John McGrath

John McGrath: Mike Leach’s record at WSU isn’t commensurate with lofty salary

Washington State coach Mike Leach, left, and quarterback Luke Falk (4) watched the heavily favored Cougars unravel in a 24-17 loss to Portland State on Saturday in Pullman.
Washington State coach Mike Leach, left, and quarterback Luke Falk (4) watched the heavily favored Cougars unravel in a 24-17 loss to Portland State on Saturday in Pullman. The Associated Press

In the wake of Washington State’s historically humiliating season-opening defeat to Portland State, it’s no surprise that a subplot preceding the Cougars’ game Saturday at Rutgers involves a coach’s tenuous employment status.

Is Mike Leach in trouble? Four seasons after he arrived in Pullman as the nationally recognized brainchild of the Air Raid offense, Leach is looking less like the toast of the town than, well, toast. But there are worse ways a coach can spend a week than attempting to explain the beating his team took from a Big Sky Conference also-ran.

Take Rutgers’ Kyle Flood.

His job is in jeopardy following the recent arrests of six players, including two who are facing home-invasion charges. One of them was the subject of an email Flood allegedly sent to a faculty member regarding the player’s academic progress, or lack thereof. It’s never a good idea for a coach to demand that a teacher go easy on a student, especially when the student ends up in jail.

The Rutgers Board of Governors will convene Friday morning for a closed-door meeting regarding “athletics matters and anticipated or pending litigation.” Flood’s demeanor Thursday was reported to be “calm,” whatever that’s worth.

It’s a storm reminiscent of Leach’s falling out at Texas Tech, which fired him for misconduct related to a player-discipline issue. Leach insisted he was released because of his longtime feud with university administrators. (He sued the school, and lost.)

In any case, an innovative and influential football coach was a free agent when WSU parted ways with Paul Wulff, and when athletic director Bill Moos announced Leach as Wulff’s successor following the 2011 season, the ratio of applause-to-guffaws was, oh, about 100 to 1.

Sure, Leach had his pirate-centric quirks, and the fact Texas Tech administrators came see to him as a pariah — despite an 84-43 record with the Red Raiders — suggested potential headaches. But he brought relevance, exciting and new, to Pullman.

A curious voice of dissent was delivered with the Mississippi drawl of Jim Walden, a former WSU coach then serving as a Cougars’ radio commentator. During an interview on 950-AM shortly after Leach’s hiring, Walden noted the long-term contract given to the coach — at $2.75 million, he would be Washington’s highest-paid state employee in 2014 — and opined that Leach would need eight or nine victories a season to justify such a lucrative deal.

I can recall listening to Walden that day, and thinking: Whoa, Jim, don’t go there. Everybody else is on the Mike Leach bandwagon, why are you remaining loyal to the failure that was Paul Wulff?

But Walden went there, and stayed there, and a few months later, the radio commentator for the Cougars was an ex-radio commentator for the Cougars.

Since Walden volunteered to serve as the original spokesman of the Leach-Is-A-Bad-Idea campaign, Washington’s highest-paid state employee has won 12 games and lost 26. A breakdown of his salary, courtesy of CBS.com, reveals that he’s earned $604,166.67 for each of his 12 victories.

As for the 26 defeats, none was as troubling as the Portland State debacle Saturday. Given home-field advantage against an opponent from the Football Championship Subdivision — or what once was known as Division I-AA before the NCAA deliberately made distinctions murky — the Cougars owned a 10-0 lead at halftime.

The weather was terrible, the late-summer equivalent of an ice storm, and conditions demanded the Cougars keep the ball on the ground and run all day long on the undersized Vikings. But Leach doesn’t do that. Washington State ended up throwing 45 passes, which was 33 more passes than Portland State attempted.

The Vikings adhered to this crazy notion that during a monsoon, ball control is paramount. So they ran, and ran, and ran some more — they finished with 48 carries for 233 yards — and pulled off an epic upset that defined the low point of Leach’s coaching career.

Afterward, WSU players talked about a communications breakdown exacerbated by the relentless rain — a reasonable explanation, as long as you ignore the reality the relentless rain was an equal-opportunity nemesis challenging both teams.

On the bright side, the forecast for the Cougars’ game at Rutgers is calling for conditions to be just right in New Jersey. The Las Vegas line is a “pick ’em,” which seems right and just for any contest pitting an Air Raid offense against a Home Invader defense.

The coach of the visiting team would be on a hot seat if it weren’t for an obnoxious contract that holds a cash-strapped athletic department hostage.

The other coach might not be there.

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