Midsummer, I imagine, is the worst time to be a Coug fan. Every number you stumble across tries to remind you that your team stinks.
Recruiting stats? Those can’t be fun.
In the past five years, Washington State has had two classes ranked ninth in the Pac-12, one ranked 10th, one ranked 11th — and sits 10th for 2020.
Pac-12 media polls? Even more of a bummer. Scribes predicted the Cougs would finish fifth in the six-team North Division in 2015, fourth in 2016, third in 2017, fifth last year, and fourth this year.
Success doesn’t seem to convince journalists that Wazzu can outperform the preseason eye test. And it hasn’t seemed to persuade blue-chippers to commit to coming to Pullman.
And yet, Apple Cups excluded, the Cougs have just kept on winning. The common denominator? Their pirate-loving, In-N’-Out-scarfing, occasional fake-mustache-wearing head coach.
When I started this job in 2015, Mike Leach’s seat was just a few degrees shy of boiling. After overseeing losing seasons in his first three years on the Palouse — two of which ended with a 3-9 record — Leach watched his Cougs fall to FCS program Portland State in the first game of the season. Washington State narrowly avoided a loss to Rutgers a week later, making it seem as if the hiring of Leach would end up as a waste of millions of dollars.
Then the victory train started rolling.
The Cougs won nine games that season, including one on the road versus 18th-ranked UCLA to crack the AP Top 25. They won eight games the next season — including seven in conference and one over No. 15 Stanford — and finished second in the Pac-12 North.
They won nine games in 2017 — when they beat fifth-ranked USC and 18th-ranked Stanford — to earn a Holiday Bowl invitation. And they won 11 last year before ending up as the No. 10 team in the country.
Besides 2017, when it finished third in the North as predicted, Wazzu has skyrocketed above expectations over the past four seasons. The Cougs have compiled 37 wins in that span despite 104 of their 108 recruiting commitments garnering three stars or fewer.
I’ve often written about the success Huskies coach Chris Petersen has had with unheralded recruiting classes — particularly at Boise State and in his early days at Washington. But Leach’s resume is starting to look similar in that respect.
No, Leach’s Cougs aren’t repeatedly finishing in the AP Top 10 the way Petersen’s Broncos did. However, unlike Petersen’s Broncos, they have been forced to navigate through a Power Five conference.
Of course, WSU’s six-game losing streak at the hands of Washington will hang over the program until it finally wins an Apple Cup. It’s impressive that the Cougs have been one game away from playing for the conference championship in each of the past three years, but the fact that they’ve lost that game by an average of 23 points in that stretch sullies other accomplishments.
Leach was asked about said defeats after last November’s Apple Cup loss.
“Virtually every one of those times, nobody thought we were going to be there in the first place,” said Leach, whose Cougs host New Mexico State in their season opener Saturday. “I’m not sure that everyone of those years they (the media) didn’t have us having a losing season. And we never did that. So from that standpoint we’re more games over the mark than anybody else.”
That wasn’t something any Wazzu fans wanted to hear at the time. And it was probably laughable to Husky fans basking in yet another takedown of the Cougs. But it was true. WSU has never capitalized on putting itself in prime position in late November since Leach arrived, but it keeps making that final regular-season game meaningful.
Leach has certainly made himself susceptible to criticism over the years. One day it might be the way he talks about head injuries. Another day it might be the way he goes after a reporter who slights him. Another day it maybe his refusal to apologize for a doctored video.
Regardless of all that — it’s hard to deny that the man can flat-out coach.
Most casual football fans know Leach as the quirky entertainer who will wax poetic on just about any subject presented to him during a news conference. He can give life to any question you give him.
And lately, it seems he can do the same with any team you give him, too.