About four years ago, the Pac-12 entered into an arms race. The race to stockpile took two forms: Teams brought in new, expensive head coaches, and began embarking on ambitious and expensive facilities upgrades. Each school, buoyed by an influx of new television money and a revenue sharing plan that put everyone on equal footing, began arming themselves for a pivotal time in the conference. It all happened around the same time, and the shifting landscape of college football and the Pac-12 left the door open for just about anyone to (temporarily) seize control.
But there's a problem when all 12 teams race to build the biggest and baddest Football Death Machine. Tens of millions of dollars are invested in both people and facilities, but an arms race in a college football conference is a zero sum game. There's only so many wins to go around, and a couple of somebodies will end up on the outside looking in, stuck with mountains of debt and no real payoff to show for it.
There's a lag between the stockpiling of weaponry and the chance to see what that stockpile results in. It's about four years, enough for facilities to be built and opened, and for coaches to implement their systems through a full recruiting cycle. We're just about at that point now, and the results are beginning to show.
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This is College Football Natural Selection. The facilities can't be torn down -- fired, essentially -- nor would you want them to be. Martin Stadium looks like a real place to watch college football now, complete with plenty of amenities, and the football operations building is open for business, ready to serve coaches, support staff and players (as well as recruits). Thus, the responsibility to gain a return on the massive investment each Pac-12 football team has made in its program falls to the head coach.
Between 2011 and 2014, the Pac-12 turned over just about its entire coaching roster. Kyle Whittingham is the longest-tenured coach in the conference at the moment (for a program that's the shortest-tenured in the conference). He's been around for 10 years, and even Whittingham dealt with issues in the offseason that, momentarily, left everyone wondering if Utah was about to make a change. Everyone else made changes by either firing their coach or replacing a coach that left.
By starting fresh right around 2012 with an influx of cash, the Pac-12 set itself up for a huge collision point. Not every program could improve and skyrocket towards the top of the conference. If you started the clock as the first wave of new hires was made back in 2012 (Mike Leach, Todd Graham, Rich Rodriguez and Jim Mora then, followed by Sonny Dykes, Mark Helfrich, Mike MacIntyre the following year), this season is about the time you'd expect to see a clearer picture of who is rising and who invested a bunch of money in junk stocks.
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When it comes to getting the best out of 18- to 22-year-old kids, the facilities and weight rooms and practice fields and stadiums matter very little. If an athlete has made it to the Pac-12, odds are they're big and strong enough, or work hard enough to compete at a level consistent with what you'd expect in a major college football conference. Those facilities are a nice recruiting pitch, but they won't turn a team into worldbeaters by themselves.
Which is where the coaches come in. Getting the best out of college athletes means understanding what makes them tick, as well as managing 85 personalities at a pivotal moment in their lives. This is also why we say to never bet on college athletics: Relationship troubles, struggles at home, academics, or even the release of the latest video game can all throw them off and impact performance on Saturdays. The coaching staff, and especially the head coach, has to have the team focused and ready to play.
All the scheming and game planning in the world doesn't matter if the athletes entrusted with executing don't have their heads in the game. This happens, and is an expected side effect of putting 22 college-aged kids on a football field in high-pressure situations. How those personalities are managed, though, is the single biggest determining factor in whether or not those huge investments in facilities, coaching staffs, and recruiting budgets produces a return.
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Washington State made a big bet on its football program between 2012 and now. It was enough of a big bet that, at the time, the Board of Regents was worried about the debt the athletic department had to accrue to build the football operations building after investing in the stadium and coaching staff. But the way forward for an athletic department that had lagged behind the rest of the conference for years was to pour money into the program in an effort to catch up, hoping that the informed decisions made by Bill Moos were enough to produce wins.
Despite a 2013 season that now looks like an outlier, the wins haven't come. No matter how fancy the facilities are and how expensive the coaching staff is, wins are the only thing that matters. They can make up for weight rooms that lag behind and bolster attendance no matter what shape the stadium is in. If you're not winning, fans aren't showing up (and a holiday weekend plus an FCS team meant barely anyone showed up anyway) and recruits are banging down your doors. We're in the fourth year of the Leach era, and that pivotal fourth year began with a loss to a team that had no business even being in the game, let alone winning it.
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I woke up on Saturday thinking it was time for Leach to show Washington State fans something. I thought back to 2011, when the Cougars opened the season by beating the living daylights out of Idaho State and UNLV. The rest of the season was forgettable outside of a surprise win over Arizona State, but the Cougars did what they were supposed to do early and blew out some overmatched teams. I expected Leach and the Cougars to do the same this year.
Instead I saw an unfocused and seemingly unprepared team that looked powerless to stop Portland State once it got rolling. And while it was interesting to see Leach suddenly commit to the run with more running plays than passes in the first half and even some plays under center, I wondered why the Cougars got away from what's been their identity. That lasted all of a half: After 23 runs and 20 passes in the first half, Washington State ran the ball seven times and passed it 25 in the second half. There was seemingly no rhyme or reason, and it felt like Leach opened the season by saying, with the play calls, "fine, we'll try it your way" before abandoning the strategy and going back to a quick, pass-heavy offense.
It not only felt like the Cougars overlooked their opponent, but that they were rudderless on the offensive side of the ball. While on the surface it appeared Leach and the offense had adjusted and evolved, the second half made it feel like the big changes to the offense were all temporary and superficial. And that improved defense that held Portland State four first downs in the first half? It got adjusted right out of the game, and blown off the ball in the process, in the second half.
As I said on Saturday, it's not just that Washington State lost to a bad FCS team, but how they lost. It's even more maddening when you take a look at the reactions to the game.
Leach: "We're practicing hard and we're focused people and we just have to understand that it never gets easy."— Jacob Thorpe (@JacobThorpeSR) September 5, 2015
A few players and Leach mentioned there was a lot of complaining about circumstance (weather, miscommunications, etc.) on the sideline.— Jacob Thorpe (@JacobThorpeSR) September 5, 2015
Sounds like there was a lot of miscommunication. Leach/players mentioned guys not paying attention, Falk not communicating fronts, etc.— Jacob Thorpe (@JacobThorpeSR) September 5, 2015
Gerard Wicks: "They outcompeted us today. It seemed like everyone was bothered with the weather instead of just playing the game."— Jacob Thorpe (@JacobThorpeSR) September 5, 2015
It is the coaching staffs job to prepare players for Saturday. Their offseason revolves around getting ready for 12 Saturdays in the fall. Each week is a cycle of preparation leading up to the game itself. Everything they do is focused on preparing players for virtually anything that could happen in 60 minutes of game situations.
That players were worried about the weather (Washington State is in the Northwest; rain happens), lacked focused and struggled to communicate is squarely on the coaching staff. College football players are going to be distracted by any number of things. It's the job of the head coach and their staff to mitigate the distractions and snap those 85 players out of any off-field struggles they might be having, including a little bit of rain.
To come out and completely crap the bed in a game that the Cougars had months to prepare for is completely unacceptable. To blame the rain, the focus of the team, and early communication issues is maddening. To overlook the first opponent of the year in a game that the Cougars could in no way afford to lose is squarely on the backs of the coaches. All of this is incredibly frustrating and should worry you, not to mention how embarrassing it is to lose to Portland State.
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This is bad. There's a lot of money tied up in Leach and the coaching staff, and even more in the shiny new facilities. There was always going to be Pac-12 teams that saw their investments vanish because of the big, sweeping changes throughout the conference as a result of the newest TV deal. We're now starting to get a better idea of which teams are on the outside looking in.
What happens over the next few months could make or break the Cougars. If Saturday was any indication, it's time to panic.