By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
And we thought the most glaring thing about the Mike Leach era would be those swashbuckling pirate references.
Since Leach arrived at Washington State University less than a year ago, the Cougars’ head football coach has compared his senior class to empty corpses, has questioned the manhood of his receiving corps, and — most recently — used words like “heartless” and “cowardice” to describe his team before forcing his struggling linemen to face the proverbial firing squad in a post-game media session Saturday.
When it comes to motivational coaching tactics, some of Leach’s recent decisions have brought to mind the more infamous player call-outs of recent memory. And those have had, at best, mixed results.
The most recent notable sports leader to question his own team’s effort was Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, who was fired last month after a series of events that started when he questioned the desire of team captain and fan favorite Kevin Youkilis in April. Valentine quickly lost the clubhouse and barely made it through Boston’s worst season in 18 years.
Then there was the February rant of Lamar University basketball coach Pat Knight, the widely recognized son of legendary big mouth Bob Knight. After a loss to Stephen F. Austin, the younger Knight lambasted his team by saying: “We’ve got the worst group of seniors right now that I’ve ever been associated with.”
His Cardinals responded by winning six consecutive games — five of them by double digits— to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament.
Thus far, Leach’s Cougars don’t appear to have responded to his blunt criticism. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise to WSU athletic director Bill Moos, the man who hired Leach following the coach’s controversial exit from Texas Tech, that the Cougars’ new football coach has been so openly critical of his players.
Things began to unravel for Leach at Texas Tech when a player named Adam James accused the coach of banishing him to an equipment room because James was sitting out practice with a concussion. That was the final straw for a coach who once earned a Big 12 Conference-record $10,000 fine for questioning the motives of an Austin-based game official in a loss to Texas, and who once blamed a poor performance on his players’ “fat little girlfriends.”
Leach’s latest incident came after a 49-6 loss to Utah on Saturday afternoon, when he lambasted his team’s performance and essentially named names by forcing the offensive and defensive linemen to answer questions in the post-game media room.
On Tuesday, Leach wasn’t apologizing for his actions and said “there hasn’t been a fallout” in the locker room.
He was asked during Tuesday’s Pacific-12 Conference conference call whether his history of controversial dealings with players has affected him in his latest gig, and Leach sounded unapologetic.
“You just do the best you can,” he said softly.
When further pressed on the issue, Leach seemed most affected by the fact that his post-game actions have since been portrayed as putting all the blame on the players.
“I call out myself and the other coaches,” he said. “I don’t know why, but that seems to be ignored.”
Leach has seemed to bask in his unconventionality for most of his career, and yet this season has turned into a series of what-will-he-do-or-say-next moments in Pullman. In addition to his post-game rants, Leach has benched both of his top quarterbacks, banned players from posting messages on Twitter, and, on Monday, he suspended star receiver Marquess Wilson. While Leach has a policy of not discussing player injuries, he doesn’t mind discussing their weaknesses in press-conference formats.
Leach is hardly the first coach to use blunt assessment as motivation. Valentine and the Knights — both father and son — are among the coaches who have tried it.
Former Seattle Seahawks coach Jim Mora famously called out kicker Olindo Mare after a missed field goal cost his team a game early in the 2009 season, and he has since expressed regret for the handling of that situation.
“One of my philosophies in my coaching career was to try to not be critical in public of my players,” Mora, now UCLA’s coach, said during Tuesday’s Pac-12 coaches conference call. “And I made the mistake, a couple of times, when I was with the Seahawks, of getting away from that philosophy — and I thought it really hurt me.
“Hopefully, I’ve learned. I still say stupid stuff all the time. When you’re in the media as much as we are as coaches, sometimes you say some things that we regret. I think we all try not to, but human nature and emotions sometimes get the best of us.”
Several Pac-12 coaches were asked during Tuesday’s conference call about their philosophy on calling out players in a public forum, and the general consensus was that it’s not a good idea.
“I love our players, and they’re trying their hardest, and I don’t believe in (negative) publicity outside our family,” said Cal coach Jeff Tedford, who was not speaking specifically to Leach’s post-game actions Saturday.
“If I need to motivate them, we’ll motivate them inside. I don’t think the media’s a place to do that.”
Leach has not been shy about using the media to motivate his players, and time will tell how that will affect the Cougars in the long run. Whether he’s just telling it like it is, or trying to light a fire under a WSU program that continues to toil at the bottom of the Pac-12, Leach has certainly found a way to keep things interesting in Pullman.