Mike Leach is the new coach at Washington State: Rejoice and be glad

Raise your jolly rogers: Mike Leach is back. After two years of book-touring, suing ESPN, hosting talk-radio, and chillin’ in Key West, Leach is set to coach again in 2012, this time as head pirate in charge of the Washington State Cougars. History, connections, anecdote, and theories regarding the hire abound, but first thing first: It’s a great hire.

Back to business

I love Mike and I obviously can’t wait to see his offense back in action, but I was skeptical of the “fit” between Mike and some of the other schools whose name he was connected to. Big Ten schools tend to either like their coaches a certain way — a way not typical for Leach — or probably couldn’t afford him; SEC schools could afford him but the culture shock on both sides would be larger than I think people realized; and while Leach said he’d basically take any job, I don’t think he sat out for two years to coach a non-BCS conference school. Washington State, on the other hand, is, in my mind, perfect. It’s not perfect in the sense that the team has been struggling in recent years, but they’ve had winners there, and if Leach can get them to a bowl game in the next couple of years the perception will be that he’s been successful. Contrast this with, say, Ole Miss, where a bad game in week five and a couple of questionable calls (and trust me, there would be many calls that diehard SEC fans would not understand) and the pressure would be of an entirely different order.

Indeed, at Washington State Leach can essentially say he’s getting back to the tradition of guns blazing offense and great quarterbacking that defined the Cougars in the modern era. In 1987, Dennis Erickson brought his one-back offense to Pullman and engineered a big turnaround in his second season when they went 9-3, including an upset of then #1 ranked (and Troy Aikman led) UCLA. Erickson left for Miami the following season and was replaced by Mike Price, an Erickson one-back protégé (and actually a high school teammate of Erickson’s). Price led the Cougars to several successful seasons, most notably in 1992 when the team was quarterbacked by Drew Bledsoe and later two Rose Bowl seasons, 1997 when led by Ryan Leaf and 2002 when led by Jason Gesser. The 2002 squad shared the Pac-10 title with Pete Carroll’s Carson Palmer led Southern Cal team, and went to the Rose Bowl ahead of USC due to their head-to-head tiebreaker.

Although I don’t expect Leach to junk his Airraid for Erickson’s one-back offense, this history is important, at least to Leach. In his book Leach mentions that, had he not joined up with Hal Mumme and began running their twist on the BYU passing game, he would have run Dennis Erickson’s one-back three-step game, which was in fact what he’d been doing before he and Mumme got together. Further, after Mumme and Leach’s first season at Kentucky in 1997, they visited Mike Price and his staff at Washington State after their Rose Bowl season. There they picked up some information on formations and receiver screens. It may be irrelevant, but Mumme’s Airraid had always been a two-back offense, while in 1997 Washington State ran a ton of four-wides with one back. That personnel group and formation would later dominant Leach’s offense when he began running his own show.

But all this is important because it is possible to win at Washington State; from 2001 to 2003, the Cougars had three straight ten win seasons. It may be that the Pac-10/12 is much better top to bottom than it was then, but this is not as big of a rebuilding job as, say, Kentucky was when Mumme and Leach went there.

Building a staff. The most important job for Mike right now is to quickly and effectively put together a staff. Fans may expect Leach to arrive in Pullman and by sheer force of history and personality begin to tear up Pac-12 defenses, but the quality of assistants is extremely important. Historically, the assistants Leach has been around, both when he was an assistant himself and later as a head coach, have gone on to continued or increased success elsewhere as four or five have become D-1 head coaches and a number of others have gone on to become offensive coordinators. Further, Mike is a strange guy: he talks too long in meetings, can ramble when recruiting, was never known as a die-hard recruiter, and is very focused on certain things — his offense and his quarterbacks — and really needs others to take the lead in other matters.

