In the midst of the darkest era in Cougar football history, Marquess Wilson was a bright spot, preternaturally breaking all kinds of receiving records at a school that has been pass happy for decades. Beyond that, while WSU hasn't exactly been a wide receiver factory, the program has put a handful of receivers in the NFL in the last 10 years: Brandon Gibson (St. Louis Rams) and Jason Hill (New York Jets) currently reside on active rosters, and previously Devard Darling (Baltimore Ravens) and Michael Bumpus (Seattle Seahawks) found their way into games.
Heading into this season, Wilson was better than all of them -- statistically speaking -- by a country mile. He was set to shatter every meaningful receiving record early in this, his junior season. Putting him in a Mike Leach offense to do it almost seemed unfair. Video game numbers appeared entirely within the realm of possibility.
Yeah ... we were waaaaaaaaaay off on that one!
Exactly what happened to get us to this point is largely a matter of speculation, although we obviously have some ideas about what led to Wilson walking out on a workout on Sunday. Something that is not in dispute is that Leach is a big fan of His Way -- that much is clear from reading "Swing Your Sword" -- and he'll go to great lengths to establish His Way.
Understand one thing: What follows is not an endorsement of the Mike Leach way (especially as it relates to Wilson) as better or worse than the previous regime's way, although Leach certainly has a better track record to point to than his predecessor. I'm not close enough to the situation to know whether the way Leach handled this was correct or incorrect, although I suspect even Leach himself wonders if he could have pushed some different buttons to avoid this situation. For all his bluster, he's clearly introspective. In terms of laying blame, there's plenty to go around, so I'll refrain from trying to slice up the blame pie -- as so many seem to want to do.
This is more a philosophical examination of the challenges of running an organization, and the hard decisions that have to be made in terms of setting the direction and vision for it. I'm no expert in organizational leadership by any means, and I'm sure there are many who are going to read this who have actual advanced degrees in that sort of thing, but I do have some experience with leading people. And it doesn't matter if you lead teenagers at a high school or upwardly mobile 40-somethings in a corporation, certain challenges consistently come with the territory of leading.
Such as Leach's dilemma: What to do about the supremely talented team member who just doesn't seem -- from the leader's perspective -- to be getting it? Because I think most leaders with even just a modicum of experience will tell you that how you deal with that person can have far-reaching effects on the rest of the team or organization.
Before we try to take a stab at why Leach is handling Wilson as he is, I think it's worthwhile to look back at an example of how the previous coach dealt with a supremely talented player who didn't always get it. For the past two years, there wasn't just one player on the Cougars' roster who had can't-miss NFL talent -- there were two. Wilson and ...
Now, before you revolt on me for mentioning Mizell and Wilson in the same breath, please don't misunderstand me -- I know that Wilson is nothing like Mizell. Just follow me for a second and it hopefully will all come together.
For two years, Paul Wulff and his staff tried desperately to get the mercurial linebacker -- who came to Pullman with at least as much baggage as potential -- to play up to his considerable capability. Make no mistake: Mizell was not "coddled," and I don't think anyone else on the team was, either.
Wulff and Co. tried a lot of things with Mizell, including keeping him out of the starting lineup early in his career because he wasn't working hard in practice. Coaches were consistently on him for his uneven effort. When Mizell loafed in practice, or showed up late for a meeting or practice, the whole linebacker unit was punished -- obviously, there was hope that some peer pressure would cause him to shape up.
There were periods where Mizell seemed to get it. But not many, and they were brief.
So Wulff and his defensive coordinator, Chris Ball, were left with a choice. And when push came to shove, Mizell usually played. Not always, as his one-game suspension against Arizona in his freshman year showed, but generally his talent was just too good to keep off the field. Even as coaches and teammates fumed over Mizell's behavior, he continued to play, up until the end of last year, when an exasperated staff finally appeared to simply bench him in favor of athletically inferior -- but unquestionably harder working -- Mike Ledgerwood.
Had Wulff been retained, Mizell likely would have been dismissed. But the damage had already been done.
How you treat your stars has an effect on the rest of the team. Ask Urban Meyer about it. Wulff paid a lot of lip service to working hard and doing things the right way, but players notice when a guy gets playing time without doing either one of those things. And it's not good for morale.
Which brings us back to Wilson and Leach.
By all accounts, Wilson is a good guy. His teammates like him. And I don't sense any of the "good riddance" vibe that was palpable when Mizell was dismissed. But for whatever reason, Leach and his coaches haven't liked what they've seen from Wilson -- dating all the way back to spring practice -- and they've let him know in no uncertain terms that they expect more from him, to the point that practice watchers would tell you that it's probably fair to say that Leach has been harder on Wilson than others. He's absolutely determined to hold Wilson to a high standard.
You can question how he's done it -- and it's a fair question to ask -- but you really can't question why he's done it. As Leach says, "you're either coaching it, or you're allowing it to happen," and he'll be darned if a guy who is a leader at his position group by sheer virtue of his talent is allowed to skate on certain non-negotiables just because he's really good. That's just not going to happen because, well, nobody gets away with that on a team coached by Leach, and everyone is going to know that.
Is it a good idea to alienate one of the best players in school history to the point that he walks away from the team? I can't answer that -- at least, not for a year or two. Maybe the tone that Leach sets at the end of this year proves to be exactly what the program needed. Maybe proving to the rest of the roster that nobody is above criticism ... that nobody is above working their ass off at all times ... that nobody is going to be gifted a starting spot, sticks with these guys and pays off in spades during this offseason as the players work to get better. After all, if you're going to be an unbending hard-ass, the first year really is the best time.
But you've got to consider the flip side, too. If what Bud Withers says is true, Leach could be walking a dangerous tightrope. Sending Mizell packing was an easy decision, one that almost certainly didn't break many hearts on the roster, especially in the midst of an offseason filled with optimism. But this incident? When the starting quarterback says he's in "disbelief" about his favorite target walking away from his teammates, you know things aren't all sunshine and rainbows behind the scenes. And this sort of thing can be a tipping point for a team that's already lost more than 15 players since last season and is still producing the same results as last season. Correlation does not equal causation, but ... yanno.
Leach is betting that his "my way or the highway" approach -- which worked exceedingly well for him once -- is the best and fastest route to success. If it ends up being so, he's going to look like the genius we all thought him to be when he was hired nearly a year ago, and we're going to file this under "holding players accountable" and go off to our bowl games lamenting how Wilson's career ended, but smug in our satisfaction with out it turned out.
But there certainly is a non-zero chance Leach has badly misplayed his hand with a roster that isn't built for this kind of berating, in which case "holding players accountable" turns into "pissing off a good portion of the roster, resulting in mass defections at the end of the year and beginning next season with an FCS number of scholarship players."
I sure hope Leach knows what he's doing. Because the alternative is terrifying.