The incredible conclusion to the season in last week’s Apple Cup was what the faithful had hoped to see all-season long. The fact it was late in coming, as opposed to never in coming, will make the winter a bit warmer and the promise of tomorrow a whole lot brighter.
Until that remarkable comeback against the Huskies, however, the 2012 season went about as badly –- on and off the field –- as it possibly could have (though late charges by EWU and UNLV and poor clock management by WSU suggest that it actually could have been worse).
The season-opening crash-and-burn at BYU that all hoped was an aberration turned out to be the season forecast (minus the Apple Cup) in a nutshell.
So what are we to make of Mike Leach’s first season on the Palouse?
Rightly or wrongly, grading a performance starts by comparing the actual outcome with the expected outcome. For the Cougs in 2012, it was a classic case of the old saying “the taller you are, the farther you fall.” The high expectations were a product of three factors: 1) Leach’s glossy track record; 2) WSU’s own hype, which was aided and abetted by media; and 3) Last year’s Cougar team coming within 16 points of a 7-win season.
Now pair a 1-8 record against Pac-12 competition with an onslaught of negative publicity around zombies, corpses, cowards and, the messy Marquess Wilson departure, and you have a first-year outcome bordering on the unimaginable.
Leach has already promised an off season “for the ages” to ensure the calamity doesn’t happen again. Wins and losses, though, are too incomplete a way to grade a football coach, especially one in his first season on the job. So we’ve identified key areas of evaluation and come up with this report card for Leach’s first season in crimson ...
There were no headline-makers in the staff Leach assembled and experience was noticeably light in spots -- to the point that a side-by-side comparison with Paul Wulff’s last staff would suggest Leach underachieved, particularly given the much larger staff budget he had to work with. A 3-9 record would suggest a failing grade is in order here, but notable progress appears to have been made in recruiting and changing the mindset. It speaks volumes when players like Gino Simone and Carl Winston -- seniors who didn’t always play a lot and had no reason to suck up to the new coaches -- lavish praise on the staff for its work with players on and off the field.
Inexperienced players made progress under such assistants as Jeff Choate (linebackers), Dennis Simmons (outside receivers), Eric Morris (inside receivers), Eric Russell (special teams) and Joe Salave’a (defensive line). Offensive line coach Clay McGuire, who neither played the position nor ever coached it before, draws criticism when the team is last in the nation in rushing and quarterback sacks allowed. But then again, talent and depth on Washington State’s O-line have been inferior for years. On defense, can’t blame coordinator Mike Breske for all the blitzing with no shut-down corners, but results were bound to be hit-or-miss with an inexperienced front seven.
Leach is doing in recruiting in his first full class what he did during his tenure at Texas Tech: Getting kids that fit his system, but who don’t necessarily have a lot of stars and national hype surrounding them. That’s how Mike Price got WSU to two Rose Bowls in the span of five calendar years, so it’s a proven recipe in more ways than one. The ultimate success or fail rate won’t be known for a few years, but it’s clear the Cougars are drawing interest from a broader, more talented, cross section of athletes than they have in years. Interestingly, “Texoma” has become a key ancillary recruiting area for WSU under Leach, with five 2013 commits hailing Texas and Oklahoma -- just one less than from California. While Leach is bringing in athletic types with speed, he’s also paying a lot of attention to the o-line. Despite bringing in a large number of o-linemen in the 2012 class, Leach has five pledges so far for 2013 and plans on adding at least two more. In terms of national ranking, this Leach class figures to land somewhere in the high 40s or low 50s, which is just fine as long as the players fit and retention is greater than it has been in recent years.
