Something To Prove: Washington State coach Mike Leach
By Zac Ellis
Throughout the offseason, SI.com will spotlight several teams, players and coaches with something to prove heading into the 2013 season. To check out every edition of this series, click here.
When Washington State athletic director Bill Moos brought in Mike Leach as the school’s new football coach in November 2011, Leach was expected to breathe life into a lagging Cougars’ squad. In 10 seasons at the helm at Texas Tech (2000-09), Leach engineered an attack that led the nation in passing offense six times and topped the country in total offense three times. But Leach didn’t simply put up big numbers; his teams found ways to win. Behind the Air Raid, Leach won at least seven games every year he was in Lubbock, reaching a bowl game in all 10 campaigns. He tallied an 84-43 overall record and was viewed as the spark needed to turn Washington State’s fortunes around.
Of course, Leach came with his share of baggage. He was fired from Tech in 2009 on the heels of an investigation into his treatment of a player who had a concussion. He went on to file a lawsuit against the university for wrongful termination, and following the messy and public divorce, it appeared as if Leach’s career as an offensive guru was over.
That changed before last season. Leach was afforded his second chance in Pullman, Wash., and with it, an opportunity to make his mark on a middling program. Leach replaced Paul Wulff, who was fired after going 9-40 in four years with the Cougars. Yet though hopes for a turnaround were high — Washington State opened last season with a nationally televised Thursday night bout at BYU — the program repeatedly flailed: It finished a woeful 3-9, with losses to 1-11 Colorado and 3-9 Cal.
The Cougars led the Pac-12 with an average of 330.4 passing yards per game, but that effort was undermined by the worst running game in the country, which managed a measly 29.1 yards per game. The totals came nowhere near the averages of Leach’s prior teams at Texas Tech — his ’07 and ’08 squads averaged significantly more than 400 passing yards per game — and it didn’t translate to the scoreboard. Leach’s squad finished 106th in the nation with a 20.4-point scoring average, nine fewer than the Cougars’ average in 2011.
It begged an all-too-obvious question: Did Leach lose his offensive touch?
While passers Connor Halliday and Jeff Tuel failed to thrive in Leach’s system, they were hurt by the absence of any sort of threat on the ground. Tailbacks Carl Winston and Teondray Caldwell combined for 549 yards and five touchdowns, and the rest of the team amassed a mere 94 rushing yards. Halliday and Tuel also routinely struggled with accuracy: They combined for 58.2 percent passing, the lowest combined mark of any Leach-coached roster.
By contrast, Graham Harrell finished his Red Raiders career (2005-08) with 15,793 passing yards and 134 touchdowns after completing more than 70 percent of his attempts over his final two years. As a senior, Harrell tossed 45 touchdowns to only nine interceptions. He also notched a fourth-place finish in Heisman voting.
Of course, having an All-America wide receiver in Michael Crabtree helped Harrell’s cause, but he also had a serviceable running game. Shannon Woods and Baron Batch racked up 19 touchdowns and more than 1,400 yards on the ground in 2008, giving Harrell a complimentary attack to lean on. The same can be said for Harrell’s predecessors: Cody Hodges, who started in front of Harrell in 2005, played alongside back Taurean Henderson (872 yards, 17 touchdowns) when he threw for 31 touchdowns and 12 picks. Previous quarterbacks Sonny Cumbie and B.J. Symons also had competent ground games.
Leach’s offenses are renowned for airing it out, but the backfield can’t be a complete nonfactor. He’ll need to generate some sort of rushing production before the Washington State offense can truly flourish.
The good news for Leach appears to be more depth and experience across the roster this season. Leach told reporters this spring that he played 17 freshman last season, youth that was all too evident in blowout losses to Oregon, Utah and Arizona State, among others. More certainty under center should be a positive as well: With Tuel lost to graduation, the keys to the offense are in Halliday’s hands alone. The offensive line also returns five players who started or played significant minutes last season.
Still, the wild card in Leach’s second season at Washington State is the program’s internal state of affairs. Leach lost his job at Texas Tech over allegations of mistreatment to a former player, and different allegations emerged last season via Washington State receiver Marquess Wilson, who quit the team in November for alleged abuse by Leach and his staff. Though an investigation found no wrongdoing by Leach — and Wilson eventually recanted his statement — it was a troubling development given the coach’s checkered past.
Leach has a history of creating drama, but he’s also known for pumping out prolific offenses. More than anything else, Washington State needs him to replicate the latter during his second year on campus in 2013.