As Washington State is investigated in the wake of Marquess Wilson's allegations of abuse, we're seeing and hearing more from the assistant coaches. Everyone knows Mike Leach, whether they follow the Cougars closely or not. That's the benefit and, perhaps, downside of hiring a well-known and outspoken coach. He has his reputation and his team gets painted with a broad brush because of preconceived notions.
But there's more to this story, and more people behind it. College football programs have a hierarchy, with the head coach at the top serving as the general on and off the field. This is Leach's program, to be clear, but he's not necessarily the one doing the hands-on work.
Below Leach, the assistants do the nitty-gritty, working closely with their position groups. They have their finger on the pulse of every player under their command, and invest countless hours getting to know each young man on a personal level. This begins with recruiting and is a lengthy process involving moments of joy and heartache. At the end of it all, if the assistants have done well, players leave the program better -- personally and professionally -- than they were when entering it.
I get the feeling Leach's right-hand men are perceived as faceless assistant-bots. With Marquess Wilson alleging abuse, Leach himself has taken heat, but so have his assistants. While Leach is the brains behind the operations, the assistants are orchestrating practice and drills, including the conditioning exercises the team was participating in when Wilson walked away.
Throughout the season, Leach and his assistants have taken heat for the perception that they're not taking responsibilities for the team's on-field failings. Leach's soundbites get twisted, and the most salacious parts are disseminated with little context. Sure, he used the phrase "empty corpse," but it came after he said he has to do better, his coaches have to do better. The same was true after the Utah game: Before the cowardice comments, he said his staff was at fault.
All of this is to say the assistants who are in the trenches do shoulder the blame for some of the shortcomings of their players. They aren't just hardasses who yell, scream and implore players to be better. Sure, they may appear to be drill sergeants, but they're also just plain people -- people who care about their jobs and the welfare of the players under their command.
Dennis Simmons is the man in charge of the outside receivers, including Wilson. When Wilson left, I was most curious how Simmons would react. As the outside receivers coach, Simmons knew Wilson best, and spent countless hours with him on the field, in meeting rooms and around the football facility. He, not Leach, was the strongest link to Wilson, and the man charged with shepherding the star wide receiver through the end of his college football career in hopes of molding a better player and a better man.
Unlike Leach, Simmons comes across as fairly reserved on the field. He doesn't yell much, unless he's barking out formations during drills. Instead, he spends more one-on-one time with the receivers, pulling them aside and speaking to them quietly, giving them what I assume are tips and instruction. Even when Wilson and others were being told to do up-downs for dropping passes or giving less than a full effort, Simmons would be would be talking in normal tones.
His style always felt like it was counter to Leach, the good cop more so than the bad cop. While Leach's abrasive nature on the field has been dissected, the actions of Simmons have gone largely ignored. He's the guy who was close to Wilson and the receivers, and he always seemed to be more gentle than angry.
To me, Wilson got a little bit of everything in terms of instruction. He was given tough love by Leach, but gentle nudges by Simmons. I always got the impression Simmons cared -- and all of the coaches do care for their players, even if they dole out tough love. When Wilson left, Simmons was candid about his disappointment. When Wilson released the letter, there was a sense of betrayal in Simmons' comments.
That's just kind of how he is. I've been impressed by Simmons' leadership, and how he handles his players, as well as his willingness to talk openly and honestly about the job he's doing and the players he coaches. He genuinely cares, always has and always will. He was, in my opinion, handling Wilson the right way, and it still just didn't work out.
I'll end this with a story about Simmons from way back when he was first hired -- it seems like ages ago now. I wrote a quick profile of him, never expecting he, his family or friends would read it. Shortly after the piece was posted, he sent me an email out of the blue thanking me. In it, he expressed his excitement upon taking the job, and promised he would never let Cougar Nation down.
I don't think he let anyone down, nor do I think Wilson's departure and the subsequent allegations were a failure on Simmons' part. He tried to push Wilson to become a better player and it didn't work -- and from his comments the whole saga has affected him.
But Simmons is a guy who is open and honest, and does care about the work he's doing at Washington State and the men he's trying to build up. Wilson, however, is the one who got away.