By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Mike Leach didn’t take the bait.
During the second of his two introductory press conferences Tuesday — one in Pullman, the second at Seattle’s Fairmont Hotel — the outspoken, eccentric new head coach of the Washington State University football team was asked if he’d heard any good Husky jokes.
He simply shook his head.
“I’m not really big on engaging the opposition,” Leach said while wearing a crimson-and-gray tie and standing in front of about 100 WSU supporters and local media.
There is a time and place for everything, and so the new face of WSU athletics wasn’t in the mood to create any controversy Tuesday night. It could be said that he’s learned from experience.
Leach was at the center of one of the more ugly firings college football had seen when he was unceremoniously dumped by Texas Tech almost two years ago. He’s now back in the game with a program that certainly could use a boost. The Cougars reportedly gave him a $2 million-a-year contract to put WSU football back on the map, and the early returns have been positive.
Athletic director Bill Moss said Tuesday night that the school already has added 1,000 season-ticket holders and “half a million dollars in new contributions” since Leach was named head coach late last week. There were more than 1,200 people jammed into Leach’s introductory press conference in Pullman earlier in the day, and an estimated 400 more waiting outside. All-time WSU greats like Mark Rypien, Drew Bledsoe, Jack Thompson and Reuben Mayes were among those who attended the Seattle gathering.
“I was expecting it,” Moos said of the overwhelming response, “and I was not let down. My feeling is that for a lot of years, there’s been a whole lot of caged Cougars. And we had an opportunity to open some doors for them.”
The long-term question is at what cost. Even some of the famous alumni at Tuesday night’s event acknowledged that the hiring of Leach was out of character for the program.
“Is it a gamble? Yeah. But why not?” Rypien said. “At this point in time, it’s just in the first week of infancy, but it’s paid off pretty well. … It’s an exciting day.”
Leach’s reputation took a hit during his final year at Texas Tech, when a Red Raiders player accused him of locking him in a janitor’s closet because the player had been complaining of headaches. It was a high-profile controversy that eventually led to Leach’s dismissal and a subsequent lawsuit by the coach against the school.
The colorful coach with the infatuation with pirates also has been known to swing the sword of his tongue at times, like when he blamed a loss on his players’ “fat little girlfriends” and when he openly questioned — on numerous occasions — the mental capacity of some of his former bosses at Texas Tech.
When asked Tuesday night about his former school, Leach again went on a mini-diatribe about the Tech administrators and defended himself by saying he got along with all but one of the eight school presidents and chancellors that circled through during his time there.
“Obviously, there were some dubious characters that spread some lies,” he said Tuesday. “Pretty much anyone that has taken the time to read through the material knows that I was right — and I was right on every point.”
Moos said Leach’s background was of absolutely no concern when making the hire.
“People sometimes believe what they want to believe without knowing the full story,” Moos said, adding that he received calls from former WSU coach Mike Price and longtime coach Dennis Erickson praising the hire.
Leach himself counted off the bowl games and graduation rate and added dollars he helped create while coaching at Texas Tech.
“Reputation is what some people think you are,” he said. “But those were the facts and what me and my staff did.”
It remains to be seen what Leach and his future staff will do for WSU in the long run. It’s a chance Cougar Nation appears prepared to take.
“It’s what they do at Alabama, at USC, what they do to build buildings at Ohio State — you take a chance on a guy to jump-start something special. And that’s something we’ve got to do,” said Rypien, who was a big supporter of recently ousted WSU coach Paul Wulff.
“To get a guy like Mike Leach, if he wants to come to your university, and then to find out we’ve sold over 1,000 season tickets in the first four days, it makes you say: ‘What have we been doing the last 30 years?’
“Paul Wulff’s a great coach, and Paul Wulff’s a good friend, and I love Paul to death. But Paul Wulff’s not Mike Leach.”
The Cougars are hoping that, when it comes to wins and losses, Mike Leach isn’t Paul Wulff, either.
And as for those new rivals from UW?
“I can’t wait to play ‘em,” Leach said.