Washington State University has always been at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting sporting talent to the Palouse. Geography, small-school stature, a lack of vision and overall underwhelming facilities have always been at the forefront of the issues that have held WSU back from getting both recruits and coaches to come to Pullman.
That has all changed at a groundbreaking pace under athletic director Bill Moos, who’s vision and overall drive have helped to pave the way for a new day at WSU. The coach is here, the finishing touches are being put on Martin Stadium and the fan base seems to be quickly reloading after a dismal decade that saw loyal Cougs stick it out but plenty fall by the wayside in their support of WSU athletics.
In (our) defense, it’s been backbreaking at times trying to watch some of the talent that’s come through. So much so in fact that we had convinced ourselves we had found the right guy in Paul Wulff, who truth be told wasn’t all that much better than Ken Bone when it came to logistics and gravitational pull in the recruiting game.
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The offense was going to put up points, the defensive scheme was not overwhelming but it was alright and the Cougs were on their way to possibly contending for six or seven wins annually. As a fan base we had gotten so beaten down that we convinced ourselves that would be good enough.
Good enough for a proud University in the Pac-12, The Conference of Champions?
No way Cougs.
Recruits saw that and the best ones stayed far away. Funny how when the ownership (or in this case A.D.) doesn’t care, the athletes can see it.
And the worst part? Jim Sterk wasn’t planning on any of this new Martin Stadium business. He didn’t have any vision for it, at least not for what it is now. He put up a new concourse on the East side, but besides that there wasn’t any thought into getting new facilities or a different press box, no CrimZone-type ideas… not even the new Nike partnership was on the Sterk-radar!
I’ll tell you what was on his mind though, seven years of Ken Bone on the court, another five of Wulff on the field and a mediocre (and successful) rise to the middle of the Pac-12 Conference throughout all WSU athletics. That was the fate of Washington State before a certain someone decided to come home and care about the program enough to think above mediocrity.
And for those that would defend Sterk because of his “hiring” of Tony Bennett, don’t because that was luck riding the coattails of Dick Bennett, who made Sterk include Tony in the deal of coming in to end his career in a small-town atmosphere yet competitive conference. Again, that was done for his son to take over in a spot where he could prove something. Then after acquiring the best thing to happen to sports at the University since the 2003 Holiday Bowl team five years earlier, Sterk let him leave.
… But let’s jump back to the point; football.
Moos changed it all. Granted the Pac-12 media deal expedited the process by at least a few years and expanded the plans exponentially (probably the difference between being top-half of the conference vs where it now is tops in the conference), but he would have found a way to improve the place, you can be sure. He was putting together plans for a better Martin Stadium far before the Pac-12 media deal was in place.
That’s what lured Leach out of retirement, the plans that were already in place to make Martin Stadium a place Cougars and most importantly recruits could be excited about and proud of. A place that could absolutely compete with the school on the other side of the state. A place that would bring a recruit in just because of the amenities.
Folks, mission accomplished and beyond.
Credit to Moos for seeing (as Caleb said in Pt. 2) a clod of dirt in the grass and turning around and selling it as a gold nugget to the highest bidder. When talking to my dad around the facility, who shared the field with Rueben Mayes back in the early 80’s, he enthusiastically explained how he wanted to commit to WSU all over again.
Dad (Nathan Davis) was recruited to Oklahoma, Minnesota and others out of Compton, CA as a running back, even after blowing a knee in the final stretch of his high school career. Though he’s been the best Coug you could imagine, he constantly used to wonder what it would have been to play for a big time program. Those days are over and he beams with pride now that WSU has become everything he has imagined it could have been.
It was so interesting to talk about the recruiting process with him. I won’t go into it too much but long story short he committed for different reasons than amenities. He had to. Every recruit brought to WSU had to be convinced they could either A; play right away and be a stud on a team in a big conference or B; be part of recruiting a special group to make a special, historical and memorable run at a Rose Bowl for the school.
In dad’s case it was just to help make the Cougs relevant again and get back to a bowl game for the first time in years. It also helped that the Cougs were recruiting Ricky Turner, one of his Compton High teammates, to play quarterback. Going to WSU (somewhere they knew nothing about) together was the highlight of their young lives.
Unfortunately neither dad or Ricky ended up playing very many meaningful snaps in their careers, but they were part of that Holiday Bowl team in 1981 (a classic that came down to the last play) that put WSU back on the map. It was an event he has said multiple times he will never forget.
Basically the motto to recruits used to be “please come and help us be better than we are”. Now, that has changed to “we’re going places above and beyond where we’ve ever been and you can be a part of it or get left behind”. When you hear recruits constantly talking about the Cougs going places and to a man they talk about the building blocks of family and repetitive quotes about knowing the Cougs are headed to the top of the Pac-12 and building something special, it’s pretty telling.
And it’s not just lip-service, the level of recruit since Leach arrived is clearly 100x better at most every position but maybe kicker. Of course you can look at the immediate arrival of Gabe Marks (a four-star prospect in high school already committed to SMU when Leach was hired) as a barometer of how different recruiting has become for the Cougs.
Before Leach’s arrival, there was one great receiver, now there’s 8 or more. Before his arrival, there were no good linemen and they were all around 280 lbs, now there are several and they average between 305 and 310 lbs. Before his arrival, no 1st round NFL draft picks since 2003, that has changed.
And now add a state-of-the-art facility right inside Martin Stadium. Workouts, training, recovery, locker room, homework, kitchen and more, it can all be done right in a central location that touches both the stadium and the practice field behind it. It’s unique within the conference and really throughout the country there probably aren’t but two or three schools that can boast that amenity. It only adds to the family feel, cause everything is now done together and done right.
Then add the latest turf that only Ohio State, Notre Dame, the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks have at their disposal (which means the BEST TURF IN THE PAC-12)… Add in some sweet new crimson end zones, the new CrimZone, the humongous new press box (probably the largest in the conference and one of the largest and most gorgeous boxes in the country), the best college logo available every five feet and Mike Leach at the end of the tunnel.
A recruit walks into the place and starts bleeding crimson.
It’s all going to help win some recruiting wars for WSU that weren’t previously even worth picking up the phone for. Heck, it’s already working.