PULLMAN — Fourteen months ago, Washington State football copyrighted a brand: Mike Leach. He would get the Cougars new facilities, he would goose fundraising, he would hoist them from the ashes.
As you might have heard, his first year — including, but not exclusive of, a 3-9 season — didn’t always go so well. But it was Leach who Wednesday emerged as the key to salvaging his first full recruiting class at WSU.
That had to do with quarterback Tyler Bruggman of Phoenix, who, as a four-star recruit, is viewed as the gem of WSU’s class. For a few hours there, Bruggman had crimson partisans in a bigger knot than if the Washington state legislature had declared Whitman County dry.
In Bruggman’s moment of truth, said his coach at Brophy Prep, Scooter Molander, “He’s always been impressed with coach Leach. He came to the resolution that this is about his belief in and his relationship with coach Leach.”
The Cliff’s Notes: Bruggman gave the Cougars a boost last June when he committed over hometown Arizona State. Just after, ASU pinned down a commitment from quarterback Joshua Dobbs of Alpharetta, Ga.
But Dobbs bolted this week for Butch Jones’ new regime at Tennessee — it’s the SEC, right? — so Tuesday, Todd Graham’s ASU staff slapped a late, full-court press on Bruggman.
Too, said Molander, “He got phone calls from other guys going to ASU, trying to push on him.”
Bruggman, who also happened to be ill, was conflicted enough that he walked away from a scheduled signing ceremony and huddled up with Molander and his parents. Molander, meanwhile, denied multiple reports that Bruggman’s mother was pushing him to stay home.
Bottom line: “Tyler is a man of his word,” said Molander. “He’s proud and happy to be a Cougar.”
Who knows whether Bruggman will ever play a down, but credit Leach with at least a symbolic save. WSU’s class without its only quarterback target in an offense that throws 60 times a game would have been tantamount to clam chowder minus the clams.
For his part, Leach wasn’t especially expansive on the whole episode, other than joking that he’d gotten Bruggman’s mother’s lasagna recipe at midnight Tuesday, so he still felt good. His hunch was confirmed when Bruggman, wearing a Cougars-logoed hat and a necktie, eventually signed.
“As a person who doesn’t wear a tie,” Leach said, “if a person is gonna wear a tie somewhere, he means business.”
Not only did the Cougars keep Bruggman on board, they seemed to minimize the fallout from the late-season, off-field racket. Recall that in November, Leach and the Cougars were confronted by Marquess Wilson’s charges of abuse. It wasn’t until January that the Pac-12 repeated WSU’s finding that they were meritless, so WSU coaches occasionally had to answer questions in living rooms.
But, said Leach, “I don’t think it had any effect. If anything, I think it was a positive. People saw it for what it was. Both reviews vindicated our staff to the point where I almost blushed.”
Layered underneath, there was a subtle change of the guard. In recent years, Paul Wulff signees Jeff Tuel, Gino Simone and Nolan Washington were the star hosts of recruits. Now that has largely been assumed by the current true freshmen, people like linebackers Jeremiah Allison and Kache Palacio, young enough both to relate better, plus fresher to Leach’s idiosyncrasies.
The Cougars look to have profited again in Los Angeles, and they continued an incursion into American Samoa. They added 11 linemen, six on offense, and reading between the lines, they seem to have been trying to unearth toughness.
In that vein, Leach called offensive line recruit Carlos Freeman “tough and mean”; said JC wideout Vince Mayle “pancakes guys when he blocks them”; and characterized small-town Alabama defensive tackle Gerald Sterling as “one of those country-strong guys who’s not afraid of anything.”
Analysts have put WSU’s class in the 40-50 range nationally. Of course, the playing field will be the final judge of that. As night fell, still unaccounted for was committed Concord, Calif., running back Olito Thompson, who rushed for 3,488 yards as a junior.
“Real happy doesn’t exist,” Leach said coyly when he was asked how he felt overall. “Pretty happy, yeah. I think it went well.”
He added linemen, after all, and when the hand-wringing was done in the desert, he had his quarterback. And a new way to cook Italian.