In a little less than a week, Washington State football will step back on a stage they haven’t performed on for a decade. Getting back to playing in a post season bowl has been a struggle, to say the least.
Dating back to the 2003 Holiday Bowl, the Cougs have managed just one season of bowl eligibility. To the disappointment of a loyal, enthusiastic fan base, the 2006 team was snubbed by selection committees from coast-to-coast. After nine games, the Cougs were 6-3 and Alex Brink was slinging the football to the likes of Brandon Gibson, Jason Hill, Michael Bumpus and Jed Collins. All of those guys would go on to play in the NFL yet missed an opportunity to play in a bowl game because of the three-game losing skid to end the season.
If you want to reach for a highlight to discuss in the context of Cougar football over the past ten years, 2006 is your only option for ardent conversation.
Thanks to the vision and expectations of Bill Moos, WSU athletic director, the third time turned out to be the charm in naming a head coach to lead Cougar football.
In searching for a new Washington State head coach, he convinced the best college football coach who had the qualities necessary to revive a sagging, dormant program.
Mike Leach was brought on board by Moos in part because of an outstanding record leading Texas Tech to 10-consecutive bowl games.
Though the Lone Star state is a hotbed for high school prospects, Lubbock might not have been considered the No. 1 place in Texas to play college football prior to Leach bringing his Air Raid offense to Texas Tech. He changed that situation just like he has begun to change things at a comparable small college town campus in Pullman, WA.
Washington State hasn’t been the No. 1 choice for in-state high school prospects since…you guessed it, 2003. And they aren’t there yet, but Leach has the groundwork in place to change the perception of WSU for the better.
What has Coach Leach done to begin a turnaround on the Palouse?
“Establishing expectations. Raising expectations and figuring out who wanted to commit and do the work to be the best they could be,” explained Mike Leach during a conference call Monday afternoon.
There are numerous details which need attention to develop, maintain and advance a Pac-12 football program.
It probably will sound trite, but rapport among team members is crucial if you expect to do great things on the gridiron.
“One of the biggest steps for us, and continues some, is getting everybody to know one another,” said Leach about what he viewed as one of the challenges facing him upon arrival at WSU just two years ago. ”If you look at our roster, the vast majority of us are freshmen and sophomores. When we started out, it was essentially strangers.”
No question Leach is taking dramatic license to make his point, but his generalization is a fair description of what he discovered waiting for him upon arrival.
It didn’t take long for Leach and his staff to assess the WSU roster. “It was a lot of freshmen and then some guys that had been around here. Maybe a junior or senior, but more freshmen than that.”
Though Leach was late into the recruiting cycle for 2012, his message was simple to student-athletes yet to commit to other programs. If you want to play right away in the Pac-12, strongly consider getting your education and playing football on the turf of Martin Stadium for Washington State. And that message worked. Young men with raw talent signed on to play for the crimson and gray, as well as the genius behind a passing attack that’s fun to play in and even more fun for fans to watch.
Two years later the facts show Leach’s vision works once the elements are put in place.
“Now we’ve worked our way to sophomores and a bunch of freshmen and some of these older guys that have really bought in.”
As much a Coach Leach needed guys who matched his style of play, he had to elevate the student-athletes already on the WSU roster. He isn’t shy about describing the veterans players on this bowl-bound team. “I can’t be more impressed with them.”
As frustrated as WSU fans have been, their emotions pale when compared to those of guys transitioning from winning high school programs where they were the BMOC to a Pac-12 program in name only. Guys like Bosch and Bucannon didn’t expect things would be easy at the collegiate level, but they had to have been stunned by finding themselves on a team winning about as often as a Republican is elected to public office in Washington.
Leach has changed the football culture for WSU in many ways, including the win/loss record of the team. He ramped up the process last August by beginning fall camp off campus in Lewiston, ID.
“Again they were all lot of people who didn’t know each other, so they got acquainted really fast. That happened in camp.”
As this past season progressed, much of the improvement from week-to-week can be traced to the time spent isolated together away from the distractions living on-campus. Players began to trust each other to take responsibility for their actions both on and off the field. Trust may well be the most critical component of Leach’s program.
Leach went on to say, “…we went through Murder’s Row both years, especially this year because we have the toughest schedule in America. There’s some tough times as you’re playing “Who’s Who”. We’ve improved each week and got better each week. Nobody really took their eye off the past. They just kept fighting together and pulling together.”
Combining athletic talent with trust and hard work has produced a new start for Cougar football. The man making it happen has a sparkle in his eye when sharing why things are looking good for the Cougs. “…we’ve steadily improved, this last week, too. We need to continue to improve.”
History suggests that as long as Mike Leach is the head football coach for Washington State, the program will improve while continuing to get better and become the best team they can be.