PULLMAN – Once the band stopped playing and the cheerleaders stopped jiggling and more than a thousand fans, students, players, coaches and other interested parties stopped cheering, the designated savior of Washington State football addressed the audience.
“I know what you’re all thinkin’,” Mike Leach said at his introductory press conference Tuesday, “and the answer to that question is, ‘Yes, this is exactly how I dress in Key West every day.’”
The fact that Leach jumped at the chance to leave semi-retirement and a home in sunny Key West, Fla., to spend a gazillion hours a week coaching football in oft-frigid Pullman only adds to Leach’s reputation as a man who boogies to his own drummer.
In other words, Leach is a perfect fit for Wazzu, the school that is the closest thing to the corner grocery in the Neiman Marcus world of big-time college pigskin.
“This is the biggest buzz that I’ve seen in my 33 years on campus,” said Pullman mayor Glenn Johnson, who moonlights as WSU’s football and basketball public address announcer when he’s not teaching communications at the school.
Leach’s hiring has force-fed life into a football program that was left for dead by many fans after Paul Wulff won just nine of 49 games in four years on the job. WSU’s final home game this season drew less than 17,000 eyewitnesses.
“Everyone’s really excited about it (Leach’s hiring),” said Drake Perez, a WSU sophomore from Mulkiteo. “I’m stoked!”
“All the hype and buzz around; we feel it,” safety Tyree Toomer said. “We wish it was the 2012 season already.”
Leach’s arrival has attracted the type of national media attention rarely seen here in wheat-and-lentil country. Tuesday’s press conference, which was televised live in Spokane and shown on the WSU athletics website, even drew media from the west side of the state – and most west-side media would rather contract hepatitis than visit Pullman in the dead of winter.
“Everybody’s excited,” said Michael Murphy, a WSU sophomore from Issaquah. “Pretty much in every class we hear someone talking about it.”
“It” would be the hiring of Leach, a 50-year-old offensive savant who never played college football. Leach maintains that the only good football is an airborne football, which explains why six of his 10 Texas Tech teams – all of which posted winning records and went to bowl games – led the nation in passing.
“Obviously,” WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel said, “a quarterback likes to throw the football. They should, and I definitely do, and I plan on doing it and doing it well.”
Leach said part of the appeal of coaching at Washington State was the chance to work for athletic director Bill Moos. The $11 million Moos is paying Leach over the next five years probably had something to do with it, too.
“Bill Moos is legendary in this business,” Leach said. “I’ve always wanted to work with a guy that has the vision and direction that he has does and the pedigree, so I’m thrilled to death about that.”
Since Moos ended his own semi-retirement last year to take over as AD at his alma mater, Moos has constantly preached about the need to change the “culture” of Washington State athletics. He said the hiring of Leach is designed to do just that.
“I came back to Washington State to go to the Rose Bowl,” Moos said. “That’s where we’re gonna go. We’re going to have a lot of fun along the way.”
A Rose Bowl trip would be just fine, most WSU fans would tell Moos, but right now they’d gladly settle for the any bowl that does not involve breakfast cereal. The Cougars have not gone to a bowl game or posted a winning record since 2003.
That was the year Bill Doba replaced Mike Price, who left to coach Alabama for an hour or two, and Doba guided the Cougars past fifth-ranked Texas and Vince Young in the 2003 Holiday Bowl. Things quickly headed downhill after that in the Palouse, and Wulff had minimal luck – literally and figuratively – in trying to reverse the slide.
So, Moos reached out to Leach in a bold attempt to a) win lots and lots of football games and b) make lots and lots of money. Moos is trying to round up the funding to construct an $80 million football operations building to accompany the $80 million premium seats and suites project currently underway at Martin Stadium. Moos can’t do that when the best darn football team in Whitman County is drawing 17,000 fans.
Moos said the buzz created by Leach’s hiring is “what I was hoping for.” Moos said the Cougars have sold approximately 850 new season tickets and raked in $300,000 in donations since it was announced last week that Leach was coming aboard.
Not everyone was pleased when they learned that Moos met with Leach two weeks before the season ended. Moos said he stressed to Leach that he would not replace Wulff if the Cougars finished strong, but they lost their last two games, so the Moos call went out to Leach.
Moos’ introduction at Tuesday’s press conference was greeted enthusiastically with cries of “M-o-o-o-o-s!” The AD made certain that teen-aged daughter Kaiti was not confused by what the crowd was yelling.
“Don’t worry, Kaiti,” he said. “They’re not booing. It’s ‘Moos’.”
Moos is wagering $11 million that WSU fans won’t be booing him – or Leach – for years to come.