What kind of football program do you want WSU to be?
No, seriously ... think about your own answer to that for a moment. Because I believe WSU -- the institution and fan base, not the team -- is suffering from a bit of an identity crisis right now.
In the wake of yet another loss in which any one of 10 things could have gone differently to sway the outcome of the game -- but, of course, didn't -- I'm seeing (generally) two types of comments coming from two different types of fans.
Type A: "Enough. This is unacceptable."
Type B: "Why all the negativity? I see improvement!"
If you were around here after the Portland State debacle (or if you follow me on Twitter), you already know exactly which camp I'm in. And if you've visited any of the comment threads on our postgame stories, you know there are plenty of Type B fans around, too.
Here's why this is quite the quandary for WSU -- again, the institution, not the team.
The hiring of Mike Leach was supposed to usher in a new era of WSU football -- one in which the Cougars were no longer the equivalent of the Sisters of the Poor of the Pac-12. Armed with the riches of the Pac-12's new broadcasting arrangement, we hired an established coach with a long history of success at the FBS level by paying him a competitive wage -- all firsts in the program's history. And with major facilities upgrades on the horizon, the competitive imbalances that had plagued WSU's coaches for most of the previous 100 years were going to finally be at least somewhat leveled.
And yet, nearly four years later, the coach who won two out of every three games at Texas Tech while going to 10 consecutive bowl games has lost two out of every three games at WSU while failing to produce even a single winning season. Yes, there was one bowl game ... the result of which was sabotaged by the kinds of errors that have become commonplace in WSU football under Mike Leach.
This new era of WSU football? It looks -- and sounds -- a lot like the supposed end of the old one. Here's Mike Leach after Saturday's loss:
"I thought we played hard. ... All three phases played extremely hard, played extremely well. I thought for the most part we played a good football game, we didn't play a perfect game, we played a good game. ... I think we got better this week. We didn't get better by the margin I would have liked, but I think we got better this week."
And now, let's flash back. Here's Paul Wulff after his penultimate game, a 30-27 overtime loss to Utah. You'll remember that as the game in the snow during which Connor Halliday lacerated his liver. You might also remember Halliday threw four interceptions. You might not remember that Utah had a 49-yard TD off a fake field goal:
"I'm very proud of how they played. They played very physical, played tough football. You know, we just turned the ball over too many times at the end of the day, that cost us. When you lose it five times to their two, that's a tough one to overcome. Yet, still had a lot of opportunities to win the football game. I really felt overall we outplayed them, but the mistakes that we had were too costly."
Eerily similar, right?
Some might call the sentiments expressed by both Leach and Wulff just standard coachspeak. But there are fans who still swear that Paul Wulff was about to turn a corner at WSU, just as there are fans now who feel as if patience is required with Leach because they're convinced they can see improvement.
Even if I stipulate that the team is indeed improving, here's what I don't get.
Why is simply inching toward mediocrity good enough for so many people?
I'm not familiar enough with all fan bases to make a sweeping judgment on this, but I have a hard time believing there's another group of fans out there so obsessed with measuring progress through comparison rather than against an actual standard.
For example, here's what my friend Jim Moore wrote yesterday about the game.
"I thought they'd lose by 35 points, and oddsmakers thought they'd lose by 17 so I was wrong, Vegas was wrong, and the Cougars almost beat the 24th-ranked team in the country and the top-rated NFL quarterback prospect in Jared Goff," he wrote.
I've seen a number of variations of this sentiment all over our comments. Everyone agrees Cal is good, and we nearly beat Cal, therefore we must be nearly good! Progress! Optimism!
Can someone explain to me why in the world we're using a sorta-narrow loss to Cal as some kind of measuring stick? First off, this starts by setting the baseline at the loss to Portland State, which is not where the baseline for expectations should be. Second, does anyone remember that this is a team we whipped in their stadium two years ago on our way to a bowl game? The Golden Bears finished 2013 with one win. ONE.
