The most intriguing story in Pacific-12 Conference football this season has nothing to do with USC’s return to prominence, Matt Barkley’s decision to pass on the NFL or Oregon’s possible NCAA sanctions. It’s not how Stanford plans to replace superstar Andrew Luck, how former Seattle Seahawks coach Jim Mora will transition to college or whether another season of struggles could cost Cal’s Jeff Tedford and/or Oregon State’s Mike Riley their jobs.
No, the most interesting story in these parts comes straight out of Key West.
Former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, having spent two years away from the game while frequenting the beaches and laid-back bars of Key West, Fla., is on the other end of the country, and the proverbial world, now that he’s leading the Washington State University football team in Pullman.
So what has it been like trading in his life of relaxation for a job in the Pac-12?
“Do you mean: Am I having trouble in the fast pace and intensity of Eastern Washington, where it’s hustle and bustle and iPods and all that stuff?” the oft-quoted coach deadpanned when that question was posed to him earlier this week. “No, I’ve managed. I get by. It’s pretty laid-back here, I have to say.
“It’s every bit as laid-back here as it is in Key West, so it’s worked out good.”
Of course, the heat is about to get turned up.
In a conference that has undergone some high-profile makeovers in terms of football coaches, Leach is certainly the most colorful — and intriguing. Despite his casual manner, Leach has piqued the interest of the college football world because of his high-profile exit from Texas Tech (he was first suspended for allegedly forcing an injured player to sit in a broom closet, then fired) but also because of his high-octane offense (in his final two seasons at Tech, the Red Raiders averaged around 500 yards and 40 points per game).
He’s one of four new coaches in the conference — all of them bring impressive resumes from high-profile spots, although each left their last team on bad terms.
Arizona added Rich Rodriguez, a former West Virginia wunderkind who never won over the fan base at Michigan. Arizona State wooed Todd Graham away from Pitt, leaving plenty of bad feelings when he left the Panthers after just one season. And UCLA gave Mora his first head-coaching job at the collegiate level — something many expected to happen at the University of Washington.
All of a sudden, youngsters such as UW’s Steve Sarkisian, USC’s Lane Kiffin, Stanford’s David Shaw and Colorado’s Jon Embree are part of the old guard in Pac-12 football. Oregon State’s Riley (10th straight year at OSU and 12th overall), Cal’s Tedford (10th year) and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham (eighth year) are the only conference coaches with more than three years of experience at their current posts.
“We’ve got some real good, new, veteran coaches entering this league,” Riley said of the recent hires. “It makes for a lot of unknowns and a lot of excitement for the fans.”
It also makes for a rather unpredictable conference. USC and Oregon appear to be the clear front-runners, but it’s difficult to gauge where programs like Leach’s Cougars, Mora’s Bruins and Rodriguez’s Wildcats fit into the puzzle.
Because of his inexperience in college football, the 50-year-old Mora brings his own sense of intrigue to the conference. The ex-Seahawks coach — he was fired after just one season in Seattle — began his new tenure by clearing out some of UCLA’s academically questionable players, then questioning the remaining players’ toughness, and then inciting rival USC with an ill-advised public remark about a recent shooting near that school’s campus.
Mora already has learned a lot, and said the two years away from coaching helped “reinvigorate” him.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Mora said on Tuesday’s Pac-12 conference call. “It’s been challenging, and I’m excited about it.”
Arizona’s Rodriguez and Arizona State’s Graham are just as eager to turn the page on the past and get their new programs moving in the right direction, as is Leach at WSU.
Having left behind some ugly he-said-he-said at Texas Tech, and the Jimmy Buffet lifestyle of the Florida Keys, Leach is in one of the more remote outposts of college football — and directly in the crosshairs of the football world.
So far, that South Florida-to-Pullman journey seems to be working out just fine.
“It’s an incredible contrast,” Leach said. “I’m very lucky.”