Almost every major college football coach in the country has criticized his players with the kind of harsh language that’s stirring controversy around Washington State’s Mike Leach.
Most of them have questioned their players’ guts and commitment and effort. They have threatened their scholarships and their starting positions, and many do so in language that would stun sailors and rappers.
But they do it in private.
They call it “family business.”
And when everybody comes out of the locker room to face the media, the coach offers aw-shucks platitudes and mea culpas, and blames whatever was that day’s on-field disaster on miscommunication.
Mike Leach doesn’t play that game, and he offers no apologies.
Leach’s approach could be seen as admirable, in a way, if you consider it being forthright and demanding of effort and accountability. Washington State needed a change of competitive culture. And almost every time a staff is replaced, there’s a process of retooling personnel and expectations. Sometimes it’s messy.
But Mike Leach has suddenly made a difficult process even harder on himself. Harder to sell his vision to recruits, harder to keep good players in Pullman, harder to keep them all engaged and committed.
In the past few weeks he has shifted the prevalent WSU football narrative. It had been about the rebuilding of a tattered team, whereas now it’s cluttered with debate over Leach’s questionable motivational tactics.
It’s more than an in-house distraction; it will be used against him in the living room of every top recruit.
Leach’s unprecedented success at Texas Tech came to an end in controversy over his treatment of a player. WSU athletic director Bill Moos was convinced that Leach’s approach to coaching was appropriate and fitting, and wooed the unemployed Leach to Pullman last winter with a $2 million annual salary.
Context is important, and certainly fair. The Cougars have fallen to 2-7 overall and 0-6 in Pacific-12 Conference play. They’ve performed far below expectations for a Leach-coached team.
After the loss to Oregon State, Leach cited great effort by some of his seniors, but added his opinion that some merely went through the motions like zombies. “Some of them, quite honestly, have an empty-corpse quality,” he said.
We’ve all heard much worse. And given the zombie-apocalypse fixation in film and fiction, it almost came off as a colorful contemporary cultural reference.
And after that, his banning players from Twitter might have been excusable, too, because some tweets were said to be racist or misogynist. I think it’s better to teach the offending dog not to bark rather than muzzle the whole pack, but OK — a coach’s prerogative.
After last Saturday’s lopsided loss at Utah, Leach’s frustration led to public comments and an insensitive display that was unworthy of the university’s highest-paid employee.
First he assumed blame, and included his staff. Better to have left it at that.
But then he elaborated on the weakness of his offensive line: “A part of it’s effort, and some of it borders on cowardice … it was one of the most heartless efforts I’ve ever seen.”
Accusations of cowardice and heartlessness are better reserved for actual life-and-death situations than assessments of the performance of 18- to 22-year-old athletes. It’s troublingly personal and out of proportion to their shortcomings.
These guys weren’t traitors to their country, they just didn’t block well in a football game.
Even the most polished and experienced coaches can misspeak in a game’s emotional aftermath. Perhaps more damaging than his words, however, was Leach’s insistence that the entire offensive and defensive lines be brought to the interview room for interrogation.
It seems degrading to mandate they be pilloried in the public square considering they already were well aware of the beating they’d absorbed.
The latest news is that the school’s top all-time receiver, Marquess Wilson, has either been suspended or quit the team.
A fan of pirate lore, Leach might be served by studying the history and causes of mutiny.
Leach was generous of his time, and admirably open last spring when I went to Pullman to work on a feature story. I found him intelligent and intriguing, and every comment seemed thoughtful and well-considered. He carried an obvious passion for bringing competitive football to WSU.
He has to be stunningly frustrated by the problems in Pullman. Of course he wants better talent. Of course he wants players who will be unquestioningly committed to the program.
But the irony is that he’s making it all harder to accomplish by going about it this way.