SEATTLE — If you gave an award for the worst Pac-12 coaching job this football season, Mike Leach would win so convincingly that you’d have to name the dishonor after him.
How’s the Empty Corpse Award sound?
Leach, the ever-insulting, never-refraining Washington State coach, ruined a chance to be immediately competitive in his first season in Pullman. He blew it in stupefying fashion, with the kind of fireworks that you thought you’d only see from his renowned offensive scheme. For all the justified celebration that his hiring caused 11 months ago, Leach’s honeymoon period ended quicker than it took his Texas Tech teams to drive 80 yards.
It hasn’t just been a bad first year for the Cougars (2-8, 0-7 in the Pac-12). That’s forgivable, even though expectations were high. The troubling part is that Leach chose to attack his players when he couldn’t uplift them. He let his frustration obstruct his coaching. Instead of establishing himself in a manner that unites a team and its followers, he opted for drama — as usual.
It seems there always will be a battle between the coach and the character within Leach. He’s a complex dude. Even his multiple personalities have multiple personalities.
Consider Leach, the character: He doubles as the witty intellectual who embraces weird and the raging perfectionist who cannot be tamed. Now consider Leach, the coach: He doubles as a nerdy offensive mastermind who didn’t play the game at the college level and an intimidating, demanding old-school dictator who could make Woody Hayes blush.
Put it all together, and Leach doesn’t just attract drama. He seeks it. And he always will.
What the coach is going through right now — scrutiny of his belittling remarks about his players and an investigation by Washington State and the Pac-12 into wide receiver Marquess Wilson’s accusations of “physical, emotional and verbal abuse” — isn’t his death knell as WSU’s coach. The Leach era at Washington State won’t end before it gets started because Wilson couldn’t deal with a hard-driving, ornery coaching staff. But it does serve notice that, if you expected Leach to change after his Texas Tech tenure ended with a controversy over his coaching tactics, you were being naive.
As someone who was borderline giddy when athletic director Bill Moos hired Leach and predicted a bowl-bound 6-6 first season for Leach, I must explain where I stand now. I still think Leach was an excellent hire. I still think that, if he chooses to stay at Washington State for at least seven years, he’ll have amazing success and do it with maximum excitement. But I wonder if his impatience and loose lips keep him from achieving all that he can.
I’m disappointed in Leach for two reasons: He didn’t make good use of some positive things he inherited, and he underestimated the psychological scar tissue involved when you take over a team with a deep losing culture.
The Cougars needed a kick in the pants. It didn’t have to be with a steel-toed boot, though. As Leach works to create a higher standard in Pullman, he needs to accept the difficulty of the job instead of constantly badgering it.
In Year 1, he has already shocked and humbled the players enough with his biting words. He has referred to the “empty corpse quality” of some of his seniors and the linemen’s effort “bordering on cowardice” after a 49-6 loss to Utah. He has made dozens of harsh remarks about his team’s physical and mental toughness.
It should be noted that Leach can be encouraging, too, and he has talked about being proud of his team several times during his tough season. There are shades of gray when considering how he coaches his team. But overall, he hasn’t just had an ineffective first season. No coach in the conference has fumbled hope more than Leach.
First impressions aren’t everything, but Leach was set up to make a good one. He declined. He took over an offense that averaged 29.8 points and 422.4 yards in 2011 and returned its core. This season, those averages have dipped to 20.7 points and 370.4 yards, numbers that are pretty much against Leach’s religion.
Perhaps Leach truly had an awful group of upperclassmen that he needed to rebuke, and Washington State will prove to be better for this disaster in a couple of years. The Cougars hope that’s the case. He didn’t lose this team. The Cougars were lost long before he arrived. But when Leach couldn’t find enough of them, he stopped searching. It’s an odd way to handle the first year of a rebuilding task.
Whether Leach succeeds or fails, don’t surprised the next time he greets controversy. He comes with two guarantees: He’ll build an explosive offense and create cringe-worthy headlines. That is who he is. He’s not changing.
So you’re left to wonder how many points it will take to drown the drama.