Washington State Cougars coach Mike Leach took the podium yesterday at Pac-12 media day and fielded questions from reporters for about 25 minutes on the typically wide range of topics — after all, many of these reporters are gathering information they plan to use later in the season when the Cougs face off against the team they cover, or for feature stories they’re planning, etc.
One thing lacking from the day’s proceedings? The usual amount of whimsy that reporters seem to covet whenever Leach gets behind a microphone in a non-postgame setting. That’s likely due to the death of Tyler Hilinski, which hovered over the day’s proceedings — we covered all that here.
If you’d like to read all of Leach’s responses in their entirety, you can do that here, thanks to the wonderful transcriptionists at ASAP Sports. (You also can watch the video at the top.) If you’re not inclined to read all 3,349 words, I’ve pared it down for you to what I think are probably the most interesting highlights for Coug fans.
Early on, before any of the day’s festivities began, it was revealed that WSU had been picked by the media to finish fifth in the Pac-12 North. The formula for those predictions is pretty simple — look at how good a team was last season, then decide whether they on the rise or decline based on returning players ... and other factors.
One of those factors for WSU was turnover with the assistant coaches, which was about as high as you’ll ever see in one offseason. Leach, as you’d expect, isn’t all that concerned with it disrupting the progress he’s made building the program in Pullman.
We’ve got another group of guys in now, which it’s been a fairly seamless transition, and that’s one thing that’s beneficial offensively with me coordinating the offense as we get new coaches, all of a sudden we’re not reinventing the wheel. It’s the same deal. So just I’m there to plug everybody in and tell them what to do.
The other thing, Tracy Claeys has worked with Jeff Phelps before, so I think that helped as well. We had a really good spring, and that’s the biggest way that I gauged it, and everybody stepped in. So we had a productive spring very quickly.
Leach actually mentioned the Claeys/Phelps connection a couple of times in his session, then mentioned it again during his TV spot with Mike Yam and Yogi Roth on Pac-12 Network. It seems that he really likes that chemistry from a teaching standpoint. He also seems excited about having a defensive coordinator whose experiences run a bit deeper than previous coordinator Alex Grinch.
He’s kind of predictable from the standpoint he’s got a huge pedigree as far as being a defensive coordinator. He’s been at it for a long time, starting from small college to bigger schools. He’s always been successful. Always been good. ...
And schematically, what he ran was what we were seeking when I hired Alex Grinch, so it’s pretty close. It’s not like all of a sudden there is going to be a huge change scheme-wise.
This obviously is the other big factor in the upcoming season. As you would probably expect, Leach is confident in his ability to get productive play out of the guys on his roster.
Had really good work in the spring. Had several quality quarterbacks. The challenge for us is going to be to select the right guy. But I think we’d probably have three or four choices, all of which would do a really good job.
He did get a little more detailed on a couple of the options, using a question about graduate transfer Gardner Minshew to also talk about Cammon Cooper.
(Minshew is) older. Has some experience in kind of leadership quality, I think. He’s really accurate. Getting acclimated with our players and our schemes, somewhat, but his scheme, he’s been around our scheme some. So there’s that.
But it will be a heck of a battle, because I thought Gordon and Tinsley both had really good springs, and I think both of those guys will be difficult to beat out. You’ve got a lot of talent in Cammon Cooper, who as he gets used to being a college football player, and he had a really good off-season. That will be exciting to see too.
Given the new redshirt rule — which allows a player to appear in up to four games while still being able to preserve a year of eligibility — it’s going to be interesting to see if we’ll get Cooper in some meaningful action at some point. Leach has a long-established history of trying to stick with one guy. He obviously did that with Falk last year, and did it for the vast majority of his career at Texas Tech, even openly lamenting the times he switched guys midstream.
The situation Leach is facing is uncharted territory, and I think his response indicates a high likelihood that we see multiple QBs this season.
Speaking of that redshirt rule, Leach is a fan.
I think that’s a good rule. It approaches five years of eligibility, which I’ve always thought would make things very simple, would be a smart way to do things. ... Five years of eligibility, then you don’t have all of the appeals and the transfer stuff. But it’s a step towards that, and I think it’s really good for the student-athlete too.
The other big rule change has to do with kickoffs, in which a fair catch inside the 25-yard-line results in the ball being placed on the 25. Leach doesn’t think it will change a whole lot, but he did muse about how coaches might try to strategically approach it.
I think you’ll see more kicks on the ground. If you’re really confident, your guy can put it through the end zone. You’ll still let him launch it I suppose. Then put it on the ground and hope he can pin him in there. But there will be a lot of stuff on the 25, I imagine.
Which, honestly, there has been. You know, you do the kickoffs, and they do this and that, and you’re hoping a guy breaks it and he gets pounced on. You’re on approximately the 25.
