Cougars’ quest begins with less drama

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PULLMAN — If we are indeed a product of all our experiences, then it’s probably inevitable that you can’t assess the 2013 Washington State football team without revisiting the events of 2012.

Here, we’ll let Connor Halliday do it.

“It was literally living a nightmare,” Halliday, WSU’s starting quarterback, told me last month on campus.

He spoke slowly, measuring his thoughts, fumbling for the right words. It wasn’t just the losing — a 3-9 record in Mike Leach’s first year — it was the controversial departure of Marquess Wilson, the abuse charges he leveled on the way out, the hoo-ha after the Utah game, when Leach ordered his offensive and defensive lines out to answer for a blowout.

The weight of it all.

“It’s hard to put into words,” Halliday said haltingly. “I’ve never seen anything, I’ve never been a part of anything, I’ve never ... it was just such ... it was just so terrible, I mean everything about it.

“I’ve never been on a team that, every day was just so negative — every lift, every practice, every film session. It was like you’re living in this world you can’t get out of.”

Now there’s a description made for a season-ticket brochure.

The Cougars began practice Friday for their Aug. 31 opener at Auburn, and the popular narrative is that last year was last year and this year is this year, and WSU has been cleansed of all the impurities that caused the launch to the Leach era to be so messy.

In reality, that might be only partly so. I’m struck by the likelihood that on any football team, there are varying degrees of buy-in — guys who are gung-ho true believers, guys who like playing but might not be wild about their position coach, and guys who are merely happy sitting down to three square meals a day.

If that’s true of WSU, it’s probably also the case across the country. Regarding the Cougars, Wilson was popular with at least some teammates, and the nasty particulars of his departure almost had to bring about some soul-searching as to how he was dealt with.

“It was a tough situation,” said offensive tackle Gunnar Eklund. “People didn’t know how to act toward it. People looked at it different ways, and not a lot of people talked about it, just because it was such a tense subject.”

“I think Marquess just snapped,” Halliday said. “His way of snapping was just walking out. A lot of other guys snapped, too.”

Center Elliott Bosch also hinted at the internal push-pull Leach created in the Utah interview aftermath.

On the whole, players bought that tactic, he said. But he also told me, “There were a couple of kids in that group, that kind of thing kind of shut them down. That’s what we’re working toward — all being the way we can embrace something like that.”

At Pac-12 media day last week, Leach acknowledged that buy-in doesn’t occur overnight. The roster, after all, numbers in three digits, almost guaranteeing commitment comes in degrees.

“The core of our team is the core that’s really committed,” Leach said. “Those that aren’t sure are more quickly converted because they’re outnumbered.”

So is the hay in the barn on that front?

“There’s no such thing as hay in the barn,” he said. “It’s constantly moving. It gets where it’s not as dramatic, but you have a rough spot here and there.”

Funny he would invoke the word dramatic. There was far too much drama around the Cougars in 2012, and I’d suggest that one of the barometers of progress this season, aside from evidence on the field, would simply be the blessing of quiet. An absence of frayed nerves and hurt feelings.

“The culture has been constantly changing for the better since the new staff got here,” Bosch insists.

The closer that is to a unanimous opinion, the sooner the Leach regime might begin to deliver.

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