that?’”
Did you say something?
“I tried to, but he had his mouth full,” Petersen said, grinning, “so I moved on.”
Now imagine Leach after a 10-1 season that could finish in the Rose Bowl. He might take insufferability to the far horizon.
No one will say anything then, either. Because he’ll be the conference coach of the year.
What Leach has done with the Cougars ahead of the Apple Cup Friday (5:30 p.m., FOX) has been one of the great feats in conference coaching history.
Sure, the Cougars were 9-4 a year ago, but graduated QB Luke Falk, unblockable DT Hercules Mata’afa, some good offensive linemen and lost six assistant coaches. Leach flirted with leaving to fill the coaching vacancy at Tennessee, irking many WSU fans.
In June, Leach, a supporter of President Trump, tweeted a video of a speech by President Obama that was manipulated into false statements. The subsequent uproar caused some WSU donors, according to university president Kirk Schulz last week, to withhold up to $1.6 million in planned estate gifts.
Overshadowing all the tumult was the death by suicide of Tyler Hilinski, the QB heir apparent. The tragedy not only devastated his family, the team and the WSU campus, it rocked the national sports world that too often pays little attention to mental health issues.
“It’s one of the more shocking things I’ve ever heard,” Petersen said. “The guy who is going to be the starting quarterback? Like, how could (his football career) be teed up for him any better?
“Then you catch your breath and start worrying about the guys in your room. . . . if this can happen to somebody that’s got a situation like this, we got to pay closer attention.”
What appeared to be a season destined for 4-8 or 3-9, is instead a couple of controversial penalty calls at USC — the Trojans beat WSU 39-36 — from being undefeated and probably astride the No. 4 spot in the College Football Playoffs rankings.
For Petersen, a guy who will spot lint on a meeting-room carpet 20 feet away and pick it up, operating in such chaos would cause an aneurysm. But Leach seems to thrive in it, bearing down on football and a novel system that has allowed the under-funded Cougars program to reach parity with the bigger, richer conference schools — and beat them.
The Pirate and The Bishop have arrived at the summit ridge by vastly different routes.
“I think one thing is, he just really believes in his style, his way,” Petersen said. “That’s the one thing I can really tell from afar. I’ve obviously never worked with him. I’ve competed against him, know some guys that worked with him. He just does his way.
“There’s a lot of ways to skin a cat, obviously. I think he’s a really smart guy. He sticks to the script and he can weather the storm. He just perseveres and comes through it. They’ve been through a lot, especially with Tyler. We all know how hard this business is. A lot of respect for that.”
He’s done it so well that Petersen conveyed astonishment that the Cougars, who lead the college nation in passes thrown and caught and yards gained passing, have allowed only nine sacks in 563 passing attempts.
“That’s really an amazing stat, for how much they throw it,” he said. “Right there, that tells you a lot.”
Nearly as amazing as making a home for QB Gardner Minshew, a fifth-year graduate transfer from East Carolina, which is very close to East Nowhere. But Minshew adapted to Leach’s system so well that he has made Pullman a sort of Mount Somewhere.
“He’s got a great feel,” Petersen said of Minshew. “You’re going after him, the ball is out. You’re not coming after him? He’s going to stand in there. You get to him? He’s going to get out of the pocket.
“Really decisive. The combination of those two things is really what makes it a little bit different.”
In fact, everything about this operation — location, playing style, coach, quarterback, season — has always been a little bit different. Witness the pre-game video from last season’s Apple Cup.
— Aaron Levine (@AaronQ13Fox) November 26, 2017
Ladies and gents, your Pac-12 coach of the year. Mr. In-N-Out, as well as Mr. Out-N-In.
He was dilly dilly before anyone.