When Mike Leach was hired as the head football coach at Washington State University last week, I couldn't shake the feeling that we'd been here before.
Back in 2003, Jim Sterk coaxed Dick Bennett out of retirement to come coach a basketball team that was an absolute disaster under Paul Graham. It was considered a major coup for WSU: A Final Four coach from Wisconsin coming west to Pullman to execute one last rebuild in a career of rebuilds? Absolutely huge.
Sterk was rightly lauded. People were rightly excited. And before long, we came to appreciate -- and later love -- Bennett's brand of basketball.
Of course, opposing fans derided our team and our coach as "boring," but we didn't care -- we Cougs revel in being different, and this was just another in a long list of ways that we are. And I found the way we took to Bennett and his style absolutely fascinating ... but unsurprising. It was unique. It was successful. And it was ours.
After a week of trying to wrap my brain around the hiring of Leach, I can't help but see a lot of parallels between Bennett and the pirate himself, and it goes beyond the obvious prestige Leach brings with him like Bennett eight-plus years ago.
That might seem odd, comparing an offensive genius and defensive guru. Some of you might even think that Bennett would object to such a comparison. But I submit to you that the two of them are a lot more similar than you think, and that Bennett would in fact have immense respect for the Cougars' new football coach.
Dick Bennett once told me in an interview that he would have loved to play a more uptempo style, but that he never really had the athletes to do it. So, he won the only way he knew how: By teaching his players -- many of whom couldn't "out-athlete" their opponents, so to speak -- how to play incredible team defense. I never really believed Bennett when he said he'd like to run, by the way, but the point was well taken: He was hell-bent on maximizing what he had.
So it is with Leach. With the exception of one year as the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, Leach also has always had to try and do more with less, whether at NAIA Iowa Weslyan, NCAA Division II Valdosta State, SEC also-ran Kentucky or finally Texas Tech. Sure, Texas is fertile ground for talented recruits, but it was rare that the Red Raiders could win a recruiting battle against the Longhorns or Aggies. Yet, over the 10 years that Leach was at Tech, he posted a .661 winning percentage. It couldn't approach Texas' otherworldly .853 over that same span (side note: holy crap, did not realize the Longhorns were that good for that long), but it was far superior to A&M's .516.
Like Bennett, Leach did it by figuring out a way to beat the odds -- a way to tilt the game in his favor in a non-traditional manner. In essence, Bennett and Leach both practice Moneyball for collegiate athletics.
Another similarity I see? Each is a stickler for execution and precision. Neither suffers fools lightly, especially on the playing surface. Bennett was famous for yanking guys out after a blown defensive assignment -- if you didn't do your job well and you didn't play hard ... well, you didn't play. Same goes for Leach, for whom the term "perfectionist" really isn't too strong when it comes to his offense.
Then, there's just the pure oddity factor.
Bennett entered the Pac-10 at a time when six of its teams played in the upper-third nationally in terms of tempo -- it was a fast, offense-first conference, and Bennett turned the concept on its ear, improving WSU's conference win total from two to seven in his first year by improving WSU's defense from 208th in adjusted defensive efficiency to 77th with largely the same personnel. We weren't quite sure what to think the first couple of years, but when the Cougs swept Washington in 2006 -- beginning a string of seven consecutive wins over the Huskies -- we were absolutely hooked. It wasn't just the wins; it was that WSU had imposed its will on UW with its "boring" style and come away victorious. Repeatedly. (You'll note that a pair of wins over Washington seemed to do little for enthusiasm for one Ken Bone.)
Bennett ball wasn't always aesthetically pleasing, but it was uniquely ours. Like fine wine connoisseurs, we appreciated our teams as no one else could. Whenever someone wanted to continue to suggest our team was "boring" under Dick and his son Tony, we simply pointed at the scoreboard and our two NCAA appearances and smiled.
Of course, Leach's unique way of winning couldn't seem more polar opposite of Bennett's on the surface. But Leach's teams are about the same distance away from normal, relative to their peers, as Bennetts teams were. Nobody else in the Pac-12 is going to be doing what WSU will be doing. Heck, nobody else in the Pac-12 has EVER done what WSU will be doing. Sure, there are other pass-happy offenses, but none that are this pass happy, throwing the ball on upwards of 80 percent of downs. Even the offensive linemen will look funny, with a yard separating them from each other.
And that's the final parallel. Like Bennett before him, we're going to love Leach not only because he wins, but because of how he wins. Just as we were able to wax poetic about the beauty of help-side defense in a way that would cause others to look at us like we were insane, we will soon knowingly discuss the virtues of mesh, four verticals and the shallow cross to each other, like some sort of "you had to be there" inside joke that the uninitiated can't hope to comprehend.
And when opposing fans derisively call our offense "gimmicky," we'll just point to the scoreboard and our bowl games and smile.