UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. – It was supposed to be the formal introduction of the four new head football coaches in the Pacific-12 Conference.
But when the day was over, one member of the quartet had completely stolen the show.
Predictably, Mike Leach, the charismatic new coach of the Washington State Cougars – who fancies himself a bit of pirate, a Civil War history buff and a passing-game savant – left the 200-plus assembled media in the Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal Studios giggling like children begging for more.
He overshadowed the debuts of Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, Arizona State’s Todd Graham and UCLA’s Jim Mora – all of whom have their share of personality.
While any conversation/interview with Leach can meander down unexpected paths, questions from several writers assured he would follow the path to comedic gold.
Among the topics discussed with Leach were bear hunting, civil war generals and even a little football.
It was such an unusual show that Oregon State’s Mike Riley, one of the most affable coaches in the league, felt much like magician Fred Kaps, whose act followed The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“Hi, I’m Mike Riley, I coach Oregon State,” Riley said sheepishly, taking the stage after Leach.
And nothing Riley or the coaches after him would say could match Leach.
It started with the hunt for black bear that Leach took with former California quarterback Mike Pawlawski.
“Any of you that can go bear hunting or fishing with him ought to,” Leach said.
Moments later Leach was asked which of his coaching brethren would best be suited to go bear hunting with him.
While the question brought chuckles, Leach took it as if he’d been asked about a position battle at left tackle.
“Good question,” he said. Let’s think about that carefully because we don’t want to get this one wrong.”
After debating out loud between Rodriguez and Kyle Whittingham of Utah, Leach settled on Whittingham.
“I’m going to give the nod to Kyle,” Leach said. “He’s sandwiched between a bunch of mountains, surrounded by them, and he’s been there for a while, and he’s a tenacious guy. So I think that if you were to go hunting in Utah, Kyle would be the key guy to have around.”
For the first time, the Pac-12 took questions from Twitter and Facebook. The submitted question was: Which military leaders would Leach compare to the two players on stage with him – quarterback Jeff Tuel and defensive end Travis Long, both of WSU?
Leach being a Civil War buff went with the unpredictable Stonewall Jackson for Tuel.
“He gets hold of the play, attacks from different angles,” Leach said. “The cavalry is over here, no, we’re here. He’s not afraid to split the force and attack from different angles.”
Then Leach labeled Long “a Ulysses S. Grant guy.”
“He’s in the trenches, and if it requires bombarding for a month, he’s fully prepared to do it,” Leach said. “He’s going to guard the river, going to bombard them till they bust, providing he keeps his pads low. Quiet, steady persistent, I guess that’s how I would split it up.”
While Leach was entertaining, it took only a few questions to get Mora’s heated personality to bubble over with answers.
Mora used the words toughness and discipline almost a dozen times each.
“You know what? I don’t know what they had or didn’t have last season, that’s not my concern,” he said of the Bruins with his voice rising. “My concern is what we have now and going forward. I can tell you we’re trying to implement, and these guys have touched on it, three main things: our toughness, discipline and accountability.”
That’s why his team will spend the first few weeks of fall camp in steamy San Bernardino, Calif., instead of on campus.
“At the end of the day during training camp, some of these guys would go back to their apartments, and I don’t want that,” he said. “I want us to be in an environment where if we’re going to talk to somebody, it’s going to be a teammate or coach. If we’re going to go out and do something fun together, it’s going to be with a teammate or a coach.”
There will be no outside distractions.
“I don’t want girlfriends there,” Mora said. “I don’t want friends there. I don’t want parents there. I want our football team to be together for two weeks where we can bond, work together, get to know each other better.”
Rodriguez, who coached at Michigan from 2008-10 and was briefly an ESPN analyst, was polished. He may not have the rage issues that predecessor Mike Stoops battled, but there was an intensity there.
When linebacker Jake Fischer described an Arizona spring practice under Rodriguez as “like we were playing Oregon every day,” the coach beamed with intensity.
Perhaps Rodriguez’s best moment came when he was asked about the mess at Penn State and the sanctions leveled against the program this week by the NCAA. He was one of two coaches to get that question.
“I think anybody involved in intercollegiate athletics and beyond that has looked at that case and tried to learn,” he said. “There is no question, when you get hit with a scholarship reduction and the loss of the bowls and the monetary fine, it’s going to be tough for that school to recover. But nothing nearly as tough as what those victims went through.”
Graham was perhaps the most overlooked of the newcomers. He doesn’t have Mora’s NFL pedigree or Pac-12 ties. He doesn’t have the coaching pedigree or success of Rodriguez. In fact, the circumstances around his hiring by ASU and his departure from Pittsburgh, as well as his vagabond coaching past, seemed to open him to derision and criticism.
But Graham gave off the air of being completely committed to the Sun Devils and their future.
“We’re proud to be here and to have the goal and expectations of restoring this program and winning championships,” Graham said. “We have won Pac-10 championships. We have won Rose Bowls (one, actually, in 1987), and that’s what our program is going to be about.”
Part of that will be trying to bring some discipline to one of the most sloppy and penalized programs in conference history.
“He’s implementing discipline in everything we do and accountability. We will eliminate those mistakes,” senior linebacker Brandon Magee said. “And we have been one of the worst teams in the nation in terms of getting penalties, and that’s unacceptable and coach stressed how unacceptable that is, and he won’t tolerate penalties.”
Predicted Pacific-12 Conference football finish, based on ballots by reporters who cover Pac-12. First-place votes in parenthesis, with total points:
1. Oregon (117)732
2. Stanford (5)533
4. California (1)382
5. Washington State228
6. Oregon State205
1. Southern Cal (117)729
2. Utah (1)514
3. UCLA (2)435
5. Arizona State (3)353