There’s a decent chance that the junior safety, who accompanied Leach to Southern California, is the best player on WSU’s roster, and Leach talked a little bit about what makes him special.
Well, he came to our place pretty ready to play. He was one of those guys that didn’t really have any physical filter or anxiety. He just exploded out there on the field. He’s stronger and more athletic than he looks. He’s whatever size he is, but he’s stronger than that. When he hits somebody, he just flies. His vertical jumps off the charts, and he just plays with a passion and intensity that rubs off on other players, because they see it and it energizes the unit out there.
No, he’s an impressive guy to have. He’s gotten just kind of incrementally better as far as because he got older. But he had a pretty good running start out there as far as being a good player for our team from the beginning, you know? ...
The day he walked in the door, he was ready to go, and he was excited. He’s one of those unique guys that didn’t have this big adjustment where you have the whole “I’m not sure what I should do here.”
This is where we got a little bit of the Mike Leach humor. He hit upon the themes of “Pullman is a college town,” but as someone who has heard just about every Leach story over the past seven years, this was a fresh take on a familiar tune.
And the one thing that is, I think, pretty key for us, the Pac-12 is a fascinating conference. There is a lot of variety from one team to the next, but it’s also an urban conference. But we’re a college town, and we offer something they don’t.
You know, you guys might love the traffic in L.A. A lot of great things about L.A. You might sit in the car, listen to the radio, look at the person beside you. You know, you get flipped off. I always thought it was kind of funny when somebody flipped me off, couldn’t help but laugh. You know, wait in line for stuff. Well, you don’t get to do that in Pullman, Washington.
So there are sacrifices you make to come up there to Pullman, because you don’t have to plan ahead. It sucks if you want to develop your planning skills. You know, good food is right there. Well, I’d like to wait in line. Well, you can stand there, but I’ll be here at the counter doing nothing, so when you’re ready to order, come order.
So we’re a college town. The other thing is 365 days a year, it’s the Cougs. They’ll remember a game you played the rest of your life. This isn’t a deal where you might have the game of your life and walk three blocks and they don’t even know you had a game. No, they know you had a game. They know it was a big deal. They’ll holler the thing out. We had a big win in the conference on the road. Came in at 4:00 in the morning, and the whole balcony of this dorm was just packed with people, screaming “Go Cougs,” it’s 4 a.m., meeting the bus. Yeah, it’s a unique place that’s all centered around the college.
Then there was a reporter fishing for a good recruiting story, and while they didn’t get a great one, it was still pretty funny.
There’s a lot of them. You know, they range from going to a place and, you know, drop into the couch and it’s a real low couch and your knuckles are on the floor and you get to the edge of the carpet and you’re feeling around, and it’s dirt under the couch, you know, you’re on a dirt floor. Then, you know, neighbors and relatives come out of the back room with bags of alcohol to celebrate the signing of the player and the arrival of the coach.
Then you go to some palatial, gated community where they have a seven-on-seven field out there where the quarterback -- and they play seven on seven, a big pool with a fountain in it, a couple tennis courts, a batting cage, a concert piano in the thing as you come into the house, and half the kids are really good at playing the piano. So you get the extremes. The extremes of it are pretty wild. ...
The other thing is occasionally 16-year-old girls are deciding where their boyfriend superathlete is going to go to school. Or you also get the one where everybody wants the kid to go somewhere else, and he tells them no and comes to your place or goes to another place. So, yeah.
He also said that he’d still rather not have an early signing period, but that it wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be, and that how it will ultimately affect recruiting is going to take a couple of more years to figure out.
This was probably my favorite answer of all. Leach has a lot of opinions on a lot of things, but it’s rare that he talks much about football, or how he does things, or who he actually is as a person. He does that here, explaining how he balances being head coach and offensive coordinator:
You kind of do it the same way, it’s just that you have to wear a few more hats with regard to some of the organizational stuff and the head coach duties.
So I meet with the quarterbacks every day, just like you would as a position coach. When it comes to meeting the offense, then I’d leave the meeting. It’s really pretty similar. The other thing that I like, it’s kind of a -- you know, my sanctuary in the course of the day is practice. I mean, it’s like I look forward to practice.
And I tell you, as a head coach, you look forward to practice, if you do it like I do, even more than you did as an assistant. All of a sudden, practice, the phone stops ringing, you know? We could do this, we could do that, we could do the other thing. Yeah, we could do all that stuff, and that’s great, except we’ve got practice. What are you going to be doing at some point? We’re going to be practicing.
So, no, it’s great that way. So run the quarterback meetings, and then install the offense, and then, of course, putting the game plan in, that’s a long, long Sunday night, a real long Monday night. Then you go through the debates. The debates honestly aren’t as much on what to run, it’s limiting what you run. Because we think all of our ideas are very clever. So then pairing it down to where it’s a manageable number.
OK, well that was still 2,200 words ... but I saved you like a thousand, so it’s a win, yeah?