By Vince Grippi The Spokesman-Review
PULLMAN — As it turns out, Nov. 16 was one the most important dates in Washington State’s more than 100-year football history, and no one but two men knew it.
That was the day WSU athletic director Bill Moos flew Pullman to Key West, Fla., where he met with former Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach. Over the next few hours, the two laid the foundation for the 50-year-old Leach to take the reins of the Cougars’ football program and be compensated with the richest contract in Washington State’s athletic history.
On Tuesday, Leach will be formally introduced at press conference as WSU’s football coach.
“I prefaced my visit with (Leach) with: ‘I’m hoping my football coach finishes strong and, in that event we’re going to go forward the way we are,’” Moos said Wednesday, referring to recently fired coach Paul Wulff, who on Nov. 16 was preparing the Cougars for their game with Utah.
Then Moos explained the reason for seeking out Leach. “I’ve got to be prepared in the event we don’t have the success I feel we need to have.”
The Cougars didn’t strong finish strong — WSU lost to Utah in overtime and Washington the next week — and Moos fired Wulff on Tuesday.
By then a basic agreement already was in place with Leach.
“The job wasn’t open officially until (Tuesday), but we had a lot of it laid out prior to that,” said Moos, explaining that Leach’s agent and a representative of his had been hammering out details since the Utah defeat.
“I did not officially offer him the job until after the Apple Cup.”
Leach’s contract calls for him to be paid $2.25 million per year for five years. The contact also includes annual incentives and there’s a three-year rollover triggered each year by Moos. If Leach wants to leave for another job, the buyout starts at $2.25 million but falls $450,000 each year.
There is another $1.8 million earmarked for his assistants.
“I put those figures out there to him and there was never any bargaining,” Moos said. “He said, ‘Hey, that’s great.’”
Moos said the hefty contract was needed to attract a coach of Leach’s caliber.
“This school has never hired a BCS coach,” Moos said. “This just isn’t a BCS coach. This is a coach that in 10 years went to 10 bowl games.
“We’ve got a coach that, I believe, his peers in this conference are going to take notice. and we are on our way, in my opinion, to a great future with Cougar football.”
According to numbers in USA Today earlier this month, at least three Pacific-12 Conference coaches make $2.25 million or more, though those figures don’t include USC, a private institution. Arizona recently signed former West Virginia and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez to a five-year, $9.55 million contract. There are also openings at Arizona State and UCLA which may end up paying more than WSU.
Wulff was paid $600,000 plus incentives. His assistants made $1.3 million combined this season.
“With this deal, he will be in the top five or six,” salary-wise in the conference, Moos said.
Asked how he was able to entice Leach, whose Texas Tech teams won 84 games in 10 years and went to a bowl game at the end of each (WSU hasn’t been in a bowl since 2003), Moos harkened back to that day in Key West.
“In our conversation, he had great interest, and it was genuine, I could tell,” Moos said. “We really connected. Here’s a guy from Cody, Wyo., and a farm kid from Edwall, and were talking about snowdrifts.
“A lot of schools wanted him, but he wanted Washington State.”
In Leach, Washington State has attracted one of the hottest commodities in the nation — on the field. But the way his tenure at Texas Tech ended made him somewhat of a pariah.
In late December 2009, Tech suspended Leach after Adam James, son of ESPN commentator Craig James, alleged he had been isolated in an equipment room when he couldn’t practice due to a concussion.
The incident, added atop Leach’s acrimonious contract negotiations with the school, eventually led to his dismissal. Within weeks, Leach, a 1986 graduate of Pepperdine Law School, had sued the school for wrongful termination.
Before the year was out he sued ESPN and a public relations firm for libel and slander. Both suits are still in litigation.
On the field, Leach developed his reputation as an offensive innovator at Valdosta State and Kentucky, before moving on to Oklahoma as offensive coordinator under Bob Stoops. Former Arizona head coach Mike Stoops was the defensive coordinator when Leach was at Oklahoma.
Named Texas Tech head coach in 2000, his Red Raider teams won seven games the first two seasons, then never less than eight until he was let go in 2009. They played in bowl games each of those 10 years.
When he was let go, Leach was making a reported $2.5 million per year.
Leach’s Texas Tech teams led the nation in passing six times and only in his first year finished out of the top five.
“I’m not going to hire somebody whose going to run the Houston veer,” Moos said Tuesday. “I do believe you do fill the seats by having a flashy, high-octane offense that lights up the scoreboard.
“And then you come back and win the championships with defense.”
The Red Raiders finished in the top 10 in scoring seven times while Leach was head coach.
Leach was born 1961 in Bakersfield, Calif., though he grew up in Cody, Wyo. He attended Brigham Young when LaVell Edwards was the coach, though he didn’t play football.
His first assistant coaching job was at Cal Poly before spending a year at the College of the Desert, a junior college in Palm Desert, Calif., with much of the rest of career spent in the South and Southwest.
It has been a whirlwind week for the Cougars, who completed a 4-8 season Saturday with a 38-21 Apple Cup defeat to Washington. Within the next 48 hours, Moos said he pondered Wulff’s future before ending the coach’s four-year tenure at WSU on Tuesday morning.
“I always have to have another plan,” Moos said of meeting with Leach while Wulff was still the coach. “I felt if we had a chance to get Mike Leach, I had to set the foundation before that before the season was over. To tell you the truth, he was the only guy I talked to and the only guy I wanted.”
Wulff, who played at Washington State in the late 1980s, was 9-40 in his four years at his alma mater.
Two of his assistants, offensive line coach Steve Morton and linebackers coach Chris Tormey, along with Shawn Deeds, director of football operations, will stay in their positions for the time being to coordinate recruiting and overseeing the program.
All of the assistants’ contracts expire March 31, 2012.