Just a few short months ago, nearly every word publicly uttered by Mike Leach was greeted with amusement and whimsy. In the sanctity of the offseason, Leach could do no wrong. There were no games to be won or lost, no press conferences filled with tough questions from the media, no speculation over how the next contest could end up less frustrating than the last.
Back then, Leach was a hero. Fans were dreaming of immediate success, pausing only briefly to consider the possibility that their team might not prevail every time it took to the field on gameday. Mike Leach was a guru. Mike Leach was a winner. Mike Leach was hired to usher in a tradition of success that would become a staple of Washington State football for years to come.
And then reality hit.
As a biased observer — I’m an unabashed Husky fan, forever and always — the Summer of Leach was comedy to behold. Cougar fans greeted their new head coach in the same way that the University of Washington faithful once greeted Tyrone Willingham. Leach was propped up on so high a pedestal that he wouldn’t have been able to live up to the lofty expectations placed on his shoulders if he had won every game. It was almost unfair.
From the outside looking in, any rational individual could have seen a season of disappointment brewing. When you’re at the top, the only place you can go is down. And thanks to the Cougar fan base, Leach was perched atop a mountain before he ever coached his first game in crimson and gray.
So it is that WSU finds itself sitting at 2-7 through the season’s first nine games. The Cougars are dead last in the Pac-12 with an 0-6 conference record. Their supposedly vaunted “Air Raid” offense has been outscored by a margin of over 100 points, 286-171. They were mathematically eliminated from postseason contention on Saturday, upon losing to Utah — though one could argue that Washington State was spiritually eliminated from a bowl bid long ago. For all intents and purposes, the 2012 season has been a colossal failure. At the center of this year’s ineptitude is the man who all but wore a cape and kicked bad-guy tail fewer than ten weeks ago. This is Mike Leach’s mess. Seemingly, it keeps getting worse and worse.
Following Saturday’s 49-6 drubbing at the hands of the Utes, Leach sat down for his post-game press conference and proceeded to lambast nearly every player on his roster. He questioned the effort, the heart, the dedication, and the work ethic of his team. He marched his offensive and defensive linemen into the conference room to field questions from reporters, as well, essentially holding them accountable for the team’s poor performance. If nothing else, it was a display of force in the face of unmitigated adversity. But it was not without consequence.
When it was all said and done, not forty-eight hours later, there were rumors that Leach had “lost” his ballclub, that players had “quit” on their coach. Those rumors were only further substantiated Monday morning when receiver Marquess Wilson, arguably the team’s best talent, was suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. Via Twitter, word circulated that Wilson had walked out on a team practice Sunday. Further speculation surfaced that Wilson had not just walked out on practice, but had allegedly quit the team.
Whether or not Wilson returns to the Cougar ballclub, it is evident that the 2012 Washington State football program is currently in shambles. Provided the university stick by Leach through this moment of duress, however, this lost season may not be repeated in the future.
Yes, Leach has lost this year’s team. But frankly, one could argue that this team wasn’t worth holding onto. If the Cougars of the past few years have proven anything, it’s that they lack a winning attitude. They lack the ability to succeed. They lack the very things Leach has repeatedly acknowledged each time he’s trotted out before a public waiting to flog him. Face it: the Cougars suck.
If Mike Leach is going to win at Washington State, he’ll need his players to buy into his methods. Not Paul Wulff’s methods. Not the methods of a previous regime. His methods. His brand of ball. His way of winning. And the current rendition of the Cougar football program hasn’t been willing to do that. So screw ‘em. Chalk up this year as a loss and move onto the next.
The reality is this. Leach’s current roster really is full of all the heartless, gutless, no-talent quitters he continues to call out. It’s no secret. The win-loss records of recent seasons prove it. What his players are finding out right now is that it takes a lot more dedication to succeed than they may very well possess. Which is why guys like Wilson, for example, are jumping the proverbial ship (yeah, pun intended — he thinks he’s a pirate, it makes sense).
Some coaches want wins. Some coaches want money. Some coaches want to prepare their players for life. Some coaches want any combination of those three things. If I’ve seen anything from Mike Leach, it’s that he’s probably the latter of that trio more than anything else. He wants his guys to be more than just names on a stat sheet. They have yet to achieve that.
Mike Leach is weird. But he’s weird in the best way possible. He says exactly what’s on his mind, and that catches people off-guard. We’re not used to hearing the truth. We’re more comfortable digesting sugar-coated affirmations of fabricated positivity. Long ago, Leach made up his mind that he wouldn’t be that fake asshole society has come to expect from our sports figures. You have to appreciate that, even if you may not always like it.
Leach will continue to lose players worth losing in the coming months. And make no mistake about it, every one of those players who quits on his teammates, regardless of talent or ability, will be worth losing. No winning team has a place for quitters. Leach knows this, and he’ll continue to foster that mentality among the uniformed disciples willing to listen.
But if the Washington State football program wishes to find its way, they’ll need to stand by Mike Leach. At least for now. Because it’s his way or the highway. And between a school that has never won at much of anything and a coach that has been legitimately successful elsewhere, I know who I’d side with if I was a fan.
Win or lose, it’s Leach’s team. This team may be at the bottom right now. But when you’re at the bottom, the only place you can go is up.