PULLMAN — When he walked into the ballroom of the posh, marbled Fairmont Olympic Hotel on that chilly December night, the likes of Drew Bledsoe, Jack Thompson and Rueben Mayes were suddenly just faces in the crimson and gray crowd.
For most of the last decade, through record seasons of losing and embarrassment, jokes and punch lines, the past exploits of those Washington State greats were the ones fans and alumni latched onto as the football program fell into irrelevance.
But when Mike Leach stepped into that room and donned a crimson hat with the Cougar-head logo, he became the face of Washington State.
No longer did the 40 losses in the last four seasons or the losing by nearly 20 points per game during that time matter.
With Leach in charge, being a Coug was cool again.
“I’ve been around a long, long time and I believe this is unprecedented energy in our fan base,” Washington State athletic director Bill Moos said. “That’s what I told you I expected but this has exceeded what I expected.”
In just eight months since he was introduced to the Cougar faithful last December, Leach’s name alone has rejuvenated a football program that had become mired at the bottom of the Pac-12 Conference. He is an outsider, not associated with Washington State in any way, but instantly has morphed into the “Pirate of the Palouse,” the coach everyone wants to talk to, be seen with or say they know.
Name another coach who is invited to a celebrity wedding — Matthew McConaughey — then gets name-dropped on late-night television.
The amount of buzz around Washington State football is unprecedented. The Cougars won four games in 2011 and yet nearly 11,000 turned out for the spring game in Spokane in April.
Within hours of his hiring, pirate themes were already being added to the Cougars logo, whether it be an eye patch or a pair of swashbuckling swords.
There’s even a limited liability corporation called “Pirates of the Palouse” that’s been created. It’s a blog.
Heck, the school is giving away a Leach bobblehead before the Cougars play California in October.
“I can’t think of anybody wanting one,” Leach said. “Shoot, I’m just happy someone is interested.”
All that excitement on the Palouse is thanks to the quirky Leach, who has brought his eclectic personality to a place where unique coaches have always reigned. Whether it was Jim Walden’s sharp tongue, or Mike Price’s unique motivation antics, Pullman has proved fertile for coaches who are known as much for their oddities as the success of their teams.
In that regard, Leach could not be a more perfect fit. He’s happy to talk about history, or books, or good restaurants as much as football. Dave Emerick, his chief of staff at Washington State who worked with Leach previously at Kentucky and Texas Tech, once got a dissertation on the Boer Wars during a flight with his boss.
Leach stole the show at Pac-12 media day when he made strong, compelling arguments as to why his quarterback Jeff Tuel is like Stonewall Jackson and his defensive lineman Travis Long is like Ulysses S. Grant. That only came after he described going bear hunting in Canada with former California quarterback Mike Pawlawski.
Just for fun, he’s currently doing research about Geronimo, while reading a Davy Crockett biography.
“My on-deck circle of books is pretty big right now, but if you get any suggestions I might squeeze it in and if it’s really good I might shove it to the front of the line,” he said.
Oh, and he does coach a little football.
For all his varied interests, Leach does have a charge that comes along with his $2.25 million annual salary: resurrect a program that just a decade ago was playing in the Rose Bowl and ranked among the top 5 nationally. If Leach can accomplish that, he’ll not only return the Cougars to respectability but continue to put his ugly departure from Texas Tech in the past.
The buildup comes to a head next Thursday night when the Cougars open the season at BYU.
“I think he is re-energized,” Emerick said. “I think toward the end at Tech he was frustrated by what was going on. He didn’t always feel in a good place with contract negations or whatever else and at Washington State he is so excited to be here.”
After two years out of coaching, spending time trolling around Key West looking for the best seafood available in the Florida Keys — hogfish is a particular favorite — and becoming a popular radio and television commentator, Leach jumped at the chance to go completely across the country and take on the rebuilding at Washington State.
His time away from the sidelines provided Leach an opportunity to rejuvenate, to look at the game from another perspective and try to forget about his ugly departure from Texas Tech — one that continues to linger through litigation.
He was fired amid allegations he mistreated a player who had a concussion. Leach has denied wrongdoing. The player, Adam James, is the son of former ESPN college football analyst Craig James. Leach has said Craig James coaxed Tech administrators into firing him. Leach sued ESPN Inc. and a Dallas public relations firm for libel and slander. No trial date has been set.
Leach tried to make his case and uphold his reputation in his best-selling book, “Swing Your Sword,” which he co-authored after his firing. He insists the circumstances surrounding his dismissal at Texas Tech will not change who he is as a coach. It has made Leach more acutely focused on the kind of coaching situation he wanted when he stepped back into the game.
“I think he always thought he would get back into coaching. But, like me when I left Kentucky, I think he was worried about the damage,” said Hal Mumme, who had Leach on his coaching staff for 10 years and remains a close friend.
“I don’t think he’ll change one bit. I don’t think you want him to change. They want what they hired.”
That Leach ever became a coach is a story in itself. His first exposure was not in football but coaching youth baseball back in Cody, Wyo., while in high school and early in his college days at BYU.
Those memories stuck with Leach and were at the core of his decision to bypass immediately going into law when he graduated from Pepperdine Law School in 1986. He instead accepted an entry-level coaching position at Cal Poly.
It might have been baseball that gave Leach that first taste of coaching. But it was football that Leach loved.
Nearly 30 years later, he’s still a coach.
“I’m sure his wife, his in-laws thought it was going to be a short-term deal,” Emerick said. “They all thought their daughter married a lawyer.”
Leach, though, knows that coaching is his calling. And right now, Washington State is the perfect place for him.
“I know that the players are very engaged and very excited about the opportunity to play for Mike Leach and their enthusiasm is quite obvious,” Moos said. “It’s been fun to watch them get a little bit of a swagger and feel good about themselves.”