As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Likewise, neither was Washington State football.
Mike Leach’s work with Washington State over the past seven seasons has been no small task. From the ground up, the Pirate transformed one of the worst Power-5 programs in the country into a nationally ranked Pac-12 contender.
We all remember the carnage, the two-win seasons, the insultingly accurate betting lines, and the halftime blowouts. The squad Leach inherited in 2012 was equally uncompetitive as they were undersized. And to no one’s surprise, things looked bleak early.
In Leach’s first season, one of the rosters few bright spots – standout receiver Marquess Wilson – left the team for reasons of incompatibility with the staff. Just a year later in 2013, a matchup against the Stanford Cardinal revealed Wazzu’s opponent started more offensive lineman than the Cougs had healthy on their entire roster.
And while the storied coach found sporadic success here and there, none of it shined a signal of consistency or sustainability. After all, a heartbreaking 2013 New Mexico Bowl bid was sandwiched in between 3-9 campaigns.
But then 2015 happened. Washington State not only won nine games, but three of their conference wins were celebrated in Autzen Stadium, Arizona Stadium, and the Rose Bowl. Leach was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year along with Stanford’s David Shaw, and an adversarial Sun Bowl victory over a good Miami team proved the year was no fluke.
Other than a hiccup against FCS opponent Portland State, Wazzu’s roster was laced with nostalgic greats who displayed an uncanny ability to win, win late, and win even without playing their best. By any standard, the purest sign of true competitors.
Fast forward three seasons, Washington State is a program no conference foe looks forward to playing. In fact, the Cougars have been one game away from winning the Pac-12 North two season in a row and sit firmly in the hunt for 2018.
The Cougar head coach isn’t one to toot his own horn; however, his fellow colleagues have certainly noticed the monolithic development at Washington State under his reign.
“I think their football team has transitioned from a team into a really good program,” Wyoming Head Coach Craig Bohl said before playing WSU earlier this September. “You can see the vision that Coach Leach has and the recruiting philosophy and direction that they’re going. They’ve been a perennial bowl game team, so you’re not just dealing with a team. You’re dealing with a program.”
Since the breakout season, Washington State owns a 31-14 overall record that translates to 21-9 in conference play. A program whose all-time record falls short of .500 is amid a remarkable 4-year stretch winning 70 percent of their games.
Considering the context of Paul Wulff’s 9-40 record directly preceding the Leach era, College GameDay making its way to Pullman a handful of years later was precited by none.
“I think we’ve grown as a team and I think we’ve improved as a team, and so I think that part of its good,” Leach told reporters in his Monday press conference. “I did spend quite a bit of time trying to make sure that we had at least as many offense linemen on our team as Stanford has playing, and we did devote a great deal of time to making that happen and trying to ensure that. It took a while too.”
There are plenty of men and women to thank for this historic event, and not the least amongst them is Mike Leach and his supporting staff. When the GameDay trucks roll into Pullman Wednesday, it should be an affirmation of Washington State football’s direction.