IS THERE ANOTHER FOOTBALL TEAM, ANYWHERE, THAT HAS endured eight straight nonwinning seasons (while going 29--66) and yet is heading into 2012 so full of optimism? Washington State may not have played above .500 since, oh, before Facebook was born, but that should soon change given that the Cougars nabbed the hottest free agent on the market last November—coach Mike Leach.
Two years removed from his post at Texas Tech, Leach brings with him a level of success and offensive acumen few coaches possess. Over nine seasons the Red Raiders were 84--43 as Leach and his staff created the game's preeminent offensive juggernaut. No team in college football threw for more yards (44,631) or had a better completion rate (66.9) than Tech did from 2000 through '08. Still, the turnaround didn't happen overnight in Lubbock. These things take time.
"We're a young team and continuing to build," Leach says of this year's Cougars. "Talent manifests in practice, and you start to see things. The trick is to harness it and get it on the field."
One piece of that talent puzzle already on the field is QB Jeff Tuel, the senior whose career was derailed last year by injuries after a brilliant 2010 (2,780 yards, 18 touchdowns). His 285 yards (19 for 21) and two TDs in the spring game suggest that he is ready to regain his form.
The defense, though, remains a problem. Washington State surrendered 31.8 points per game last year (ranking 95th in the FBS) and had just eight picks, second worst in the Pac-12. Another big concern: The Cougars allowed 10 plays for 50 yards or more. With three starting linebackers gone, that number might only get worse. Leach says a bright spot on D in the spring was the big bodies up front. "We had a pass rush that really emerged," he says. Travis Long, the NFL-ready defender, is arguably the best run stopper in the league. (Although he was arrested in late July and charged as a minor in possession of alcohol.)
The season's story, though, is about Leach. Will his high-octane offense translate in chilly Pullman, where November temperatures average about 20° cooler than they did in Lubbock? Leach expects to find a way to warm the faithful, and he took this job partly to prove he could turn around a struggling program. Hence, those high hopes.
COACH Mike Leach (1st year)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Mike Leach