Starting Tuesday morning in Pullman with a campus rally, and ending it in Seattle’s elegant Olympic Hotel, Leach spanned the state campaign-style, giving speeches, shaking hands, impressing boosters and generally comporting himself as the biggest deal around.
Which he was, for a day. Maybe many more days.
In Seattle, some Huskies’ ears are pinned back a little, realizing that Leach’s accomplishments and unorthodox ways make WSU a player magnet, a money maker and a formidable adversary, no longer the little brother or hayseed cousin.
That’s a lot of transformative power for a guy still 0-0 in his new job. But it’s not all about the man.
To be honest, and Leach is nothing if not candid, he said the Pac-12’s wealth and success was as big as anything.
“The conference was a factor, no doubt,” he said to a small group of reporters after he charmed a few hundred Cougars fans in a hotel ballroom with gracious opening remarks and witty repartee with his media questioners. “The conference is stable, and pro-active about making themselves stable. I haven’t met (Commissioner) Larry Scott, but I had him on (his Sirius satellite radio show) and I couldn’t have been more impressed.
“Some conferences are embroiled in slaying their own dragons. The Pac-12 made a move to solidify itself and currently has the most lucrative TV deal in the country. I’d love to say I knew that was going to happen. That’s not fair to say. A bunch of the cards were already turned over. It was a little more obvious than expert. Know what I mean?”
Yup. Any more questions?
Much has been made of Leach’s small-town roots, his success in forlorn Lubbock, TX., (now known as “Gateway to Pullman”), his diplomatic patter about the excellence of WSU and his disdain for the big-school bureaucracy and politics that often are mired in tradition instead of winning.
All of that is more or less true, but none of it would have happened had not the Pac-12 struck gold with its $3 billion TV deal with ESPN and Fox that kicks in next year. It allowed Cougars athletic director Bill Moos to play Big Kitty to Montlake’s Big Dawgs.
Here’s the bottom line: For a coach two years out of the game and considered radioactive by some schools, Leach’s deal is worth more than $11 million. His predecessor, the fired Paul Wulff, had a five-year deal with a little more than $3 million.
Leach is not only the highest-paid coach in school history, he’s the most highly compensated state employee ever. Even though the additional revenues are shared mostly equally among the 12 schools, the extra cash is far more meaningful for the low-income schools than the limo crowd at Stanford, USC, Cal and Washington, as well as the People’s Republic of Nike in Eugene.
For the first time since World War II, the money allowed Moos to pay market value for a big-deal BCS coach, instead of some unproven assistant, a retread or promoting from within. The rest of the story, about Leach’s peculiarities fitting better in Pullman, is fun to tell and keeps Cougs fans warm at night, but college football is mostly about business. WSU had a vacancy at the perfect time to bust a move.
As to the part about Leach being damaged goods after getting fired by Texas Tech in part for allegedly locking a concussed player in a practice-field shed, Leach has a ready answer: It’s a lie, and it’s about house politics.
“Obviously, it wore me out when people make up a bunch of lies about you,” he said. “Pretty much anyone who’s taken enough interest to read through the material knows that I was right on every point.
“The other thing is, I went out and coached every day and our record speaks for itself — we won more bowls that the rest of the school’s history combined, and generated more money that the rest of the school’s history combined, and expanded the stadium three times in six years. We went from being on TV two times a year to 12. My players didn’t get in trouble, we didn’t have major NCAA violations and we had the highest graduation rate of any public institution.”
Regarding the non-money part of the equation, Leach said he was impressed by the direct, no-BS style of his Pullman pursuers.
“It was really important to me to find a team worth the effort,” he said. “That’s what attracted me to Washington State, the way (school president Dr. Elson) Floyd and Bill Moos worked together.
“At Tech in my 10 years, we had three chancellors and five presidents. The thing was a revolving door. Part of it was because they battled each other. I got along with seven out of the eight, which is pretty good. You might have got along with eight out of eight.
“Stability and commitment are things that appealed to me.”
What’s important to many in the Cougars world is that Leach has a compelling personality that is up to the task of convincing a kid from Compton to spend four years in Pullman.
“I enjoyed Pullman, but it is remote,” said Drew Bledsoe, one of several Cougars football luminaries in the room, including Jack Thompson, Mark Rypien, Robbie Tobeck and Rueben Mayes, all of whom wished they were 20 and back in school under Leach. “When you’re competing with bigger schools, you can’t have the same pitch as those schools. A coach needs a great ability to capture what’s unique and good about the place.
“That’s what Mike Price (who won 10 games in a season three times in a row a decade ago) had — an honest, enthusiastic, sincere belief in what could be done.
“At the big schools like Michigan, Ohio State and Florida, you’re a cog. In Pullman, when you do well, they never forget you. It’s unlike anywhere else.”
“Unlike anywhere else.” That was a phrase always used against Washington State. The possibility now looms that it may be a compliment.