'Tis a lesson you should heed:
Try, try, try again.
If at first you don't succeed,
Try, try, try again.
The success the Washington State Cougars have enjoyed on the field the past two seasons is largely without precedent. Outside of a ridiculous run of success in the early part of the century that included a conference championship and Rose Bowl berth, WSU has only been to bowl games in consecutive years once: right now.
It’s hard to understate how miserable of a bowl history that is for a school that has been in some iteration of the Pac-12 for nearly a century now. In fact, since the turn of the century, WSU has appeared in six bowl games, which wouldn’t be altogether bad if you didn’t consider they only had seven appearances in the entire 20th century.
(Fun fact: a person named “Mike” has been the head coach for eight of them.)
So, what I’m saying is, taking it all into consideration, things are pretty good right now in Pullman.
But for the past two seasons, one massive bug-a-boo (and I’m being polite) has bitten the Cougs before they can hardly get out of the gate: losses to FCS teams.
The first one I’d categorize as a true surprise. What should’ve been a walk in the park turned into a sloppy, wet, mistake fest against a Portland State team that had no business hanging with the Cougs, let alone winning. The next season, a much less surprising, albeit no less excusable, loss to the Eastern Washington Eagles.
The losses clearly aren’t effecting the team’s psyche; consecutive 8-4 seasons prove that. Maybe that’s all that should really matter, whether the team is able to recover from embarrassing losses against teams you should be taking to the woodshed.
But win both of those games in 2015 and 2016, and this team has a shot at double-digit wins, at better bowl games, at voters in the CFP rankings not looking at the resume and going “man, that loss to an FCS team”.
Perhaps most importantly: it matters to your fans and donors. Watching WSU lose to a team they should beat is, not only rare, but absolutely no fun. Watching them lose to a team they should not only beat but with ease ... even worse. Forget any of the ribbing from friends in person or on social media, I can deal with that. Just the event itself of watching a Pac-12 team look overmatched, outsmarted, and outgunned by a Big Sky squad is not fun.
Mike Leach has truly been a blessing to Washington State football. Sure, the better facilities help recruiting wise but Leach’s offensive system combined with everything about the man personality wise fits Pullman damn near to a T (or so I’d like to think) and, most importantly, his teams have won. “Winning” isn’t a word we’d heard a lot of prior to Leach’s arrival, or even for a short time after. But one thing Washington State football never did, even in its darkest days, was lose to FCS teams.
They’ve now done it twice in a row.
I generally abhor stereotypes in sports but, at least in this situation, it works: this all starts at the top. It’s Mike Leach’s responsibility to make sure both sides of the ball and every player who could see the field on that roster is ready to go when the ball is kicked at 7:30 Saturday night.
I’ve made no secret about my relative lack of expectations for this football team. I, unlike others, am not as giddy about the receiving core and I’m nervous about how thin the defensive line is. I totally understand though how the majority would come to the conclusion that this team has a very good chance to hit double digits in the win column.
Outside of me then, the expectations are high, not just from fans but the media as well; the first preseason top-25 ranking in 15 years is the surest evidence you need of that. The loss to Portland State I could, eventually, rationalize away as a fluke, thanks in no small part to the weather conditions. The loss to Eastern Washington was, at the very least, more expected.
A loss to Montana State, in perfect weather, isn’t a fluke. A loss to Montana State isn’t, at the very least, hovering in the back of my mind as a relative possibility.
It’d be the biggest embarrassment of them all.
So, it all starts with you coach. As I said on the podcast, given the lessons of the previous two years, I’d hope no one is taking this lightly but, again, that’s all up to you. Beyond starting the season out on the right foot, it’s the beginning of a five game home stand, arguably the best gift the scheduling gods could’ve given you with expectations so high. A 4-1 record as we close the book on September isn’t unrealistic ... just don’t let the one be to a still rebuilding team from Bozeman that only won two games in the Big Sky last year.
The third time’s lucky.
-Alexander Hislop, The Proverbs of Scotland, 1862
Mike Leach, the most important person vs. Montana State.