It is all going well for Mike Leach at Washington State these days. In his fourth season in Pullman, the Cougars are 5-2 and will host eighth-ranked Stanford on Saturday in a game that actually matters in the Pacific-12 North. Washington State has road wins over Oregon and Arizona, victories that would have been unthinkable a couple of seasons ago.
“I just go to work every day, spend hours in the film room, go to practice, go home and then do it all again the next day,” Leach said by phone earlier this week. “I know I can be boring and I sound like a walking cliche but I really do just try to get our team ready to win a game on Saturday. That’s pretty much my life.”
In case there was any doubt about Leach’s happy little bubble, his answer to a question about Randy Edsall’s firing at Maryland, where it appeared Leach was headed five years ago, offered proof.
“Seriously, Randy Edsall got fired?”
Asked if he was serious, Leach said: “First I’ve heard of it. I had heard there was some heat, but I didn’t know it had come to that.”
He sounded just as serious when he said he was happy right where he was.
“We’ve got a pretty good thing going now,” he said. “We’ve got a very young group. I think we’ve got four seniors starting on each side of the ball this year so, whatever we are this year, we should be better next year.
“I like our locker room. Almost all the guys in there now are guys we recruited, so their vision of the program is the same as mine. That makes coaching a lot easier.”
It hasn’t all been easy for Leach since his final days as a coaching prodigy at Texas Tech, where he went 84-43 with offensive schemes that drove defensive coordinators crazy and made the Red Raiders a team to be reckoned with in the Big 12.
But he crashed in 2009, not because he stopped winning but because he got into a dispute with the university over his alleged mistreatment of player Adam James, the son of former SMU star Craig James. The school fired Leach the day before an $800,000 bonus was supposed to kick in, and all sorts of lawsuits flew in every direction: Leach v. Texas Tech, Leach v. ESPN.
Regardless, most Maryland people would have been thrilled to see Leach on the sideline at Byrd Stadium in 2011, the season after Ralph Friedgen was fired. Leach interviewed twice with Athletic Director Kevin Anderson, went home to Key West, Fla., and a few days later Maryland hired Edsall.
“We never really got to a point where we were looking at one another and saying, ‘Okay, we know we’ve got the right fit here,’ ” Leach said. “I just sort of did my deal and went back to Key West. Things happened very fast after that and, well, the reality in the end was they wanted Randy.”
Anderson probably wanted Leach. But Maryland’s academic leadership shied away because of the controversy at Texas Tech. Before anyone knew it, Anderson was introducing Edsall, claiming, “I think we got ourselves a great coach.”
Everyone knows how that turned out. Except — until Monday — Leach.
“I guess I need to get out more,” he said.
A year after Maryland bypassed Leach, he was hired by a Washington State program that had lost 40 of its previous 49 games. “When I first got here we had six offensive linemen on scholarship,” Leach said. “I think three of them actually belonged. They averaged about 260 pounds.”
The Cougars were 3-9 in his first season, and Leach caught some heat when he described some of the seniors recruited by predecessor Paul Wulff as “zombies” and “corpse-like” in their approach to football.
One of his few stars, wide receiver Marquess Wilson, quit the team claiming “physical, emotional and verbal” abuse from the coaching staff. The school investigated and found no evidence that Wilson was telling the truth, and he later recanted his statements.
Even so, it took a while. Washington State managed to make a bowl at 6-6 in 2013 — its first postseason trip in 10 years — but slid to 3-9 a year ago. This year didn’t start out very well either with a home loss to lower-division Portland State.
“We didn’t play too badly in that game, but the result was bad,” Leach said. “They’re actually good. They have size and they just made plays. I told the guys afterwards that this was the time they had to stick together, and it was up to me first and then them to raise the bar. I think they got it.”
The win over Oregon — even in a down year for the Ducks — raised the bar considerably.
“It was huge,” Leach said. “We were good enough individually to compete with them a year ago but not good enough as a team.” He laughed. “Plus, some things happened I can’t afford to talk about.”
Leach means that literally. In 2007, after a loss to Texas, he ripped the officiating so blatantly he was fined a record $10,000 by the Big 12. “If you’re going to do it,” he said, “you might as well get your money’s worth.”
He’s getting his money’s worth from sophomore quarterback Luke Falk, who helped his team close the Oregon game in double overtime and has thrown for 921 yards the last two weeks — including 514 in a 45-42 win Saturday at Arizona. The victory left Washington State with a 3-1 Pac-12 record, meaning a win over Stanford on Saturday would tie them with the Cardinal (6-1, 5-0) in the loss column for first place in the North division.
Leach does sound like a cliched coach talking about that game. “They’re just so big,” he said. “I mean, massive. And smart and mature. I mean, how many fifth-year seniors do they have? Every year I look at our side and I see freshman, sophomore, freshman, sophomore. I look at theirs and see ‘fifth-year senior, fifth-year senior.’ ”
Weep not for Mike Leach. Slowly but surely he’s building something in far away Pullman. Washington State went to the Rose Bowl twice under Mike Price but doesn’t have a lot of football history, especially in the last dozen years. Now though, Leach has the school pointed in the right direction.
“My life’s pretty simple” he said. “Look at hours and hours of film to try to find some things that will work on Saturday. Try to have a good practice every day. Use the offseason to recruit and build the culture of the locker room. That’s my deal.”
Maybe Leach does need to get out more. For now though, he’s quite happy living in his own little world.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.