Bill Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are.” By that measure, Mike Leach’s first rodeo on the Palouse would merit an F. An eight-game losing streak, plus a load of negative publicity screams out failure. But another old coach, Jim Walden, once said that some of the finest coaching efforts you’ll ever see are often in the seasons that went south, when it takes tremendous energy, creativity and will to keep the ship moving forward. So where does Year One of Leach fall on that continuum? Probably somewhere in between. To that end, the Cougs turned in surprisingly good efforts against four ranked teams -- Stanford, Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State and Washington -- and yet filled other Saturdays with absolute stinkers against Utah, Arizona State and Colorado. In 22 years as a head coach and assistant before coming to WSU, Leach had exactly one losing season, and none as a head coach. That tells us he’s a darn good football coach. It also suggests that he has little experience dealing with a lack of talent. Moreover, he’s never had to rebuild a program. Before he took over at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders had five straight winning seasons and had been to five bowl games in seven years. So perhaps the expected turnaround that WSU sold so convincingly in the off-season is a year or two away from reality as the ol’ pirate gets his sea legs in this talent-challenged storm. On paper, it’s easy to spot why the Cougs were so bad this season: 1) Only 13 seniors on the team at season’s end; and 2) 17 true or second-year freshmen seeing action -- a number of them very significantly so. That all bodes well for the future, but for 2012 it was a nightmare. To illustrate the carnage, consider how poorly WSU ranks in the four most crucial statistical measures of production: Out of 120 FBS teams, WSU ranks among the 30 worst in the land in total offense, scoring, total defense and scoring defense. Those bleak results are even more sobering when compared to last season, when the Cougs ranked between 33rd and 45th in three of those categories and 82nd in the fourth (total defense). About the only area of tangible progress is on special teams; except for net punting, the Cougs were better this season in most statistical ST measures.
THE AIR RAID: D
ALTERNATING QBs: TUEL AND HALLIDAY
The cornerstone of all the off-season hype was the Air Raid. This is what made Leach a celebrity, and it was billed as the elixir that would return WSU to the post-season after so many years. It wasn’t defense that had people buzzing about the new staff. It was the Air Raid, the Air Raid, the Air Raid. This, more than anything, is what separated Leach from other off-season hires around the country. But the Air Raid crash landed. The pratfall has been so complete that the Cougs actually dropped back down to their 2010 level of output -- a 10-point fall off from their per game from last season when a third-string QB was pressed into most of the action. The conventional wisdom headed into this season was that the offense would rack up big points and we'd hold our breath with the defense. Boy was that wrong. If the Cougs’ 2012 season has proven one thing, it’s that if you don’t have at least a serviceable offensive line, it doesn’t matter how good the QB and WRs are (and not that those positions were all that sterling either.) The offensive line, poor to begin with, seemed to regress in the second half of the season (with the exception of the Apple Cup.) When there was enough time to throw, results were mixed from quarterbacks and receivers with drops and open targets missed.
MEDIA INTERACTION/PUBLIC RELATIONS: D
Leach started out well because he’s so darn quotable, but the luster dimmed mightily. When a coach is winning, it doesn’t matter much what he says about anything because all is right with the world. But Leach didn’t win, and he didn’t help himself by regularly making reporters wait 20 or 30 minutes for his weekly conference calls or making national headlines by referring to players as zombies, cowards and corpses. Moreover, he cut access to players to the bare bones and turned the topic of injuries into an exercise in Churchillian observation: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Add it up and Cougar fans who wanted to continue in the offseason excitement of the program were asked instead to go thirsty. And say what you will about Marquess Wilson and his level of maturity and seemingly over-the-top use of the word abuse, the bottom line is that this happened on Leach’s watch. He managed his program in a way that ultimately forced the AD and president to call for internal and external reviews of player treatment.
Season-ticket sales and membership in the Cougar Athletic Foundation both increased noticeably after Leach was hired. The excitement he brought to the program was unlike anything this side of the 1997 football season. Long-suffering fans re-engaged. From that standpoint, his coming on board accelerated Bill Moos’ cultural transformation efforts by a good three years. The question going forward, here in the wake of a poor showing on the actual gridiron, is whether those gains in sales and memberships can be retained, let alone built upon. The dramatic Apple Cup win no doubt lifts the trajectory brought about by an otherwise disappointing 3-9 season.
OVERALL GPA: 2.33
This can be viewed in two ways: A) For a first-year coach in a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2003, a GPA like that isn’t all bad and there were definite signs of better things to come in 2013; or B) Given Bill Moos’ pronouncements at Leach’s hiring that the program needs to start winning now, and the amount of money he spent on Leach and his staff, a GPA like that is a failure of towering proportion. You be the judge.
This report was compiled by a half-dozen CF.C reporters, editors and contributors