Specifically, a lot of his success or failure in Pullman will be decided by three hires: his defensive coordinator, his offensive line coach, and his recruiting coordinator. Regarding his DC, it’s well known that Mike spends game day with his face buried in that wrinkly scrap of paper he calls his play sheet. He spends meeting time with the offense, and lots of that time in small film study sessions with the quarterbacks. This is not to say he ignores his defensive players — though some of them have been known to feel that way — but it means he needs someone who can simply run the defense. He famously fired his defensive coordinator mid-season in 2007 after his team lose a shootout to Oklahoma State, and in his book stated that his mistake was not firing him sooner. Like Steve Spurrier at Florida who needed Bob Stoops to finally win a national title, Leach absolutely needs someone who not only is a great defensive teacher but can also keep his troops motivated when all the media attention is on Leach and his offense and when Leach puts his defense in tough spots with a failed fourth down or a three-and-out in the no-huddle following three incompletions and all of eleven seconds having run off the clock. The good news is that Washington State should score points, so the defense should be able to take chances without fearing mistakes, but this is a real concern.

Offensive line coach is incredibly important because of the pressure Mike’s offense puts on those guys. He will probably go back to the wide splits, and he expects his linemen to do their pass blocking one-on-one and not lose. The good news for Leach is he’s probably got a good one in mind that he can get: Robert Anae. Anae was Leach’s offensive line coach in his early days at Texas Tech, before he went on to be the offensive coordinator at BYU and later Arizona. As his gig at Arizona is ending, I expect Leach to make Anae a pretty nice offer to come back and be his line coach. Then again, he’s been running his own show fairly successfully for a number of years, and he may not want to go back to letting someone else call plays. Of course, Mike isn’t afraid to look outside the box for his hires. At Texas Tech after Bill Bedenbaugh (currently the OL coach at WVU) left to follow Sonny Dykes to Arizona, Leach hired Matt Moore, who had one year of D-1 experience at Troy and had been a high school coach, where he ran Tony Franklin’s version of the Airraid, “The System“.

Finally, Leach will need a good recruiting coordinator. There is plenty to say about recruiting and Leach but he’s actually better at it than I think people realize. Historically, Washington State gets a few guys from Washington, a lot of guys from California, and then a smattering of others from Arizona and even Florida. Depending who he brings in on his staff I expect Leach to still recruit Texas (remember, LaMichael James is from Texas and he wound up at Oregon), but I think he’ll do fine in California. He should be able to get the quarterbacks he wants from the surrounding states (Ryan Leaf was from Montana and Bledsoe was from Walla Walla), and his offense is going to be a huge selling point for receivers and other “athlete” skill guys. Many of Leach’s best receivers, including Michael Crabtree, were dual-threat quarterbacks in high school who played that role simply because they were good athletes.

Defense is where recruiting might be difficult. A lot of guys at Texas Tech came in as athletes or skill guys and got moved to defense; that’s just how it goes. But it will be a challenge to convince kids to come to Pullman, to play defense for Washington State, and, for of all people, Mike Leach. And when Washington State has had success they’ve done it with their passing game but also I remember all of those teams having excellent defensive lines. But the advantage Mike has is he runs a pretty tight ship in terms of grades and discipline, which lets him take chances on some guys other teams might ignore; historically a lot of Washington State’s best skill players were transfers or junior college players, including several of the so-called “Fab Five,” Leaf’s receiving corps.

One argument I’ve heard is that Leach benefited from Texas’s year-round commitment to throwing the football and 7-on-7s. This may have been true in 2008, but it was absolutely not the case in 2000. Very few schools threw the ball, and, while Texas did have more in the way of spring practice, those 7-on-7 tourneys were not the norm until much later. One of the biggest reasons all that changed was Leach: Tech was very open to high schools coming in, watching practice, and getting information. And it was a great tactic by Leach: He created a bunch of feeder schools that sent players his way who had run his system for four years in high school (think guys like Graham Harrell), and those coaches felt indebted to Mike because of how he had helped them succeed with his schemes and techniques. I think he can do a lot of that same stuff in California and the Pacific Northwest.

Measuring success. Hiring a staff and recruiting and all that aside, let’s get to the real question: How will Mike do and, more specifically, how will that offense do? There’s no way of knowing but we can make some conjectures. When one thinks of Mike Leach’s offense, everyone remembers Mike Leach’s offense in 2008, with Graham Harrell throwing to Michael Crabtree and a bunch of other guys who inexplicably were always open. But it took them several years to get to that point. Yes, he expanded the four verticals package, fiddled with the wide line splits, and generally came into his own as a head coach, but it took him years to get to that point. By 2008, Leach’s quarterbacks, line and receivers had all been in the season for four or five seasons themselves, and had come up under upperclassmen who themselves had been through it for four or five years. As anyone who is around a football team knows, underclassmen are coached by the upperclassmen as much as they are by the coaches, and the skill and precision that his offense showcased was on display for those guys from their teammates on day one. At a new spot, however, that won’t be the case, and it wasn’t the case when Leach took over at Texas Tech in 2000.

