I remember it like it was yesterday. Maybe not yesterday because it happened 16 years ago, but that’s neither here nor there. Every kid had a Nintendo 64 on his or her Christmas list that year. Before I left for school in the morning, I’d sneak into my parents’ closet, digging around shoes and ties trying in vein to find the Holy Grail of Christmas gifts. It was the only thing I’d put on my Christmas list that year. They had to get it for me, right? I mean, c’mon, it’s all I wanted. Christmas morning came and as my parents observed my general disinterest in breakfast and stocking stuffers, they sensed an 8-year-old’s implosion of emotion seemed imminent. Out from the den came a perfectly wrapped box and all it took was one tiny tear across the top to reveal Bowser for me to tackle my mom to the ground.
Mike Leach was the one guy on my Cougar Coaching Christmas List. When we unwrapped our present, I wish Bill Moos would’ve been there for all of us to collectively tackle him to the ground. For almost nine months, we’ve been waiting for the moment we watch the Cougar football team step back out onto the field with a new offense, a new defense and a new leader. This Thursday in Provo, Utah, a new era of Cougar football begins and the most important person running onto the field at LaVell Edwards Stadium could be wearing an eye patch and rambling on about yoga pants but we wouldn’t even bat an eyelash.
Warning: here comes the understatement of the century. Mike Leach is the biggest splash Washington State has made hiring a coach in school history. I know you’ve probably got his resume memorized but it’s worth going over again. A bowl game every year while at the helm of Texas Tech, 10 straight seasons with a winning record. Hiring a coach with a pedigree such as Leach’s is not normal at Washington State. Heck, it’s not normal at a lot of schools outside of the SEC. During his introductory press conference, we all sat there, starring at him, eyes wide and chins resting on our fists like a bunch of giddy 14-year-old girls staring at Davy Jones. Why shouldn’t we have though? Almost every school with a coaching vacancy wanted Leach (enjoy Charlie Weis Kansas) and we, little Washington State on the rolling hills of the Palouse, got him.
It showed what a seasoned athletic director in Bill Moos could do with the extra cash from a fat television contract. He could land a coach that we never could’ve dreamed of having before. To do it, we spent an amount of money most of us had never fathomed on a Washington State coach with a similarly incredible contract to boot.
For all those reasons, expectations have understandably gone up. Regardless of whether Paul Wulff or Mike Leach was the head coach this season, a bowl game was the expectation. Although just getting back to the postseason will be a big step in the right direction with Leach, you expect more than just half a dozen wins when you’re paying someone the gross domestic product of a small African nation.
Whether Paul Wulff would’ve ever been able to guide this program back to the Granddaddy Of ‘Em All is a question that will always remained unanswered. But Mike Leach’s hire doesn’t just show the expectation from Bill Moos is Rose Bowls but it shows the urgency with which the school wants to get there. Moos will likely get approval to begin on the football operations building this November after the already massive change to Martin Stadium’s landscape that is the Cougar Football Project. Beyond that, bowling off the east end could be in the stadium’s future and countless other facility upgrades (Beasley Coliseum remodel/rebuild comes to mind) will be coming down the pipe. All of those things start with the success or failure of the football team and with very few exceptions it’s the same at every other school across the country.
I can spout off about higher expectations and Clinton-era 64 bit gaming systems all I want but some concrete evidence might be good right? Well, there are only 1,500 tickets left for the home opener against an FCS school. I will grant you the relative closeness of the opposing institution might have something to do with the increased ticket sales but when you consider last year’s home opener drew just 22,034 in paid attendance, the huge bump might be the only indicator you need for where everyone’s expectations lie. That game did occur on a holiday weekend, which has a tendency to drive down attendance, but on the very same weekend last year just 27,018 tickets were sold. Eastern may be a good, local rival but they aren’t a marquee ticket. Sure, they’re a few years removed from a national championship and their fans will certainly travel better but that doesn’t account for a nearly sell out crowd weeks before the gates even open. Mike Leach has made an entire fan base more excited for a season of football than they have been in nearly a decade.
Will there be intrigue into how Jeff Tuel plays after missing most of the previous season? You bet. Are we all going to wonder how effective a very thin defense will be? Absolutely. But nine months of waiting, nine months of excitement and nine months of trying to bottle the anticipation has all been building to a Thursday kickoff in front of a national audience. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say my fiancé and I have been looking more forward to this than our wedding next week.
It’s all come to Thursday. For months he’s been running practices, recruiting (LOL U MAD SMU??) and entertaining us in interviews but we haven’t seen him on the field. WSU isn’t favored in this game and you can decide for yourself whether you believe Washington State departs Provo with a win or not. But regardless of the outcome, Mike Leach’s impact on the school has already been felt. His importance extends well beyond just one game on Thursday and one particular program within a larger athletic department. In the future, we’ll actually focus on a player with some honest to goodness analysis in this feature. But one final time, let me remind you of something.
Mike Leach is our head football coach. Ain’t it exciting?
Note: my parents told me years later where the hid the N64. It was in the last place I’d look: under my bed. Crafty buggers.