Sorensen: The curious case of Mike Leach

THREE YEARS into the Mike Leach Era at Washington State, it's fair to say the bloom is off what was seen as a magical hire. That's not to say Leach isn't moving the program in the right direction, because there is no doubt in my mind that he is. At the same time, a 3-9 record in Year Three that includes losses to Rutgers and Nevada and a home-field letdown against the archrival is tough to accept.

And it raises interesting questions headed into Year Four.

Foremost is this one: Is Bill Moos going to hold Leach to the same standard that he held Paul Wulff in season four?

Wulff won four games in his final campaign and, despite losing Jeff Tuel in Week One, he came within eight points of getting the Cougars to a bowl game.

What if Leach goes 3-9 or 4-8 next year? How about 5-6?

Is that enough? Is there a line in the sand for him?

Moos and Dr. Floyd have invested major dollars and political capital in Leach, so to make a change after four seasons would be an indictment of their own management acumen. That, along with the fact WSU would owe Leach millions on his contract, tells me the coach is going to be just fine next season even if he goes 3-9 one more time.




And that's OK by me, because I'm a firm believer that five years is what it takes to see the true measure of where a coach is taking you. I gave a hearty endorsement to the Leach hire three years ago and the cornerstones around which I built my excitement haven't changed.

But the clock is starting to tick. And frankly, one of the reasons why is how Leach comes across to Joe Alumni.

When you're winning, a guy who comes across as aloof, stubborn and short with the media is considered quirky and uniquely endearing. When you're losing, that same guy is considered an ass.

One can write books about Geronimo in the off season and be called a Renaissance Man when you're winning. The other is ridiculed for not using his down time to study up on how Art Briles has managed to marry the Air Raid to a legitimate ground game.

One can rail in Year One about the culture needing to change and sound like a leader. The other can rail in Year Three about the culture needing to change and sound like a whiner.

Right now, on the heels of 3-9, my read of the Cougar Nation is that Leach is much closer to being viewed as grating and overpaid than an endearing quirk-meister.

Wulff, I think, suffered in a similar way but for different reasons. He was widely seen as a nice guy from an inferior league. When you're winning with that label, you're a nose-to-the-grindstone boot-strapper. When you're losing, you're an over-matched oaf.

One thing both coaches share is not getting enough acknowledgement for what they started with.

Wulff walked into a program with a disgraceful weight-lifting regimen, a roster heavy with weed aficionados, lagging facilities, an academic record that reduced available scholarships, and three QBs who were very far from Pac-10 caliber. Wulff basically drained the swamp and poured a foundation with guys like Tuel, Travis Long, Connor Halliday and Deone Bucannon.

That's not to say Leach came into a dream scenario. Far from it. The rebuild wasn't close to complete. So to compare his tenure, as some in the media have, with his three classmates in the Pac-12 coaching class of 2012 is just nonsensical. Arizona had been to three bowls in the four years before Rich Rodriguez arrived; Arizona State was coming off a bowl game and had been to the post-season five of the previous eight years prior to Todd Graham's hiring; and UCLA had just won the southern division and been to seven bowls in nine years before Jim Mora came on board.

Leach's 12-25 record at WSU also clouds the strides the program has made in academics and off-field behavior -- two less visible pieces of the puzzle but ones that ultimately help build long-term stability.

At day's end, though, all that matters is winning, and the Pac-12 is one tough place to contend. Eight schools in the conference are going bowling this season, with WSU, Colorado, Cal and Oregon State home for the holidays.

You must bring your "A" game each and every week in this conference. And there were times this season when WSU didn't compete, the Apple Cup being the most glaring.

Moos has been quick to point out since the loss to Washington that the WSU program is better and stronger that it was three years ago.

The question then becomes this: When is that progress going to translate into victories? When does it translate to the bottom line of wins and losses?

This is the highest-paid coaching staff in WSU history, aided by the best facilities in WSU history. How much more patient do Cougar fans need to be? We haven't, after all, experienced a winning season since 2003.

To me, that adds up to a line in the sand for Mike Leach in 2015 -- not likely by Moos and Floyd, but certainly by an agitated fan base.

Is that fair? Is four years enough time to complete the rebuild that Wulff started when he walked into a true tear down of a situation? Former WSU AD Jim Sterk once told a small group of boosters that WSU football might be a "two-coach rebuild," meaning one to clear the mess and absorb all the psychological slings and arrows and another to finish the job and return to normalcy.

Is my "give a coach five years to truly prove himself" thinking outdated and old school? Particularly when the coach's act appears to have gone from "quirky" to "grating" among a number of fans?

What if they play close every week in 2015 and go 5-6? What if they do that, but cap it with a win in Seattle against the Dawgs? Does that send everyone into the off season with warm thoughts? How about 6-6 with a bowl loss to extend the streak of non-winning seasons?

Could Moos and Floyd withstand the heat from a four-win season?

Is seven victories the minimum to satiate long-suffering fans?

I don't have the answers but I do know that after three years of heightened expectations, the clock -- rightly or wrongly -- is ticking at least softly on Mike Leach.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Paul Sorensen played safety for the Cougars from 1980-81, earning first-team All-American honors as a senior. He then spent two seasons in the NFL on the Bengals' and 49ers' practice squads and later played in the USFL. From 1985-98 he was the color commentator on radio broadcasts of Cougar football and later served as the color analysts for Eastern Washington University broadcasts for many years. He also was a long-time assistant coach in the Greater Spokane League. Paul has been writing periodically for CF.C since 1999. His columns here are labeled SLAP! The acronym stands for Sorensen Looks At the Program. The word also aptly describes the way Paul played safety and the way he does color commentary: in-your-face, nothing held back.


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