Avast ye curs! After two years marooned in the inky brine of unemployment, the good cap'n has returned: Per local and national sources, Mike Leach is setting his course for Pullman, Wash., as we speak to turn the most lily-livered program in the Pac-12 into a crew of high-flying marauders. Or, failing that, at least into a program the rest of the country acknowledges again.
Word of the Leach's pending arrival comes barely 24 hours after Washington State formally ditched coach Paul Wulff, at a press conference in which athletic director director Bill Moos not-so-subtly hinted at his preference for a "flashy, high-octane offense" that will boost sagging attendance and make Wazzu "a destination, not a stepping stone." No name he could have produced could have furthered either end more fully than Mike Leach.
In a decade at Texas Tech, Leach emerged from his mostly buttoned-down, CEO-like peers as such a singularly fascinating, complex figure in terms of his public persona — and a successful one, professionally — that distilling his impact into one, single thread doesn't seem possible. (Or, if it is possible, it doesn't seem right.) In an increasingly corporate culture, he was a kind of savant: A mumbling, unpolished cultivator of pirate swords, magic tricks, Geronimo memorabilia, rambling press conferences, wildly tattooed linemen, place kickers pulled from the stands, unlikely friendships with the likes of Donald Trump and a play sheet the size of a cocktail napkin fueling the most consistently prolific offense in the country.
The most obvious and conventional virtue of Leach's tenure was his reign over the most successful decade in Texas Tech history, by far. His Raiders put together eight straight seasons with at least eight wins, smashing the previous school record of two. They beat Texas twice and knocked off Oklahoma on three OU straight trips into Lubbock. They played in back-to-back January bowl games for the first time in 70 years.
In 2008 alone, they tied a school record for wins, knocked off a No. 1-ranked opponent for the first time ever and matched the highest final poll finish in Tech history. Leach's final season at Tech in 2009 was the first in his tenure that the Raiders obviously regressed from the previous season, from 11-2 in '08 to 8-4 in '09, largely because there wasn't anywhere else to go.
Texas Tech was a winning program when Leach took over — predecessor Spike Dykes had delivered five straight winning records and 11 in 15 years since taking over in 1986 — but Leach is the first Raider coach to win big enough for long enough for anyone outside of Texas to pay much attention. And now that he's gone, well, see the current record under his successor, Tommy Tuberville: Texas Tech just dropped five straight games in lopsided fashion en route to a 5-7 finish, its first losing season since 1992.
But Leach's outsider instincts also cost him. He never had traction for the kind of high profile job that ought to follow winning at Texas Tech. He made enemies in the Tech administration. And when bizarre reports emerged in December 2009 that he'd been suspended for allegedly locking a concussed player in an electrical closet, he never had a chance. Whatever the truth behind his ouster — and to whatever extent the facts were manipulated by disgruntled dad Craig James and his colleagues at ESPN — the one undeniable fact is that after ten years on campus, no one with a chance to save him had Leach's back. Quite the opposite. He's still embroiled in an ongoing legal battle against arguably the most powerful entity in the sport.
As second chances go, though, he could do a lot worse. Pullman is like a colder, wetter version of Lubbock, home to a far-flung, welterweight program in the middle of a vast expanse of flyover country. Texas Tech is famously the most isolated I-A/FBS school in terms of proximity to other I-A/FBS schools; if not for the nearest neighbor in the country, the University of Idaho, Washington State wouldn't be far behind. It's not the kind of place that attracts headline coaches, or career climbers, or high profile recruits. By Rivals' count, Paul Wulff's recruiting classes included only one player rated higher than three stars and consistently ranked among the bottom of the conference, and no one ever expected much better.
Recent depression notwithstanding, though, Washington State also has a history of innovative offenses, prolific quarterbacks and occasional forays into the national consciousness: Under Mike Price, the Cougars finished in the final polls five times in eleven years from 1992 to 2002 and went to a pair of Rose Bowls. They won ten games and finished No. 9 in the polls as recently as 2003.
Next year, Leach will inherit an offense that finished among the top ten nationally in passing offense despite losing its starting quarterback in the season opener and shuffling through two other QBs over the course of the season. All three will be back, along with a legitimate star in Marquess Wilson, who ranks among the most productive and underrated receivers in the nation as a sophomore. The Cougars are going to come in passing, go out passing and spend as much time as possible passing in between.
For an outfit with four conference wins in four years and consistently atrocious pass protection, that doesn't guarantee an immediate turnaround in the standings. But it does promise an immediate uptick in attendance — barely 16,000 people showed up for the Cougars' home finale against Utah, and that's announced — and exposure. After nearly a decade of languishing in mediocrity and worse, it means being a Washington State fan is going to be kind of fun.