BY Art Thiel 08:00AM 01/10/2020

Thiel: Some W’s, but was Mike Leach a winner?

Yes, Mike Leach made a winner out of Cougars football. But what exactly did he do to deserve a promotion to the SEC and a raise? Denigrate and blame his players?

Alas, never will there be a tender moment like this again. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

During his eight-year tenure as Washington State’s football coach, I never figured out Mike Leach. I don’t feel too bad, since I don’t think anyone else figured him out, either.

There’s no denying his football success: A 36-36 conference record in Pullman is nearly like Danny DeVito leading the NBA in rebounding.

There’s also no denying his eccentrism tended to exasperate and enervate.

Ultimately, most Cougars fans liked the W part of Leach more than they disliked the SOB part. So . . . drink.

For every irrelevant oral amble down a bunny trail filled with pirates, politics, movies and Geronimo — trips that make him a darling of the national media for his unfiltered irreverence — Leach would counter the bemusement by calling his players “empty corpses,” “zombies,” and “fat, dumb, happy and entitled,” among other denigrations.

Now, do I think long-term damage resulted in any Cougars player from a public shaming by Leach? Doubtful. Does that make it OK? No.

Name-calling kids is just so  . . . adolescent. Pointless. Demeaning to the speaker. And discrediting to the employer that lacks the courage to admonish him.

Unless, of course, Leach is trying out for a Cabinet position with his pal, President Trump.

But no. He merely wants to coach Mississippi State. That’s a school in the Southeastern Conference, where they care more about W’s than life itself.

So Leach Wednesday morning left Pullman — more precisely, Key West, FL., the extreme southeast corner of Pullman — for Starkville, the smallest town in the SEC West with the smallest football budget.

As with Leach’s previous D-I outpost jobs in Lubbock, TX and Pullman, he will be able, with football success, to bully a desperate school’s administrators and boosters, publicly malign players, avoid responsibility for his own missteps and keep to a minimum his contact with any people professionally obligated to speak truth to power, such as Spokesman-Review columnist John Blanchette.

Recall that after the Cougars experienced their most recent traditional Apple Cup disemboweling by the University of Washington, Leach answered a legitimate question from Blanchette by calling him in the post-game presser a sanctimonious troll.

Convenient that Leach fired his shot after the last regular-season game, with one foot likely out the door. Whether he knew the Mississippi State job was going to become vacant isn’t yet known, but if he wasn’t going to come back to Pullman to say good-bye to his players, he probably wasn’t going to return to engage in further fruitful repartee with Blanchette.

Leach has never been good with farewells. After he left Texas Tech in 2011 for Pullman, he sued the school, getting nothing. So far, no news like that about WSU, although there was a report that Whitman County attorneys were alerted to keep their haz-mat suits handy.

But as I’ve always said about college football coaching, anytime you end a season with a losing record thanks to a team with a 1970s offense, set a conference record with biggest lead (32 points) blown, see your defensive coordinator blast outta town mid-season, and lose to the rival in exactly the same manner as the previous five meetings, you’re probably very attractive to a bigger, wealthier program.

Sure enough . . .

If all those developments didn’t make Leach’s resume sufficiently compelling, there was a wonderful story by The Athletic’s Jayson Jenks, who talked to 10 former WSU quarterbacks for an oral history of what it was like in their weekly position meetings with the coach.

It’s a little hard to know whether a reader will laugh with or at Leach, but here’s one example from many. Judge for yourself:

Isaac Dotson, 2013: I was playing QB at the time, and we had our first position meeting, and 90 percent of the meeting had nothing to do with football. Maybe five plays into watching film, something happened that sparked a classic Mike Leach tangent. For at least an hour, he sat there rewinding and playing the same play over and over while he talked about everything from growing up in Wyoming to having a pet raccoon, getting paddled by the principal at his junior high, the origins of football and eventually just a full-blown Native American history lesson. The one-hour meeting lasted probably three hours. I remember looking at the veteran QBs in the room with a ‘what is happening right now?’ look on my face, but I could tell by their reactions that this was just a normal thing.

 You know what fans of the Oregon Ducks are saying: “We lost four in a row to this guy?”

As I mentioned, I never figured out Mike Leach. Chris Petersen beat him like Secretariat against an armadillo, but the former UW coach didn’t figure him out, either. Or why Leach now gets a promotion and a raise.

Then again, Petersen did decide to run away from college football.

That, I get.


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YourThoughts

  • Brett Powers

    Love reading you, and I get the source of most of your snark here.

    But the suing Texas Tech shot was low, and beneath you. He had damned good reason to get after TT, and has none for going after WSU.

    Nor will he. Just read the commentary he put up after the TT dismissal and now.

    There is a world of difference.

    • art thiel

      I didn’t attempt to try the TT case here, but I have read enough to understand that Leach’s argument had points. The institutions are culpable in this game too. But Leach’s conduct invited the travail.

  • coug73

    Good read. I 2nd Brett Powers TT comment. Leach would have crawled through the sand pit to get a head coaching job in the SEC. I suppose Leach is thinking up manly practice ordeals to weed out players who aren’t 100% behind Leaches idea of football dedication.

