PULLMAN — One night last winter, Mike Leach took his mind off pirates and passing games and did something very important to his first Washington State football team.
Around a conference table, the coach gathered what staff he had hired at WSU and they called Michael Bowlin, a recruit from Saddleback College who punted and kicked.
One by one, they told him how much the Cougars needed him — boy, did they need him — and that his JC coach had given him a good recommendation.
And Leach told him one more thing. “If I was going to screw up, then tell them right now,” Bowlin said. “Because they don’t want to have to kick me off the team again.”
Of all the people buoyed by Leach’s arrival in Pullman, hardly anybody is more bullish on the new regime than Bowlin. “The way we’ve been conditioning, because we’ve been working so hard, everyone holds themselves to a higher standard than they have in the past,” he said.
If so, that would also be a good idea for Bowlin, who packed more misbehaving into a seven-month stay at Oregon than ought to be possible for a freshman.
The Ducks recruited him out of Aliso Viejo, Calif., in Orange County, in 2009. He signed in February, but he was wilder than the proverbial March hare.
“When I went to Oregon, I feel most of the players had big heads and were overconfident, almost,” said Bowlin. He, too: “I think I had a big head myself.”
Bowlin said Chip Kelly, the Oregon coach, has a three-strikes-and-out policy, and adds the count was already 0-and-2 against him when he went out on the night of Jan. 23, 2010. He got drunk.
He said he was by himself when “I ended up running into the wrong group of kids and things just went downhill from there” at a gathering just off the Oregon campus.
Bowlin said he called Rob Beard, another Oregon kicker, “for backup.” Beard was a block away. “(Beard) took a hit wrong and fell straight to the floor,” Bowlin said. Beard was hospitalized in critical condition and had to have surgery for facial injuries. “I went to the hospital to visit Rob, and Coach Kelly and the entire staff and a bunch of players were there,” Bowlin said. “It was really emotional to go in there and look at all of them in the face and know that what happened was really because of me.”
Bowlin is 6 feet 4, but you can imagine how small he felt. You’ve been a serial screw-up. You’re a freshman. You’re a kicker. You’re a backup. “I didn’t even try to defend myself,” he said recently between WSU practices. “I knew I messed up.”
Beard recovered but was suspended for a game after pleading guilty to a physical-harassment charge. Two junior-college students who beat up Beard pleaded guilty to third-degree assault charges.
Bowlin originally faced three harassment charges and one of disorderly conduct. According to a Lane County circuit-court clerk, he eventually pleaded guilty to one harassment charge and received 12 months’ probation.
It was a forgettable night for Kelly, whose control of the team was questioned because the brawl happened within hours of an alleged burglary by two other players, including star quarterback Jeremiah Masoli.
Bowlin said, “I was so young, first time away from home, and took advantage of the situation. I’ve learned from my mistakes, and I know I’d never even put myself in position to make those mistakes again.”
He was booted from the Oregon team and returned to play the 2010 and 2011 seasons at Saddleback, in Mission Viejo, Calif.
While he was excelling at kickoffs and dabbling at punting, Washington State was enduring a subpar season at both in 2011.
The Cougars were 11th in the Pac-12 in net punting and a bad last in kickoff coverage. By my calculation, WSU allowed Pac-12 opponents an average start on their 36-yard line.
A new rule this season pushes kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line, and moves touchbacks on kickoffs from the 20 to the 25. Bowlin appears to have so much leg that the rule could trim WSU’s advantage; he had 14 touchbacks last season at Saddleback.
Thus, that meeting to call Bowlin after Leach was hired. It came as Bowlin was about to sign with San Jose State, and he stipulated he had to have a letter of intent in hand the next day from WSU to overturn that commitment to the Spartans.
The letter came, from the coach who has generally shown himself to be iron-fisted in disciplinary matters. Bowlin seems to know his second chance is also very likely his last one.