Tech had been a winning program under previous coach Spike Dykes, but didn’t have much experience throwing the ball. And in 2000, though his team won seven games, it was an ugly seven games, including a 13-7 squeaker against North Texas. For the season, then quarterback (and current Houston co-OC and frequent Leach fishing buddy) Kliff Kingsbury averaged a depressing 5.8 yards per pass attempt, threw only four more touchdowns (21) than interceptions (17) and the Red Raiders averaged less than 10 yards per completion and around 60 yards rushing a game. Vaunted offense indeed. It wasn’t until 2002 that the offense really revved up, and while some of it is scheme a lot of it is just that transitions take time. One thing we’ve seen with Airraid coaches going to other schools is that the more similar the approach of the previous staff the quicker the transition, whether it was Sonny Dykes at Arizona or Louisiana Tech or Dana Holgorsen at Houston, Oklahoma State, or West Virginia, or even Chris Hatcher at Valdosta State versus Georgia Southern.

The good news is that Washington State appears to have quarterbacks and receivers, as they are currently in the top-ten in passing, but it’s an open question whether the skills will translate so quickly. Leach is a good natured guy but can be very ornery and gruff when things aren’t to his standards, and it may well be a big shock for him to go from a Texas Tech practice with experienced kids running his offense with precision to a bunch of guys that frankly don’t know what they are doing. I expect them to get there, but 2012 will likely be a very inconsistent year, with some blowout games and probably a dud or two (think of Texas Tech’s 56-3 pasting by Nebraska in 2000).

Lastly, people should remember that the idea of Leach can sometimes be more palatable than the reality. Fans can’t wait for 600 yard passing games, but are they ready for seasons where the team averages less than 60 yards rushing a game, as they did even in 2007 when the number two offense in the country averaged a mere 59 yards rushing per contest? And stats like these mean that on third and one Leach is going to line up in four wides in the shotgun and call a couple of incomplete passes too; there’s going to be someone out there looking at his TV set wondering why the hell didn’t this overpaid jerk get in the I formation and run the ball. I am certainly not saying that’s wrong, just that, well: get ready.

But these are quibbles, just reminders that memories always give off a warmer glow they did at the time. For now, we know that Captain Leach is back roaming the sidelines, calling four verticals, mesh, stick, screens, Y-Cross, and 93, and that will, always, always, always, be enough.

  • Mike

    Wow. Awesome work. I’m a high school coach in Western Washington at a school that runs Wing-T and I’m a UW fan, and despite all of that I’m really excited about Leach being the in Pacific Northwest. Slowly but surely Washington is becoming a pass-first state at the HS level, I think there are a lot of kids in state that other kids are missing (just look at the WR’s at EWU, all of those kids could play in the Pac-10) that are going to opportunities that maybe weren’t there before. When Sark was fired one of the first things he did was get on the agenda for seemingly every coaches clinic up here to begin building relationships, really hope that Leach does the same thing.

  • Brophyfootball

    just how much is the offense expected to change from Sturdy to Leach?

  • Anonymous

    It’s a good point that I didn’t touch on, but you’re right that former Wash St OC Todd Sturdy’s O has a lot in common with what Leach will bring in. In fact, he and Dana Holgorsen played together at St. Ambrose before Holgorsen transferred to Iowa Wesleyan to play for Mumme and Leach. So this helps Leach’s offense transition, and obviously leaves open the question whether Leach can fix the various other problems there.

    http://brophyfootball.blogspot.com/2009/08/quarterback-building-todd-sturdy.html

    http://washingtonstate.scout.com/a.z?s=137&p=2&c=1084967&ssf=1&RequestedURL=http%3a%2f%2fwashingtonstate.scout.com%2f2%2f1084967.html

  • Anonymous

    Former Nevada Recruiting Coordinator, RB Coach and Run Game Coordinator Jim Mastro is an old friend of Leach. And after his one year at UCLA he’s now jobless. I think there’s a good chance he lands with Leach in Pullman. Especially after some complementary things Leach has said about the Pistol formation in a recent interview.

