I can’t decide if I’m upset or relieved I didn’t start writing this until today.
Somewhere along the summer predictions bonanza that took place on this site and others in July/August, I began to hold my opinion back, mostly to avoid tempering excitement for a football team that sorely needed it. While Anderson and others can probably break down plays and talent on a much more cerebral level than I could ever want, something really just stuck in my craw about the Cougar prospects for 2014.
My initial thought was this football team would probably go 4-8 this year. I felt the Cougs were probably a 4-8 team last year that got some pretty lucky bounces against Utah and some herculean ones against USC. On the flip side, it didn’t really feel like WSU lost any games it should have won, save the New Mexico Bowl, which ended on such comical conditions, it was hard to use it as a factor at all.
Now the preceding paragraph is not to tell you that I was right and everyone in Cougar Nation was getting ahead of themselves. This is to frame that I felt I was probably on the lowest end of any spectrum in predicted wins and even I predicted we’d beat Rutgers and Nevada.
So how bad is this?
After being reminded yet again just how humbling an experience it can be travelling to watch this football team last Friday, I had more or less given up. Not even a "giving up the season" type of surrender, but just in caring about Cougar football in general. Ok, caring is probably the wrong word. I suppose numb is probably a better way to put it. When the clock expired against Colorado State in December and the Cougs had pulled off one of their more impossible collapses in a rather illustrious history of impossible collapses, I wasn’t even upset. I think I actually remember laughing. We can make all the capital investments we want, hire whatever coach we want and implement whatever scheme comes to our fancy, but that New Mexico Bowl is every Cougar team I’ve ever watched, and watching WSU woefully underperform against Rutgers and Nevada brought out more of the same.
I’m not sure I’d call it a losing culture like Andy so eloquently put it yesterday, because this team does know how to win. Despite some lucky bounces, it did take some will to hold on against USC and Utah, and the Arizona game last year made me rethink everything I thought I knew about this football team. This team does know how to win. They just aren’t. So how do we wrap our heads around this?
The first conclusion I’ve come to: I don’t know if any reaction at this point is incorrect.
You’ve now seen this coaching staff work their way through 27 football games. We are well past any grace period required by fandom law. If you want anyone fired up to and including the coordinators or even Leach, there’s probably a case to be made (note: I am not making these at this time because I absolutely don’t know what I want). If you feel the previous regime left the program so bereft of talent that there’s no way to conclude anything for another couple years, you can also make that claim, too. If you feel you should let the season play out before jumping to any conclusion, I want to hear about it just as much as I want to hear the people who say losing to Rutgers and Nevada outweighs just about any upset the Cougs might be able to pull off in the coming months. I don’t think any of the arguments are completely void of merit. Really.
Now Leach is obviously not going to be fired because 1.) we can’t afford it, 2.) he’s more or less the face of the athletic department and 3. ) win or lose, he’s probably going to still sell tickets. But if the Cougs finish the string 1-11 or 2-10 in year 3, the year Moos promised the fanbase would be the year "things really get cooking," how much is your eye going to wander to see what else is out there?
So taking the idea that there’s no such thing as a bad idea, here are a few bad ideas anyway:
Paul Wulff is not anyone’s trump card, should not be the bar we associate with the program, nor should it be the basis to how we attribute success to the current coaching staff.
To elaborate, I’ve seen several Cougs across the internet make the observation that we could’ve had these results with Wulff. Well, ok, Paul Wulff may have been 0-2 with this team and he may not have, but what good is it to pine for a coach who went 9-40? Similarly, Leach being a better coach than Wulff does not let Leach off any hook (and I think he’d be the first to tell you so). Paul Wulff is not the bar. And to a more extreme point, 2008 Paul Wulff is absolutely not the bar. It’s probably a safe assumption there aren’t going to be any teams waltzing in to Martin Stadium and beating WSU by 70 points. Even 2011 Wulff wasn’t using 2008 Wulff as the bar. By the time Wulff was fired, WSU was not a national embarrassment, but merely a bad football team. So any allusions of Leach bringing the Cougs out of the dregs of 2008 should be tempered, because that had pretty much been accomplished. Further, to rationalize the Nevada and Rutgers losses by explaining that Wulff would’ve lost worse does the current program no favors (and actually might be incorrect). Paul Wulff is on his 2nd post-WSU job already. It’s time to move on and judge this staff under its own merit.
My next point: Mike Leach’s contract and salary matters, but not in the way you think it does.
Like many of you, I also scoffed when Leach was given a 500k raise after posting a 6-7 record, but I understood the rationalization behind it. Like mentioned above, Leach is becoming the face of the university and should be compensated as such. If the market value for your coach rises, you pay your coach accordingly and debate the merits of his record in a separate conversation. As an added bonus, it keeps Leach from taking interviews with other schools as a negotiation tactic like the stunts he used to pull at Texas Tech. I am not offended by Leach’s salary, raise or any comparison to his cost per win. But his salary matters. If we are paying Mike Leach market value for a Power Conference coaching position and providing him with all the amenities and facilities a Power Conference coaching position provides (something we have never done before), then Mike Leach is ultimately expendable. There is no excuse for him not to perform, because if he doesn’t, we are ably equipped to find someone who will. Noting that this is not to say I want Leach fired (as outlined above), but WSU has some remarkable newfound leverage in this situation, which allows for expectations to be raised. There will always be better and higher profile jobs than WSU, but it doesn’t mean WSU has to sit out and settle anymore. If this current staff is unable to perform at an acceptable level in the agreed-upon timeframe, then WSU is able to move on with its attractive offer to its next suitor.
My final point: The Season is probably over. But don’t give up on the season.
As I played my seven thousandth hand of blackjack in the El Dorado on Saturday morning, I couldn’t help but notice the hundreds of Coug fans around me all decked in Crimson the day before had all seemed to find neutral colors to blend in the next day. Even when a man stepped in to our table wearing a WSU polo, he was quick to remark that he forgot to pack anything else. Meanwhile, I’m checking my phone in between chutes to see an e-mail thread composed of my tailgating group with several members threatening to sit this week out (side note: don’t check your phone at a blackjack table in Reno. I think I hit on a 20 at one point). At the time, I think I was ready to avoid Pullman this weekend as well (hence why I’m glad I wrote this today and not from my hotel room in Reno on Saturday), but I’m not really sure why a couple losses would keep me from wanting to enjoy the ten Cougar Football Saturdays we still have left. A loss in Reno probably keeps the Cougs from going to a Bowl game, but they probably have a couple good surprises left in them this season, too. And if they don’t, we can re-evaluate how hot anyone’s seat should be in December. You have plenty of experience with it not being our year. I mean, just about all of them, really. If you thought the Cougs had eight wins in them in July, there’s no shame in ratcheting expectations down and taking things week by week in hopes of seeing something memorable. I had a 5,000 word opus to tailgating music in the chamber for today before we had to hit the panic button. Maybe we can get to that next week and have a more important discussion on the merits of Huey Lewis.
That said, if we lose to freakin’ Portland, have your jugs of bleach handy because we’re going drinking.