Yahoo Sports exclusive: WSU's Mike Leach called out Pac-12 officiating via text after controversial USC game

The Washington State Cougars are 5-1 this season under coach Mike Leach. (AP)
The Washington State Cougars are 5-1 this season under coach Mike Leach. (AP)

On Sept. 21, Washington State lost at USC on a Friday night after one of the most controversial no-calls of the college football season.

At the time, Washington State coach Mike Leach declined comment on the obvious helmet-to-helmet targeting hit by USC’s Porter Gustin on Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew. He told reporters to call Pac-12 executive Woodie Dixon, who runs football in the league, about the controversial no-call.

Yahoo Sports obtained a trove of text messages from Leach to Pac-12 executives in the wake of that hit, via a public-records request to the school. Leach’s texts include doubts about the Pac-12’s commitment to player safety and insinuations of favoritism in the league office toward other programs. In totality, they underscore a lack of trust in the Pac-12 to officiate games correctly. Last week, the Pac-12 overhauled its replay protocols after a Yahoo Sports report that Dixon, who is not a trained official, telephoned in and overruled replay officials on a different targeting call under review in the same game.

Leach, in a text to Pac-12 vice president of officiating David Coleman, wrote on Sept. 25 about the targeting no-call against USC: “Woodie is a total coward and is afraid of USC. I look forward to telling him in person.”

In texts to Dixon and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, Leach blasts the league for not backing up its public posturing about commitment to player safety. Leach wrote to Dixon in the wake of the Gustin hit: “Don’t ever waste my time, making me sit through some sanctimonious speech or demonstration on player safety or targeting if you are going to continue to alibi what happened last Friday.”

Leach also said in a text message to Scott: “The Pac-12 cannot say with any credibility, that they are actually trying to protect student athletes.”

In a text that same week to Dixon, who is the Pac-12 general counsel and senior vice president of business affairs, Leach referenced a controversial game with Stanford from 2015. He accused Dixon of calling Washington State staff in the press box during that game and making them turn down the band noise because they were “playing too loud.” Leach then wrote: “Why can’t I help wondering, if you’re trying to manipulate wins and losses?”

Dixon responded: “Mike don’t ever again accuse [me of] of manipulating wins and losses. Please show this text to your AD and have him give me a call.”

Leach wrote back: “I didn’t accuse you of anything. I suggest that you get on sorting out those rules that I pointed out. After all, that is your job.” (A text message from Dixon to Washington State athletic director Patrick Chun, obtained by Yahoo, said that he’d received a “disturbing” text from Leach. But there’s no further conversation about it.)

The Pac-12 responded with a statement late Friday from Andrew Walker, the head of communications: “While we do not comment on private communications with coaches, if there is ever a serious allegation of any kind from a coach we follow up and discuss the matter with the relevant university athletic department and provide them with an opportunity to request an inquiry into the matter. No such request has been received from Washington State University.”

Both Leach and Chun declined comment when reached late Friday.

Leach has shown an affinity for conspiracy theories over the years, including tweeting a political hoax on Father’s Day which led to heavy criticism.

The text messages, obtained by Yahoo Sports on Friday night, come as Washington State is on the cusp of one of the biggest games in school history. The No. 25 Cougars host No. 12 Oregon on Saturday afternoon, with the whole region amped up for the first-ever appearance by ESPN’s “College GameDay” at Washington State.

Washington State enters the game with just one loss, which came in that controversial USC game. Leach references how the missed targeting call on Gustin may have cost Washington State an opportunity to win the game, as they’d have had the ball in the waning minutes on the USC 10-yard line if targeting had been called. They ended up getting a 38-yard field goal blocked and losing, 39-36.

Leach excoriated the officiating crew, led by referee Javarro Edwards, in a text to Coleman: “Fire this crew and hire the Mountain West Crew that we had versus Wyoming.” He also told Scott: “I NEVER want to see them officiate another one of our games.”

In a text to Scott, Leach added a reference to USC’s Gustin missing the first half of the Washington State game for a targeting call in a previous game: “He is a repeat offender and something needs to be done. The officials refused to call anything and didn’t review it. Pathetic.”

As he did publicly – and received much criticism for doing so – Scott defended the targeting call to Leach in text messages. For context, Yahoo Sports interviewed two independent officials last week about the call. Fox officiating expert Mike Pereira called it “one of the most obvious cases of targeting you can have.” NBC officiating expert Terry McAulay called it a “travesty” that it wasn’t called. (ESPN analyst Desmond Howard questioned on Twitter whether Scott should be drug-tested when Scott called it “a very, very close” call.)

When Leach reached out to Scott with his concerns, Scott said, “I had questions and concerns about that hit.” Scott encouraged Leach to reach out to Dixon and Coleman, as he said, “they were in command center and did review the play. Very close judgement call, but determined it wasn’t targeting.”

Leach was so stunned at this answer that he asked Scott if they were talking about the same hit. “Show that hit to anyone that you know, that knows anything about football, and see if they think it isn’t targeting.” When Scott commented publicly on the hit later in the week, Leach wrote him and asked: “So are you going to get fined 10,000$ (sic) for making those comments? If not, why don’t you just send me the 10,000$ (sic) that you fined me and we will call it even.”

Scott responded: “I’m not following you. You may want to speak to your AD, who I spoke to yesterday.”

Leach is referencing Pac-12 rules that prohibit coaches from making public comments about officiating. Leach was fined $10,000 in 2016 after accusing Arizona State of stealing signals. Leach had told Scott in a previous text he was “considering taking the fine and expressing my feelings and thoughts in order to protect my student-athletes.”

In a text back to Leach, Scott responded that he felt it was OK to “express concerns and maybe disagreement, without crossing the line to criticize or discredit and invoke fine.”

Leach’s text messages come in the wake of a Yahoo Sports report last week that showed Dixon telephoned into the conference’s command center during the game between Washington State and USC and influenced the trained officials’ call on a targeting play. (Scott confirmed this at Pac-12 media day after thoroughly reviewing that night, as it contrasts with the text referenced earlier that says Dixon was in the booth.) Dixon, who is not trained as an official, was identified by Yahoo as the “third party” in an internal report that “unfortunately” did not agree with the call.

In the internal report, the replay official in the stadium, Gary McNanna wrote: “Both the replay booth and the command center agreed this was a targeting foul, but unfortunately a third party did not agree so the targeting was removed and we went with the ruling on the field of [roughing the passer] with no targeting. This didn’t play well on TV. Reversed my stoppage for [targeting] to not [targeting].”

The Yahoo report led to immediate changes in the Pac-12’s officiating policies, as both Dixon and the head of officiating, David Coleman, were immediately banned from influencing replay officials during games. Scott also called for a broad review of the conference’s officiating policies and practices. “We’ve come to the conclusion that we made a mistake in our procedure,” Scott told Yahoo last week. “We want to eliminate any ambiguity from that.”

In the text messages, Leach is generally complimentary to Coleman and the job he’s done improving officiating in the Pac-12. “I want to first say, through your leadership, the officiating in this conference has improved a lot. However, as I watch this film, this crew was even worse than I thought.”

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