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UCLA FOOTBALL

Washington State's Mike Leach displays his own brand of coaching

The Cougars coach is tough on his players and not always politically correct, but Leach has the backing of Pullman's mayor and the athletic director. Washington State hosts UCLA on Saturday.

November 09, 2012|By Chris Foster
  • Washington State coach Mike Leach, center, quarterback David Gilbertson, wide receiver Bennett Bontemps and quarterback Cody Clements watch a replay during the first quarter against California on Oct. 13, 2012.
Washington State coach Mike Leach, center, quarterback David Gilbertson,… (Dean Hare / Associated Press )

The people of Pullman, Wash., a town of about 30,000 near the Washington-Idaho border, should not be surprised. After all, Washington State hired Mike Leach, not Robin Leach, as football coach.

Turning the self-described pirate loose on the Palouse was not geared for the rich and famous, or the squeamish for that matter.

In Leach's first season, 18 players have quit or been kicked off the team. The coach also has banned Twitter accounts and referred to his seniors as zombies as the Cougars have trudged to a 2-7 record, 0-6 in Pac-12 Conference games.

Still, Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson is on board.

"He does things differently," said Johnson, a professor in Washington State's Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. "He has a way of motivating players."

Johnson knows Leach is not always politically correct — "I treat my constituency far better," the mayor said. "They are not the walking dead" — but as a Cougars fan he sees the coach as a beacon for hope and change.

"There are two camps right now," Johnson said. "From my standpoint, he's trying to change the culture and build a program."

Some of this probably sounds familiar to UCLA football fans, who are experiencing their own transition with the Bruins guided by first-year Coach Jim Mora.

This is a big stepping-stone game for UCLA (7-2 overall, 4-2 Pac-12), which leads the Pac-12's South Division and is a week away from a showdown game at the Rose Bowl against rival USC.

And there is no apparent reason they shouldn't step all over the punch-drunk Cougars, who are still recovering from their coach's latest public critique.

After a 49-6 loss to Utah on Saturday, Leach said the offensive line's effort "bordered on cowardice" and added, "The defensive line wasn't much better."

Harsh words, but the coach not only has the support of the mayor, but also his boss. "I think this change is long overdue," Washington State Athletic Director Bill Moos said. "We got a real task. Mike doesn't waver. He is not wishy-washy."

Leach's in-your-face style is one reason his interest in becoming UCLA's coach in 2007 wasn't returned. But Moos liked him for that reason.

The Cougars have had a handful of players arrested for incidents ranging from fights to drug possession since Leach was hired. All were dealt with severely. Some have learned. Some are gone.

The "Leach Beach" is a sand pit at the Cougars' practice facility where players run to strengthen their ankles. It also has another purpose.

"Anyone getting into a fight has to put on boxing gloves and go 30 one-minute rounds with a pop-up dummy in the pit," Moos said. "No one has made it past 12. That cut out the fighting pretty quick."

The Cougars had a record of 9-40 the last four seasons. Moos gave Leach a five-year, $11.25-million contract to put life into a team.

That will be a process. After a loss to Oregon State, Leach said the team's seniors "had an empty-corpse quality." And the hits keep coming.

Marquess Wilson, the Cougars' all-time leading receiver, walked out of practice Sunday and was suspended. The practice, receiver Brett Bartolone said, "was definitely one where you had to show something to get through it."

Linebacker Travis Long added: "It might take you a little while to get used to Coach Leach."

Some still haven't.

"A certain percentage of our fan base is numb to losing," Moos said, adding that there were complaints about Leach holding up offensive and defensive linemen for ridicule when he sent them out to answer media questions after the Utah loss.

"Some were appalled and embarrassed by that," Moos said. "They should be appalled and embarrassed by getting beat, 49-6, in a nationally televised game."

During his weekly news conference, Leach was asked whether he should criticize players publicly. "If I'm asked a question, I give an honest answer," he said. "I may start going with the yes-no thing because in this era of ridiculous political correctness there seems to be some dissatisfaction with style points. … Hell, let's just make this kind and gentle the rest of the way."

After a follow-up question, Leach let loose the sarcasm: "As a team, we've had a lot of guys participate and they've had a lot of fun and they're trying as hard as they possibly can and everybody wants to win really bad that they are trying just so hard … Is that better?"

As for sending the linemen out to face the media, Leach said, "I don't think it hurts to have them take ownership of the team."

Moos said he is comfortable with Leach's ownership. He researched Leach's years at Texas Tech, including his firing after the 2009 season over an incident involving Adam James, the son of ESPN analyst Craig James. Adam James, who had been diagnosed with a concussion, was allegedly twice confined to rooms by himself for long periods of time at Leach's direction. Leach, who was suspended before he was fired, has two lawsuits pending, one against Texas Tech and the other against ESPN and Craig James.

Moos also noted Leach's 84-43 record at Texas Tech and liked that he was a strict disciplinarian.

"I have never run for office, not even student council," Leach said. "We don't say, 'Hey, you 125 guys, how do you want to practice today?' This isn't a democracy."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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