There seems to be a new attitude among Cougar fans about the football team ever since Mike Leach was hired. And why shouldn't there be? He's the first big name hire that the school has ever had and it didn't take long to see the changes in the program, from recruiting to excitement with fans to how the coach interacts with the fanbase.
Leach isn't just a big name, but he's a loud mouth. I mean that in the most complimentary and positive way possible. He talks a big game, he has a big personality, and he is absolutely in love with football. I hate to even make the comparison, and I shudder to think that weight has something to do with it, but he's sort of got a Rex Ryan personality based on what I know and what I have seen. (What I know is only based on what I've seen and heard and I have seen and heard only what's out there for public viewing. No inside knowledge here.)
Based on: His track record at Texas Tech, building up the class in only a few weeks, no longer fighting with New Mexico State on players, and the Air Raid offense, fans are more excited for the program than they've been since... maybe ever?
The first time that I can ever remember Cougar nation being excited for a football season was 1997. Now, that's only my experience. That's my first memory of Cougar football. My dad, a Husky, put on the first WSU game that season and said something like, "This Leaf kid is supposed to be really good." And good he was.
Excitement did build from there and the Cougs had those 10-win seasons. Was this program no longer a flash-in-the-plan, good once-every-decade team? It certainly seemed that way until Bill Doba and Paul Wulff came along. Two guys that love Cougar football and may be great men off of the field, but couldn't put together a successful season or rebuild the program.
However, Wulff's improvement and a number of good-to-great recruits will be the benefit of Leach. Not that Leach won't, or hasn't already, out-recruited Wulff, but that when Marquess Wilson breaks all the school records next season he will have still been a Wulff recruit. I don't know what any of that has to do with the rest of this, I guess I just wanted to say "Thanks" to Paul Wulff one last time.
Still, it's Leach that we believe is going to change the program and turn it around from that "once-a-decade" team to something more similar to what he built at Texas Tech. A football team that went to a bowl game every season, and instead looked like they might actually compete for a National Championship "once-a-decade." That's the kind of program I would be happy with. Don't expect USC, Alabama, Ohio State... but potentially can WSU compete with Oregon? Be in the class of Oklahoma State?
It feels like it's possible and the excitement has never in my life been so... exciting. (Note to self: Read more. Learn more words.)
I started blogging as a teenager because I can't process information without putting it all together. I became a research warrior and even though nobody read my blogs, I was only really doing it for myself. If I wanted to find something out, and there wasn't already an article published about it, then it meant that I had to write it. That's how I became a writer/blogger.
So, is my excitement of Leach justified? Yes. We can already prove that the excitement is justified because we have enough reason for high hopes. Excitement doesn't prove success, it only proves excitement.
Can he take this program to not only the next level but to the level beyond that? Because it's easy to forget just how bad WSU has gotten. We feel like we should be better than this, so maybe we forget how few wins the program has had recently. Things got bad, then they got terrible, then they got as low as they could get, then I'd say they stood somewhere between bad and terrible with hope by the time Wulff was fired.
I don't know if Leach can take this program to that next-next level but it got me curious as to how other programs did something similar? How did Oregon become Oregon? How does any school rise up to be a National Champion or make bowl games annually? More specifically, what did coaching hires have to do with it?
I am not a college football historian. I know what I know, and that's most likely what any "serious casual" fan would know. I want to know a bit more.
I'm looking over some college football programs that have gotten better in recent years and wondering how that might relate to the Cougs and Leach. Here is what I found.
University of Oregon Ducks
The Duck have gone to Bowl games in nearly every season since 1995, but between 1963 and 1989, they went to 0 Bowl Games. They hired Rich Brooks in 1977. He had never been a head coach before, but he was an experienced defensive assistant coach that had two stints with Oregon State, two stints with UCLA, and two short stints in the NFL, working with DL, CB, LB, and Special Teams at some point in his career.
Brooks was not what you would consider "uber successful" during his first 12 years at Oregon. In fact, he didn't go to a single bowl game, and he never had won more than six games during a season. The Ducks were almost a steady dose of 6-5 of 5-6 during most of his coaching career. But he beat the Beavers almost every year, and that never hurts.