  • Anonymous

    I’m excited that the Cougs have finally stepped up to the plate and hired a proven D1 winner. Agree that assistants will be a major key for success (I think that’s stating the obvious) and hope that Leach can bring in a dynamic recruiter as it’s always been a challenge to lure top talent to Pullman. Good luck Coach Leach and Go Cougs!

  • Airraidpullman

    Uhhh WSU did not share the title with USC. They beat USC head to head which determines the finish in a tie, therefore WSU won the PAC and went to the rose bowl.

  • Anonymous

    I got that from trusty ol’ Wikipedia so forgive me if that’s wrong. My understanding is that with most conferences if you have the same record you are generally considered “co-champions” but conference championship and bowl games are typically decided on tie-breakers.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2002_Washington_State_Cougars_football_team

    That year both were 7-1 in the PAC-10, with WSU having the head-to-head tiebreaker. That’s my understanding anyway.

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  • Matt T.

    Is that the only photo of Leach in existence? Ever article I’ve read about this has used that exact same photo.

  • David Kilpatrick-White

    Coach, as another Western Washington coach…got master’s in teaching from UW…I totally jacked about this hire. Would to get a GA job over there, but I can’t wait to head over to Pullman for Spring Practice! The other big pay-off with this hire for WSU is excitement interest (just bough my first 3 WSU shirts and coats). Winning is as much about culture as anything else and Leach brings a winning culture with him. 

  • Kp Kilpatrick

    Ironically enough, it looks like Baby James himself in the upper left of the photo.

  • http://www.facebook.com/philkid3 Robbie Griffin

    Chris, you are the reason I’ve been obsessed with Leach for years. I was interested in him before because of his personality, but your blog turned me in to a hardcore fan.

    In those days, I’d day dream about Leach coaching for my alma mater (then school of active attendance), but never considered it something that could really happen.

    Suffice to say, the last couple of days have been surreal. It’s unbelievable that my team and my favorite coach are now together. It seems too good to be true.

    I’ve been stalking this space waiting for you to have something to say about it, and I was not disappointed. Thank you.

    GO COUGS!

  • guest

    I think that is probably why the picture keeps getting used

  • Matt

    Donations are piling in.  wsucougars.com  there you can buy season tix and donate to the CAF.

  • Anonymous

    What do you think of the chances Leach hires back WR coach Mike Levenseller? He has an impressive resume of receivers and has plenty of recruiting connections across the state.

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  • Cougrad

    Actually we we were co-champions that year.  We got the Rose Bowl due to the tie-breaker of head to head.  We were also co-champs with UCLA in 97.  See link for Pac-10 media guide and go to page 86 and look to the bottom of the page where they show Conference Championships by School.

    http://catalog.e-digitaleditions.com/issue/40397

  • Samoan Joe

    I know Leach isn’t big into recruiting, but now that he’s on the Pac coast I can see him getting excited to take recruiting trips out to Hawaii and Samoa to bring some big ‘ol boys out to Pullman. It’s not Key West, but I think the Pirate will enjoy the pacific islands

  • Bruce Webster

    Happy to see Leach coaching again, and I agree that Washington State is a great fit for him. UCLA could really use him, but I think he’ll have more time and room at Washington. Should be fun to watch over the next few years.

  • cougman17

    Levenseller would be a huge asset to Leach, and it would make many WSU faithful very happy. Levy has been on staff since the Price days…

  • Donnybrooks03

    That system kills. Plug in one of the stud Cali QB’s, they’ll be a bowl team next year.

  • dcoug99

    or…..the stud Spokane QB, who threw for 494 yds in his first ever start….

  • http://twitter.com/Random_acct GGil

    Sark was fired?  When?

  • Objesguy44

    I think he meant “Hired”

  • Mike

    I did. Not my finest work typing on that one. 