Washington State football is a broken record on repeat
There are things that went wrong on Saturday. They cost Washington State a win over Cal. And they are the same issues that have held the Cougars back for Leach's entire tenure.
And now we're going to sit around and say, "Golly gee whiz, look at how close we were to beating Cal! That's a good team right there!"
This line of thinking isn't new, by the way. Whether it's pointing to a nearly three-TD point spread and noting how much closer we were than that, or noting that while this year's team is frustrating, "at least we're not as bad as we were under Wulff!", or saying that while this season is disappointing, "At least we're not going to go 0-12 hahahahahaha," we Cougs constantly measure ourselves by comparison -- and set the bar really, really low to do so.
Instead, I've got a better question. Or, rather, a better series of questions.
Is 14-27 overall good enough? Is it good enough to be 2-2 with a loss to an FCS school at this point in Mike Leach's tenure? Is it good enough that the same mistakes are being made by completely different players in year four? Is it good enough that the week-to-week effort is still so uneven? Is it good enough that we have to try and convince ourselves that four years into a "new era of Cougar football," there might maybe possibly be a way for us to squeeze out six wins to get to that most magical of all destinations -- a lower-tier bowl game?
Is it good enough?
This is how we should be measuring Mike Leach's job performance. When Bill Moos announced our entry into big boy college football, simple week-to-week improvement was no longer the standard -- if it was, Paul Wulff would never have been fired. And if you think Leach needed some time to turn it around, I think we can agree that the point at which the entire roster has been turned over is the point at which we can start measuring Leach on his own merits. And it honestly makes me want to puke that we're on our eighth year of rebuilding through perpetual youth and so many of our fans still think "get better every week" is good enough.
I mean, holy crap, if you think taking baby steps toward average is going to get you where you want to go, you might want to remember that, yanno, everyone else is trying to get better, too. That's just the nature of playing a season of games and practicing your craft each week. Not getting better throughout the season is the sign of a total dumpster fire of a program, but just because you're not a total dumpster fire doesn't mean you're actually on your way to getting where you want to go.
Then again, I guess your feelings about the preceding paragraphs depend wholly on your answer to the very first question.
What kind of football program do you want WSU to be?
Maybe you're content with WSU continuing on as the lovable losers they've been for most of the past six or seven decades. If the Cougars give you a bowl game every few years, you're plenty happy. In that case, the current state of the program probably doesn't bother you at all -- it's not hard to see this group turning into something that's at least thoroughly average by 2016 or 2017 just through sheer experience.
I'd argue that ship sailed, though, when Moos hired Leach and sunk $100 million worth of construction bonds into facilities. Maybe Moos should never have done that. Maybe we should have spent that TV money in other ways, improving facilities for every sports program at WSU, rather than pushing all-in on football and betting on Leach's ability. Maybe we should have just said, "This is WSU, this is what we are, and we're going to do what we've always done because aspiring to more is a fool's errand. The gap is just too big."
But Moos didn't do that, he decided we should aspire to more, and this is where we are. So when I ask what kind of football program you want WSU to be, here's how I answer.
I don't think it's too much to ask for WSU to be in a bowl game nearly every year and competing for a conference title occasionally.
In my mind, that should be the standard. No, we almost certainly can't become a title contender every year -- that's really, really hard to do, and I think we all agree on that -- but in an environment where six wins will get you into one of literally 38 bowl games, and you can practically guarantee yourself three wins if you schedule right*, going someplace warm nearly every December is not unattainable. Heck, that was essentially the Mike Leach Formula For Success At Texas Tech that got him this job in the first place. That's exactly what he did there: Go to a bowl game every year thanks in part to some light scheduling, and be really good every few years when you successfully develop a mature team.
*Side note: LOLOLOLOLOL
For whatever reason -- different recruiting talent base, different assistant coaches, different conference, different era in college football, whatever -- Leach hasn't been able to replicate that success here. And as I've said before, I've become completely convinced that he'll never replicate it here. When you've told everyone that you have three pillars to your coaching philosophy and four years into your tenure your players (which, by the way, are now almost all recruited by you) still don't consistently demonstrate two of them -- too many weeks the Cougars are not the "most excited to play," and too many Cougars still can't "do their job" consistently -- there's a pretty massive problem that I think is highly unlikely to go away.
