PULLMAN — One day in July, a Washington State football player marveled at the disciplinary approach of Mike Leach and his commitment to winning.
“He wants to win,” the player told me, adding that punishment is evenhanded. “He doesn’t really care about anybody.”
That player was defensive tackle Anthony Laurenzi — and a couple of weeks after he spoke, he was tossed from the team for shoplifting.
And so, an old dance is played out again in a college program. New coach arrives, meets with a degree of resistance and the two sides have to file down those differences so the voyage can become smooth.
They know the drill well on this campus, where internal warfare four years ago helped sabotage the regime of Paul Wulff. This time, the collision of team and coach seems to be buoying the credibility of Leach, WSU’s first-year head man.
Funny what happens when you appoint a coach whose name brings instant recognition and respect. Of course, you have to pay for it, and WSU anted up to the tune of $2.25 million a year for Leach.
“When I heard he was even in the conversation about being our coach, I said, ‘Oh, that’s Mike Leach, we’re not going to get him,’ “ said Cougars linebacker Eric Oertel. “Guys were kind of star-struck at first.”
Mike Leach was from Texas Tech, and the team went to bowl games 10 straight years. Paul Wulff, well, he was from Eastern Washington, and more than one WSU player will tell you now that Wulff’s command didn’t resonate with them.
“There were a lot of individuals that didn’t trust in Wulff,” said cornerback Daniel Simmons, a fifth-year senior. “A lot of the time, it felt like he was unsure.
“You should trust your head coach and where he’s trying to take you. It felt like there was some (uncertainty) in his voice at times, and in his strategy.”
A new coach must establish discipline but he must also foster togetherness. He is, by definition of his arrival, taking over a program with some issues. A team needs a hug now and then, especially a new team.
Wulff only got the first half of that.
There was an awful schism on his 2008 team, created by his inability to rescue older players who liked his predecessor, Bill Doba, plus Wulff’s staccato criticism of what he was bequeathed. (In fact, Wulff was dealt a bad hand, but he didn’t have to keep saying it.)
It can even be argued perhaps Wulff would have survived, and Leach wouldn’t be here today, if Wulff hadn’t lost his first team so spectacularly. The Cougars allowed 58 points or more six times in 2008, and from then on, Wulff was digging out of a vast crater and fighting a credibility battle.
I thought he deserved support, and wrote that, well into his fourth year. But there were signs of a double standard in discipline, reflected in the program’s willingness to put up with linebacker C.J. Mizell, a malingerer whose talent sustained his starting role.
“My roommate was (linebacker) Mike Ledgerwood, and he hated it,” said Laurenzi. “He would do good and C.J. would mess up and they’d yell at Mike and not say anything to C.J. If you yelled at C.J., he would just shut down.
“I know it took a toll on Mike. It kind of made him a head case, I would say.”
So it was that Mizell became the perfect example for a new coach. One night in “Midnight Maneuvers,” Leach’s rigorous winter-conditioning program, Mizell was dogging it again, beaten by walk-ons, and Leach got in his face and aired him out, ripped him like players had never heard anyone ripped.
Leach wanted him gone and soon Mizell made it easy for him, getting arrested on an assault charge.
A handful of others have departed, too. “Cancers,” linebacker Darryl Monroe called them recently in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.
Harsh word, that, but if it’s accurate, then Wulff’s quest for character fell somewhat short. The fact is, every coach can rationalize wayward behavior if he wants to.
Now it feels like there is a greater cohesiveness on this team. My guess is, a lot of that accrues from Leach’s cachet, and the desperation of players who have gone 9-40 the past four years.
I asked fifth-year safety Tyree Toomer how the togetherness now compares with the last time the Cougars had a new coach.
“It’s a night-and-day difference,” he said. “The biggest change with this team is, everybody’s buying in.”
Paul Wulff would no doubt tell you that is because of the solid people his program put in place. And he wouldn’t be wrong. The reality is, it also took some of his misfits to launch the Mike Leach regime.