Then in 1989, Oregon went 8-4, finished tied for 2nd in the Pac-10, and went to the Independence Bowl. They went 8-4 the next year and went to the Freedom Bowl. Then two years later returned to the Independence Bowl. If the bowl game had to do with America, then Oregon was there.
Finally, Brooks broke through after 17 years as the head coach. Oregon won the Pac-10 in 1994 and lost in the Rose Bowl to Penn State. Unbelievably, that was enough for the St. Louis Rams to make him head coach and he left Oregon for the NFL. (Brooks spent seven seasons at Kentucky, but still after all this time has never won 10 games in a season at any level.)
What made him valuable though, were the hires that setup Oregon for long-term success.
Brooks hired Chico State head coach Mike Bellotti to be his offensive coordinator in 1989, the same year that they returned to a bowl game for the first time in 26 years. That first year, Oregon started to change their own reputation: They beat #24 Iowa 44-6. They found themselves ranked in the top 25. They beat #17 Arizona 16-10. (They lost to #21 WSU 51-38.) They lost to #23 BYU 45-41. But they were putting up big points and they won their second bowl game ever.
In 1990, the Ducks just barely lost to #18 Arizona, then beat #4 BYU the next week 32-16. They found themselves ranked as high as 19, and lost by one point to Colorado State in the Freedom Bowl.
Oregon took steps back in '91, '92, '93, but finally broke out in 1994. They lost early games to Hawaii and Utah, but rebounded to beat three ranked Pac-10 opponents during the season. Their only conference loss that year was to #17 Washington State. The Ducks went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 37 years and lost to #2 Penn State.
Brooks left after that and Bellotti took over. The program built off of their success with Bellotti as OC and went to a bowl game in 12 of his 14 years as head coach. Though he never went to a Rose Bowl, Bellotti did two important things: He consistently won and proved to recruits that the Ducks would play in the postseason nearly every year and he also hired Chip Kelly away from New Hampshire.
Love him or hate him, Kelly has been the head coach for three years: Rose Bowl, National Championship Game, Rose Bowl. Some of Kelly's success has to be attributed to Bellotti, some of Bellotti's success has to be attributed to Brooks and Kelly.
Summary: Oregon has made Rose Bowls and National Championships in a similar way to what we thought the Cougs were doing under Mike Price. However, when Price left and Doba was promoted, there was only one season of success before total failure. Oregon is proof of how promotions from within can lead to success, but unfortunately, this formula did not work for WSU. Not with Mike Price and Bill Doba at least.
Let's make this a lot quicker.
The Badgers were a laughing stock in the Big Ten for the latter half of the 1980's and in their history had gone to six bowl games. They had only one bowl win in their history.
Then in 1991 they hired Barry Alvarez, the defensive coordinator for Notre Dame. Alvarez only two years of experience as a DC, and none as a head coach. They went 1-10 in his first season, but in 1993 they went 10-1-1 and beat UCLA in the Rose Bowl.
Alvarez won seven of his first eight bowl game appearances, including three Rose Bowls.
He stepped down in 2005 and the position went to defensive coordinator Bret Bielema. He also had never been a head coach, but is 60-19 with six bowl games and two Rose Bowl appearances.
Summary: Alvarez was another hire that didn't have head coaching experience, but turned a program into a powerhouse. Then they hired from within, like Oregon, and the success continued.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Not without some history, the Cowboys have had more success under Mike Gundy than ever before.
Gundy was a former Cowboys quarterback that had several years of assistant coaching experience with OK State before leaving and then returning in 2001 to be the offensive coordinator for Les Miles. When Miles left to go to LSU, Gundy was promoted from within in 2005. Again, no head coaching experience.
In 2008, the Cowboys had their best season in 20 years and lost to Oregon in the Holiday Bowl. In 2009, they had a chance at their first BCS game but lost to Oklahoma. In 2010, they shared the Big 12 South title and had the best offensive performance in school history and won 10 regular season games for the first time in history and 11 games for the first time ever as well.
This past season, the Cowboys had a real shot at a National Championship and fell just short, losing their only game in double OT. They beat Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl and had their best season in school history.
Summary: Another non-name hire, Gundy has turned the program into a National title contender.
I think it's too early to say what Stanford's program has become. This isn't their first run of success. They went to 11 Rose Bowls by 1972. But 0 between '73 and 1999 until they returned in 2000 with Ty Willingham, an unproven assistant.
