In happier times in January after his hire, Washington State coach Mike Leach was surrounded by ex-Cougar greats. From left, Rueben Mayes, Drew Bledsoe, Robbie Tobeck and Jack Thompson; talents the likes of which will be hard to get to Pullman again. / Washington State University
After Mike Leach offered such flattering terms as "zombies" and "empty corpses" to describe his Washington State football team (I'm still checking with the Seattle PD forensics to explain the latter), the temptation is great to continue this end-of-life Palouse motif with "dead man walking."
But that would be wrong. Because for all the gasps, shudders, swoons and chortles Leach is producing with the castigations of his team, the 2012 season is his first, last and best chance to clean house.
Never will he have a stronger hand to play than in his first year when the WSU administration and athletic director that hired him have the leverage to forgive him his trespasses.
Leach probably knew in the first five minutes of his first practice that he did not have a competitive team for the Pac-12 Conference, but amid all the genuflection that attended his arrival, there was no way he could say anything.
He had to wait for others to see the evidence. It started rolling in with the first game, a 30-6 loss at Brigham Young, and climaxed Saturday with a 49-6 lost at Utah. The Cougars were a tidy 12-79 in the Beehive State, making them as welcome at the Mormon tabernacle as a buttermilk kegger.
Looking at the football talent level, Leach has decided many of the recruits of his predecessor, Paul Wulff, aren't going to help him win. A messy business, this. He wants them to go away, and the NCAA rules make it convenient because athletic scholarships are renewed on an annual basis, not a four-year ride as the mythmakers once claimed.
But if Leach simply throws them out without the proper foreshadowing, he risks alienating parents, high school coaches and his overall recruiting reputation. He has to first make a case. Sadly, his players are making it for him, as he knew they would, going 0-6 so far in league and 2-7 overall, with little hope of winning in the final three games.
Harsh as has been his language and attitude, he likely will get a pass from the Cougars legions, who are more sick of losing than they are worried about hurt feelings. If fans cared more about feelings, helpfulness, courtesy and pleasantness, Washington State would have hired C3PO. Fans don't care about those things, so AD Bill Moos hired Darth Vader.
In his first year of a contract that makes him the state's highest-paid employee at more than $2 million annually, Leach knows that his bosses have his back, because to even censor him, much less fire him, would make them look like morons for having failed utterly to understand what made him good in 10 years Texas Tech and what made him fired.
Simply put, Leach eventually wears out people around him. Same was said about former Mariners manager Lou Piniella. Both are bright, passionate men who understand people and their industries well. But they are demanding to the point of recklessness. As the saying goes, they are high maintenance.
Leach is betting that the survivors of his first season, coupled with players recruited to his specifications, will come together fast enough that that success will allow all his transgressions to be forgiven.
Worked in Lubbock. Might not work in Pullman.
Even though many at the time of Leach hire made analogy to the two college towns as similarly small, forlorn specks in the empty spaces of civilization, the analogy fails because Texas, along with Florida and Southern California, are homes to America's greatest collections of prep football talent. There's a reason "Friday Night Lights" was not written about, nor cinematically examined, in Pullman.
Every football-playing kid growing up in Texas or Oklahoma believes he will one day star for one of the two giant state universities. When they don't get recruited to either, these thousands end up at lesser schools like Texas Tech, all heated up to bring down the miscreants who slighted them.
There is no similar wellspring of talent in the Northwest, where perhaps two or three dozen players annually will become big-school starters in their college careers. Still, a lot of players end up at Washington State and are thrilled -- because they aren't in the Big Sky Conference or worse. Leach has tasked himself with finding recruits who will fill his roster from vast distances and who are unwanted by the other 11 conference schools, all of which are more attractive to a a greater number of players.
Big job, requiring odd tactics.
It is certainly true that former WSU coach Mike Price once had three consecutive 10-win seasons in Pullman. It is also true that America landed men on the moon in the 1960s, but can no longer. Times change. That was then, this is now. Despite great advances is technology, the moon is farther away than ever. So is Pullman.
Leach has begun to set fire to the Palouse football landscape. We can tell by the empty corpses. He needs to move fast to avoid joining them.