Bill Moos read each email, as he says he always has, and replied to them all with the same, supportive theme.
They're changing a culture of losing, Washington State's athletic director wrote, in part. He's fully in tune with the situation. Thanks for your note. He hopes you keep supporting the team.
This was in response to a handful of WSU fans during last November's tumult — the eight-game losing streak, the Marquess Wilson abuse claims — some of whom were so upset by it all that they advocated for Mike Leach's removal, filling Moos' inbox with demands that he fire the coach during his first season.
The nastiest messages irked him, and so some of those emails, records show, were forwarded by Moos to an assistant athletic director, along with a brief instruction: The names of the most vitriolic senders were to be placed in a file with others who will not be allowed to purchase bowl-game tickets from the school in the future.
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After one fan predicted in an email that "this will go down as one of the biggest disasters in coaching history and Leach will NEVER be a head coach again," Moos forwarded the message to a colleague, along with his own acronym: NBT, short for "no bowl tickets."
Moos' message was clear: If you're not with us now, you won't be with us when we start winning.
"I answer all of those emails, then I send them to the Cougar Athletic Fund to see what their gift history is, and what their ticket purchase history is," Moos said via telephone Monday as he drove back to Pullman from his ranch outside of Spokane. "Pretty amazing — about 85-90 percent of them are not members of the CAF."
"I've got a no-bowl ticket file, and I want people on board and believing in what we're doing, and trusting how we're going about it. If they don't want to be on the train, the train's already pulled out of the station."
It was easy to laugh at the notion of that file a year ago. For a person to be denied bowl-game tickets, of course, the Cougars would first have to actually play in a bowl, something they haven't done since 2003.
So it must feel like sweet vindication for Moos that, with Friday's Apple Cup game at Washington still on the docket, WSU has hit that magical six-win mark in Leach's second season, eligible to play in its first bowl in a decade.
It has been a long and arduous climb. WSU's last postseason game was a 2003 victory against Texas in the Holiday Bowl, a much-celebrated night that capped a stretch of three consecutive 10-win seasons.
Since, it has been mostly frustration and turmoil. Even a six-win season in 2006 wasn't enough to get WSU into a bowl, as the then-Pac-10 produced eight eligible teams and fewer available bowl bids. Six losing seasons — a combined record of 17-56 — followed, along with two coaching changes.
Now, the end is in sight. The conference is again overbooked, though, with nine teams eligible and only seven guaranteed postseason spots. But Moos sounds confident that this time around, the Cougars will be able to find a bowl destination, even if it isn't one with a guaranteed Pac-12 tie-in.
A conference-affiliated bowl — perhaps the New Mexico Bowl or the Fight Hunger Bowl — is still a possibility. If WSU beats Washington, it will become the Pac-12's eighth seven-win team, with victories over Arizona (7-4 with a game against No. 14 Arizona State upcoming), USC (9-3 and facing No. 22 UCLA this week) and, in this scenario, UW (7-4).
"The six wins is a milestone for us in itself," Moos said. "But I think with the way we're playing right now and the Mike Leach story and the fact that the Pac-12 is doing a real good job of exploring what the other opportunities can be, I feel optimistic about our chances."
Indeed, if WSU isn't invited to a bowl with a Pac-12 tie-in, there will be other chances to fill the bowl spots of conferences that didn't produce enough six-win teams. The Heart of Dallas Bowl is a possibility, as are the Poinsettia Bowl (San Diego) and the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (Boise).
Moos said his bowl contacts have given "fairly positive feedback" about WSU's chances, and that the school has received more than 1,000 ticket requests so far.
"We've got a fan base that's been through a 10-year drought of bowl games, and so what might be appealing for us is the fact that nobody's going to be disappointed at whatever bowl we go to," he said.
Leach and the few WSU players made available to reporters this week don't much care about the speculation. Next practice, next game, next play — that's their mantra.
"I'd like to think they don't listen to it," Leach said of the public bowl talk. "If you're disciplined, you focus on the next play."
That was an attitude not fully adopted by Leach's first WSU squad, the one that finished 3-9 a year ago. This year's team looks different — cohesive, determined. And maybe that started in early August, during a 10-day trip to Lewiston, Idaho, for the beginning of training camp.
WSU players and coaches stayed in dorms at nearby Lewis-Clark State College and practiced at Sacajawea Middle School, a move necessitated by construction on WSU's campus that occupied part of the practice field.
It was there, senior safety Deone Bucannon said, that WSU learned to "focus on ourselves without distractions. . . . It was more camaraderie. All you see is your teammates. You can't just go anywhere. It's football; you hang out with your teammates, and then you go to sleep.
"It's more of a family and a bond that's created in that kind of environment, and I think that really helped us this year."
So here they are at 6-5, an opportunity before them to extend their season into December.
As for the folks in Moos' file? They won't be joining. Not all of them, anyway.
"We've got to sell bowl tickets, so I may give it a second consideration," Moos said. "But there's a couple that aren't going to get them. I can guarantee you that."
Heading into Friday's game vs. Washington, Washington State has already equaled its most wins since 2006 with six victories. A closer look:
|2006||Bill Doba||6-6||Eligible, but no bowl|
|2007||Bill Doba||5-7||Won Apple Cup in Doba's finale|
|2008||Paul Wulff||2-11||Beat Portland State, UW|
|2009||Paul Wulff||1-11||Only win vs. SMU, 30-27 in OT|
|2010||Paul Wulff||2-10||Claimed W's vs. Beavers, Bobcats (Montana St.)|
|2011||Paul Wulff||4-8||Lost 7 of last 8 games to end Wulff era|
|2012||Mike Leach||3-9||Highlight was Apple Cup win (31-28 in OT)|
|2013||Mike Leach||6-5||A 7th win would be most since 2003|