    • StephenBody

      “I suppose Leach is thinking up manly practice ordeals to weed out players who aren’t 100% behind Leaches idea of football dedication.” Well, he’d better be. It’s HIS ass on the line, so he gets to decide what sort of kid stays and who goes. I’m not finding anything to cry about in saying that a person given that sort of authority and potential for terminal shame and disgrace should have it be his way or the highway.

      • coug73

        LOVE THEM, DON’T ABUSE THEM.

        • art thiel

          Not sure you’ll make it in big-time college sports.

        • StephenBody

          Type something lucid and I’ll reply. I don’t do whiners.

      • art thiel

        Do you agree with Leach that abusive practice techniques are justified as long as it saves his ass?

        • StephenBody

          C’mom, Art. That’s just a loaded question and you know better. The person asked if Leach is “thinking up manly practice ordeals to weed out players who aren’t 100% behind Leaches idea of football dedication.” He didn’t say anything about abusing players. As I wind up replying SO often, “If you have to resort to hyperbole to make your point, you don’t really have a point.”

          I don’t know what sort of burr is under your saddle about Leach but he is what he is. And schools want that and offer him money to get it. If that offends you…So? As Stephen Fry says, “It has no reason to be respected. You’re offended? So fucking what?” You can dump on him all ya want. I’m sure you’re aware that he genuinely doesn’t care.

    • art thiel

      The fundamental issue is Leach lacks empathy — for athletes, bosses, fans, media. The anecdote from the QB on the one-hour meet that turned into three shows no respect for other people’s time.

  • WestCoastBias79

    If he can’t handle the Spokesman Review, he’s going to have a lovely time in SEC country.

  • StephenBody

    Oh, c’mon, Art. “Deserve”? What does deserve have to do with it? Coaching hires are the most unabashed examples in the entire NCAA cesspool of the free market run rampant. They really don’t even try to hide the excess. It’s not about who deserves it. It’s about hiring somebody whose style resonates with the school’s self-image and who has ANY winning on his resume. There is a very real argument to be made for the idea that NO college coach – Dabo Swinney, Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, et al – deserves the astronomical dollars schools are willing to pay. Good for Leach, frankly. He wanted out of Pullman and MS coughed up. Good on him. The simple fact is that anything anybody up this way has to say about Leach’s new job or new contract is going to come off like sour grapes or jilted lover. Goodbye, Mike, you titanic weirdo, and don’t let the door hit ya where Jesus split ya.

    • art thiel

      I get your point about the runamuck free market in coaching. The “deserve” in the subhed didn’t reflect the point of the column, which was about Leach’s conduct, not his marktplace success.

  • Husky73

    Someone far smarter that I said Leach did not know the difference between jester and jerk. Well done, sir.

    • art thiel

      Hadn’t heard that one. Thanks.

  • Alan Harrison

    Brilliant article. There this bullying coward goes again, to another school in a big conference where expectations could not possibly be lower. Having lived in Montgomery, Alabama, I can tell you: Starkville is a dank outpost of the reddest necks in SEC country. Think of it this way: it’s the second most popular college in MISSISSIPPI. The college itself is barely accredited and stuck in the Jim Crow era, allegedly only admitting Black kids who are good athletes. Texas Tech, Wazzu, and now Cowbell State. Leach (aptly named) was an embarrassment to WSU and to CFB in general.

    • art thiel

      Thanks for the travelogue. Leach knows his act won’t play in the big cities.

  • Husky73

    What did Mississippi ever do to deserve Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin?

    • art thiel

      The Egg Bowl, scrambled.

  • woofer

    The illustrious Wazzu to SEC pipeline is again up and pumping. Bold prediction: Mike Leach will last longer than Mike Price did. And Leach will have far more fun with fellow free-spirit Kiffin than he ever did with the pious Petersen.

  • jafabian

    Few could coach as long as Coach Leach did at WSU with the kind of record he had with his in-State rivalry. What saved him is he dragged the program out from the losing era from the previous 4 seasons and into a consistent bowl participant after only one season. Pretty good considering he had to recruit players to Pullman and not Los Angeles or Seattle.

    Being rewarded with an extension that made him the state’s highest paid employee despite a porous Apple Cup record wasn’t good for him enough it seems. Is it me or did WSU seem a bit quick in waving bye to him? I thought they’d try harder to keep him. I’m expecting the football program’s history to kick in and for an assistant willing to stick around to be named head coach and for the program to spiral downward the next 4-5 years until they get a proven head coach who builds them into a mid-bowl participant again. Such is the life of a Coug.

  • Jim Bodeen

    Art, Your coverage of Mike Leach’s comments regarding John Blanchette cover Seattle and Spokane responsibilities. Regarding lasting effects of his language with his players, though, doesn’t that language make all of us complicit? Your reporting covers me, too, a reader, giving me a voice. But does that absolve me of responsibility? Your witness calls us out when sport takes over our attention, deadening our senses. I say there’s a lasting effect, and it’s debilitating. Thanks for holding the door open.

  • GuyBird

    Coug alum here. I couldn’t be happier that Leach is gone and Rolo is here! I got tired of Leach’s schtick about four years ago. Him taking the MSU job saved WSU millions in contract buyout payments.