In this photo taken Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012, Washington State head coach Mike Leach checks his plan during the opening day of NCAA college football practice at Rogers Field in Pullman, Wash. Washington State opens the 2012 season, the first under new head coach Mike Leach, Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, against BYU in Provo, Utah.
PROVO, Utah — A Washington State fan on a message board asked a thought-provoking question awhile back:
Take a 6-6 record right now, no questions asked, or go for the gusto and let it play out? Bank the .500 record, which probably gets you to your first bowl game in nine years, or reach for the stars and see if they bring you seven or eight regular-season victories?
The majority wanted to travel the risky road. Got to love the fan chutzpah of a program that’s always had a bit of a gambler’s hell-for-leather attitude. But I’m not sure they realize what they’re up against, starting Thursday night at Brigham Young.
For nine months, the Mike Leach story has percolated on national websites and TV networks. He’s a big story, and he’s dragged the Cougars along with him, which is exactly what athletic director Bill Moos had in mind late last November.
But the interviews peter out and the pounding begins (or in Leach’s case, the passing) here in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains. And we’re going to see how much of an immediate impact a coach of proven sagacity can make for the Cougars.
For them to win, it will have to be considerable.
Throughout the offseason and all during fall camp, Leach has taken a positive posture. Certainly, there has been no public wail about the talent level or the work habits or the attitude.
I figure that’s for two reasons: It’s clear that Leach is naturally confident, bordering on cocky. He has just enough swagger to believe he can do more with less, and let’s not kid ourselves, the Cougars are still in that latter division.
Second, I suspect Leach knows it does no good to further bruise the psyches of people around a program that has lost 40 games in four years. The Cougars have needed a hug about as badly as anybody in college football recently.
So if he’s deeply concerned about facets of his first WSU team, he’s voiced them only privately. When he’s quizzed about specific units, he often says he’ll have to wait and see.
The other day, I asked him if he had a general sense of how capable the Cougars are compared to his first team at Texas Tech, which went 7-6. And he was upbeat.
“I think we’re pretty capable,” he said. “I think we’ve got a good, cohesive staff, and I think our teaching has been at a little higher level, if for no other reason than I’ve been a head coach before.
“The players had a really dedicated offseason. They’ve worked incredibly hard. We had good, consistent practices. There was only one practice that I’m really ticked off about, and I can think of only a couple others that were a little below average. I’ve not had a team I could say that about.”
The description that clings like a barnacle to Leach is those 10 bowl games in 10 years at Tech. Truth be told, the first one in 2000 was a bit of a mirage. The Red Raiders beat New Mexico, Utah State, North Texas and Louisiana-Lafayette in games outside the Big 12.
Each of the seven teams they defeated had a losing record, to a composite 23-55. There was nobody the ilk of BYU, a 10-win team last year, on the schedule.
A glance at Phil Steele’s preseason player rankings by position crystallizes the challenge: There are 12 blue Cougars — as the ones in Pullman are calling BYU — and four in crimson (quarterback Jeff Tuel, wideout Marquess Wilson, offensive tackle John Fullington and hybrid linebacker Travis Long).
Meanwhile, the WSU roster seems dotted with question marks. Leach lost 36 starts when he booted wayward defenders C.J. Mizell, Sekope Kaufusi and Tony Laurenzi. Take Long out of the front seven, and the other six have a sobering eight career starts.
One of those, redshirt freshman Xavier Cooper, still is listed as a starter despite having spent most of the past two weeks in a protective boot.
The center, Elliott Bosch, is a walk-on who got into two games last year. One safety is a true freshman, Taylor Taliulu.
Deal-breaker? Not necessarily. That’s why they play the games.
But if the red Cougars pull this one off, their fans will know, not just sense, the value of Mike Leach.