  • Mark Dickenson

    Sturdy was just not a good play caller

    Just look at this years Apple Cup. So many botched play calls

    For example, we were down 14-zip early on, came back to tie…had all the momentum…and had a 3rd and 1 around mid field…and we throw a streak with our 3rd best QB

    We punt the ball, they go down and score…game over at that point

    Another example…our best running play all yr was the wide sweep with twin backs. That is one play we blocked really well and it got our small backs out in space

    So the first time we ran it in the AC, our Frosh back, who we never saw get any action, ripped a 27 yd play

    Now we have opportunities to run it again and set up some play action off of that

    Never saw it again…and we continued with that stupid reverse pivot out of the pistol running 175 lb Galvin between the tackles as opposed to space

    And where was that Frosh running back all yr…that kid has burst…and is bigger than Galvin

    He also didn’t use the whole field this yr…the majority of the yr, probably 90 % of our passes were to the sidelines. Very easy to defend

    Sturdy is a 20 ppg Offensive Coordinator

  • Pmspackman

    Great Great site, there’s just one I would probably change. Norm Chow wasn’t the person  that created the BYU Offense that Mike Leach has put to great use. It was actually the late Doug Scovil,Lavell Edwards brought him in the earlier part of the seventies. 

  • http://twitter.com/NussCoug Jeff Nusser

    “He also didn’t use the whole field this yr…the majority of the yr,
    probably 90 % of our passes were to the sidelines. Very easy to defend”

    Gee, do you think that could be because he was forced to start a noodle-armed QB in 75% of his games?

    I was not Todd Sturdy’s biggest fan the first two-plus years. But he really showed this season why Paul Wulff was so high on him. To get the production he got out of three different quarterbacks really was remarkable. I hope to goodness someone at a big-time school gives him a shot, because I think he’s a star in the making, despite Sturdy not getting his due from most of our fans

  • Anonymous

    Hi Pmspackman,

    I don’t think I said different elsewhere. It was definitely Scovil that brought in the core 10 or so BYU plays, which were really the core Sid Gillman plays, to Provo. Those 10 or so are the same that the Airraid were based on, often with the same numbering and terminology. Scovil had the NFL experience and he and Edwards had the wisdom and insight to take the NFL passing game and condense it into those plays and said, here is what we’re going to do.

    Chow later became the OC and called the plays for a long time, but you’re correct that he didn’t invent them or bring them in.

  • Donnybrooks03

    Alright,even better for WSU. Sorry not a fan so i am not very familiar with there roster. Sounds like a great situation for Leach,starting out with a good young QB to learn the system for at least 3 years. Like the article said though O line and O line coach will be key also.  

  • mjbcoug

    It wasn’t even a start. Lobbestael started that game and went the first two series. Halliday came in 3rd series…first throw 85 for 6 to Wilson, and he never left the game after that.

  • http://twitter.com/paulcounts Paul Counts

    This is just awesome to see how some of Mike Leach’s offense is influenced by Mike Price’s offense. It is amazing how small of a world it is. Great article!

  • TJ

    As an objective outsider, there’s nothing I’d like more than…. please please please God let Leach hire Leavitt as his DC. 

  • Mr.Murder

    The feature with two backs was more control passing, durability for their splitting some carries and catches, and that keyed passing tempo.

    Then a need to widen the formation so a defense could not keep bringing extra people to the attack point. As it spread out, it also counters some of the zone blitz action, allow them less diverse a set to start blitzing from.

    Notably the system seems to have gotten less diverse. Think of the Peyton Manning 2×2 or 3×1 sets and similarities within college schemes. June Jones comes to mind in how the R&S evolved at recent times in the Brennan years, in addition to Leach’s heyday at Tech.

    This more or less made a defense commit to certain looks so you could accelerate the reads for given situations.

    So, protections got a bit easier from a standpoint of reducing defensive front complexity.

    Spreading the formation out from the Mouse Davis design also made it a bit tougher on zone blitzing. Mouse preferred to matchup on slower interior defenders but teams trended to new blitzes that left people blocking air. Remove the ability to overload as much, simplify the box count, move potential attackers outside more.

    Then route conversions for faster, quicker players met demands for ball distribution so some of the carries once saved for running sweeps became part of the screen game. All of those items matched a marked ability to shape tempo.

    Leach ran the point for a lot of these strategic evolutions.

  • Snibb

    Matt, thanks for posting.  Im an ex-UofUtah football player and have never been so pumped to see what Leach is going to do-starting next year.  I might even have to drive up there to see a game next year. 

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