I fully recognize I'm probably just pissing into the wind with all this "DEMAND BETTER" stuff. I have no idea if Bill Moos will ever read this, and even if he did, I doubt he'd care what I think; if empty seats and flagging donation numbers don't seem to get his attention (remember, it's your fault that you don't have enough "skin in the game"), some blogger at his keyboard probably isn't going to do it, either. Heck, the Cougar Athletic Fund didn't even bother to contact us to see if we could help promote their latest membership drive that fell woefully short, so I suspect that's a pretty good reflection of CougCenter's role in the world of WSU athletics. And we all know the financial situation surrounding Leach's contract that leads everyone to conclude we can't fire him anyway.
That said, this is the forum I've got, so I'm going to use it to plainly say:
The state of the football program isn't good enough for WSU. And unless something drastic and unforeseen happens over the next eight games, Mike Leach isn't a good enough coach for WSU and it's time to figure out a way to move on. This is what schools that want to play with the big boys do, regardless of how prohibitive the financials seem, and it's time we fans start expecting more from our coaches and administrators.
And when I say "drastic and unforseen," I'm not talking about simply squeaking by to a bowl game. I'm talking about making to a bowl game while demonstrating the kind of quality football we were promised when Mike Leach was hired -- the kind of stuff that makes you believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mike Leach is the guy to lead a perennial winner. We've seen it before at WSU in both football and basketball. We know what it looks like. And it does not look like what it looks like right now, even if this team can somehow get to six wins in spite of itself.
This isn't giving up on the Cougs. I'll watch every game, and I'll cheer my head off, and I'll be here on Sunday, pounding out this column. I'm still going to try real hard to enjoy each week on its own merits, and if the team ends up in a bowl, I'm going to celebrate like crazy, because we deserve that, and the players deserve that. But that's a separate issue from assessing Mike Leach's fitness to lead the program going forward. You know, sometimes CEOs get fired even when their companies turn a profit.
This is the opposite of giving up. Caring enough to say THIS IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH is the opposite of apathy, and I refuse to be apathetic anymore.
If you feel the same, I suggest you use whatever forum you have available to you to make your voice heard. Jump on Twitter, send Bill an email (email@example.com), whatever ... it's probably insignificant, but at least you can say that you did something to say this isn't how it should be.
And if you don't feel the same way? I'd suggest you do the same thing and express your support for the coach.
I've been there when the team is winning. I was in school when we went to the Rose Bowl in 1997. I went to the Holiday Bowl in 2003. I want to stop making excuses for an underperforming coach and I want to feel that again.
What We Liked
Cal's offense was thought to be something to be feared. In general, the Cougar defense contained them, giving up just 28 points (or 27, depending on if you want to give the defense credit for the missed PAT). They weren't spectacular -- 469 yards given up, 6.25 yards per play -- but as we've said all along, they don't have to be spectacular to give their team a chance to win. And on Saturday, they gave their team a chance to win.
The defensive line seems to be improving pretty rapidly -- Cal was never able to get much of a running game going, and that was a huge reason why the Golden Bears were limited in their ability to put up points.
Now, if we could just fall on a freaking fumble. Sheesh.
Gabe Marks is just the best. He was virtually uncoverable, and he let his quarterback know that he better be getting the ball. He had a sick diving grab (that I can't seem to find a clip of anywhere) and also added a TD to this total:
If you really want to have your mind blown, check this out:
What Needs To Improve
Special teams. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
The Cougs travel to Oregon. The Ducks are a shell of the team that made it to the national championship game last season, and they look more beatable than they have in years. WSU has traditionally played reasonably well against Oregon, including last year's near miss under the lights of Martin Stadium.
The game will kick off at 3 p.m. on -- you guessed it! -- Pac-12 Network.