He hasn't had success since.
Stanford was also unsuccessful when he left for Notre Dame. The 2009 Sun Bowl was their first bowl game since the 2001 Seattle Bowl.
Jim Harbaugh went 22-2 in his last two years as head coach at San Diego and hired at Stanford before the 2007 season. They upset #1 USC that year. Harbaugh built up great recruits and the program had Heisman candidates Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck, though they went 9-16 in his first two seasons. Stanford went 20-6 over his last two and won the Orange Bowl in 2010, then Harbaugh went to the NFL.
David Shaw was promoted from within, no head coaching experience. Stanford went 11-2.
Can they sustain success without Luck and their top offensive lineman? Has Stanford actually turned the program into a perennial contender? If Harbaugh was still around, I'd say, "Maybe?" but we won't know for sure because this isn't a long-term success story like at Oregon or Wisconsin. It's still new.
Stanford's 2012 recruiting class is currently ranked 21st by Rivals.
Summary: Harbaugh was a famous name and a successful head coach at a small school. It worked out for a few years, and I think his success in the NFL is so far a sign that you can hire a small-school coach (like Wulff was) and have it work out.
They were a Cotton Bowl regular in the '50s and '60s but only made one bowl game between 1965 and 1994.
Gary Patterson was promoted from DC in 2000 and is 109-30 with a 7-4 record in bowl games. Since moving to the Mountain West Conference in 2005, TCU is 6-1 in bowl games with six seasons of having a record of 11-2 or better. They have lost a Fiesta Bowl and won a Rose Bowl.
They will be playing in the Big 12 next season.
Summary: Patterson was another non-head coach that turned a program into not only a perennial bowl game team, but elevated them from Conference USA/WAC/Mountain West, to the Big 12 and a Rose Bowl win during an undefeated season.
Boise State Broncos
This seems like a natural progression from TCU. BSU is a really rare example. They joined the NCAA in 1969 and started playing division I football in 1996. Dirk Koetter was the offensive coordinator for Bellotti at Oregon and then became the head coach for three years at Boise State, winning two conference championships and then leaving for Arizona State.
Chris Petersen was the WR coach for Bellotti at Oregon and then hired as the OC for new coach Dan Hawkins. Hawkin was an assistant under Koetter and then left in 2005 for Colorado. That's when Peterson took over.
He's done pretty good. Going 14-0 one season. Becoming the first team to win 50 games over a four year span. Two BCS wins.
Summary: Plucked the success of Oregon and Bellotti into building a powerhouse in a small conference that can't usually do anything to compete for national championship, but can go undefeated and rustle some feathers.
So what does any of this mean for Leach?
Shoot, I guess it don't mean nothin' coach.
I wrote my introduction and then I did the research, not knowing what I would find. I will tell you that I am surprised how many programs have become annual bowl game attenders without hiring a name coach to turn it around. Now, does that mean there are no examples? Of course not, it just means that I didn't research those schools.
As I said, I'm not a college football historian. I use the internet to find these things out. Luckily, I know that Cougcenter has a bunch of smart college football people to bring up examples of name hires that did do just that, and even if you didn't, it wouldn't mean that Leach can't turn the program into an annual bowl game attender.
This was not a "rah rah" piece on Leach. I think we can all agree that we love the hire and are excited about the 2012 season and beyond. It's interesting that I didn't come across a single example above that was anything like the Leach hire, however, it's not surprising when you consider the unique situation of his exit from Texas Tech.
Speaking of which:
They have actually been to 34 bowl games in their history, but 10 of those came in all 10 years that Leach was there. They have 12 post-season wins, and five of those came under Leach.
Leach was also not a name hire at Texas Tech, though being an offensive coordinator at Oklahoma will get you noticed.
He clearly put the program on a new level during his decade with Tech and is the winningest coach in their history.
What you've just read (if you've honestly piled through this exceedingly long post) is merely a research project that I've given myself for no good reason. I'm not taking a stance on anything really, I only wanted to find some history out and if I've made mistakes please let me know. It happens once every few minutes for me.
I would definitely say that our future is bright, and I can't believe how awesome this hire still feels. It seems like a "but" would go there, but I have no but. I really can't wait for the first game in the Leach era and I hope (and believe) that it will be long and glorious.
That is definitely what she said.