The inordinate importance of Rutgers & Wyoming

WHO WOULD have guessed back-to-back games in September against two teams that rarely appear on the Washington State schedule would loom not just large but positively Rainier-esque for the program? For the Cougars' season and Mike Leach's stability as head coach, Rutgers and Wyoming are about as important as they come.

WSU's loss to one of the worst programs in the Big Sky Conference on Saturday has, based on the alums and donors we’ve talked with, unraveled much of the goodwill and patience the Cougar Nation had for Leach. Indeed, coupled with just three wins last season, the combination has proven downright toxic since the final whistle Saturday.

CRIMSON COMMENTARY

Bill Moos has said that as long as he's WSU's athletic director, Mike Leach is his man.

In addition, Leach's contract suggests WSU would have a whale of a time trying to finance a buyout.

But season-opening losses, at home, against teams like Portland State throw all that into question for one simple reason: fans and alums are rapidly jumping off this pirate ship.

Moos will profess his support, as he absolutely should, as long as people will listen. But when they stop listening altogether -- and they will if the Cougars lose to eminently beatable Rutgers this week and Wyoming the next -- the apathy will become deafening. And it will be even more deafening than the apathy Moos repeatedly cited as the chief reason for firing Paul Wulff and bringing Leach on board.

So deafening that Moos may have no choice but to revisit his ironclad commitment to the centerpiece of his tenure at WSU: Mike Leach. If the coach becomes a topiary in the psyches of the vast majority of Cougar fans and is dismissed in the broader court of public opinion, recruiting will be undermined and fundraising more high centered than it already is.

That is why these next two weeks are so critical both to the season and to Leach's tenure.

Losing to Portland State was more than embarrassing, it was devastating. This is Year Four of the Leach Era. No more fingers can be pointed to the culture needing to be changed. Or lack of quality depth on the offensive or defensive lines. Nearly all of the players are now Leach recruits.

He doesn't need to win seven or eight this season, as Moos implied was well within reach in the week leading up to the season opener, but Leach can't go 0-3 against an opening trio of Portland State, Rutgers and Wyoming.

A meltdown season in 2015, by definition, would mean Leach must win big next year to keep his job. That one-year-or-else scenario is effectively a giant Bat Signal to recruits that WSU is a roll of the dice with the coaching staff. Hiring a new head man every four years is the last thing WSU needs to be doing. Stability is key. But if the hearts and minds of fans are universally gone and everyone in the recruiting world labels you a lame-duck, your effectiveness -- and perhaps the athletic director's, too -- is gone.

If that happens, the best case scenario is one recruiting class that is compromised. Back-to-back recruiting classes that are compromised would be a calamity that would go beyond losing to Portland State.

That's why these next two weeks are crucial to righting the ship.

Win both and this season of middling expectations is right back on track and Portland State will become a quirky footnote that served as a wake-up call.

I like Mike Leach. When I was in Pullman last year he was extraordinarily generous with his time during game week -- he even invited me to sit with him at dinner after practice. He didn't have to do that. He was a delight to be around.

But in the bottom line world of wins and losses, like has nothing to do with it. Lose both the next two games and the natural order will suddenly have painted Bill Moos into a very tough corner, no matter how much he likes Leach.


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