Tri-City fans greet WSU's Leach

By Jeff Morrow, Tri-City Herald sports editor February 4, 2012 

KENNEWICK -- Washington State University fans came out en masse Friday night at the Three Rivers Convention Center to get a glimpse of -- and hear from -- the Cougars' latest star: new head football coach Mike Leach.

Leach was the star attraction of A Night With Cougar Football, a chance for Wazzu fans to meet the coach, donate money through a live auction, and hear about the newest class of football recruits.

And given the time constraints -- he was hired by WSU athletic director Bill Moos on Nov. 30, replacing Paul Wulff -- Leach was pretty happy with the results. It's been a busy two months, but it's nothing new for Leach.

"Nearly every time I've gone to a new program, I've had to do this," he said before Friday's event. "It was pretty quick. We got quite a bit of work done in December. We hit the ground running."

When he was an assistant at Kentucky, Valdosta State, Iowa Wesleyan and Cal Poly-SLO, this was the usual procedure.

The difference for the 50-year-old coach is it's been a long time since he had to put a new staff together and recruit kids in such a hurry-up scenario.

He had an 84-43 record as head coach at Texas Tech, with 10 straight bowl games, before the school fired him in 2009 amid accusations he mistreated a player with a concussion.

Out of the game for the last two seasons, Leach is ready to get to work. But, he says, it's not like he has two years of coaching that he needs to get out of his system.

"Oh I don't know," he said. "I enjoyed the last two years, and I did a lot of different things. I'm excited about this (job). Bill Moos has got this program going in the right direction, and the Pac-12 is getting better."

He's ready to spend some time with the current Cougar players.

"One of the biggest ironies as a coach when you get hired in December, is you have to get out and go recruiting," Leach said. "And the players you're going to work with the most the next season? You don't see them for a couple of months."

Those players have been busy with their winter workouts, while Leach gets the rock star treatment around the Northwest, meeting the fans and boosters.

Earlier this week in Spokane, 750 fans turned out for an event.

Last year, it may have been half that.

Friday's crowd of 375 in Kennewick bested last year's group of 200, said WSU sports information director Bill Stevens.

"Everybody has been great," Leach said. "Things are going well. The reception on the road was been great, and my wife knows her way around Pullman."

Leach and his wife are close to closing on a house in Pullman.

Fans and boosters have responded to the hiring enthusiastically.

Since the hiring, there have been 1,500 new season-ticket purchases, an extra $1.1 million in donations to the program, and all 21 of the suites in the remodeled Martin Stadium have been either purchased or reserved.

That's music to Moos' ears, who did a lot of good fundraising -- and not all of it from Nike founder Phil Knight -- at the University of Oregon when he was AD there for 12 years.

"The response has been outstanding," said Moos, also at the event. "I was thinking we'd get a big blast, and then it would slow a bit. But it's gone well. And this is all extra money. We haven't even started our season-ticket renewal process yet."

Moos calls his hiring of Leach one of his top moves as an athletic director.

"It's right up there," he said. "I think in regards to the so-called 'star power', it's up there. The big thing is we connected very well. I felt, as he did, that this would be a good fit.

"It's pretty hard not to like Paul Wulff," Moos continued. "He's a wonderful human being. But as I mentioned at the time, we were at a juncture where we needed to get some energy back in the fan base. I thought the path we took was the right way."

As for the Tri-Cities, Leach wants to make inroads here.

This spring, Leach said, he and his staff want to recruit the entire state of Washington better, and that includes this region.

Moos wants the same thing.

"We feel the Tri-Cities is a priority market for us," he said. "We've got some plans, that I can't reveal yet, that will be exciting for the Tri-Cities. Of the four Pac-12 schools in the Northwest, three of them have to depend on a fan base coming from 2 1/2 hours away. Two of the schools (Oregon and Oregon State) have dealt with that, and one (WSU) needs to.

"We're going to put a lot of energy into the Tri-Cities."

That may not mean another basketball game here for awhile. The Spokane games and the Seattle game will probably go on, and taking another home game out of Pullman may not be feasible, Moos said.

"But the baseball game last year here against Washington went really well," he said.

And there is another one, against the University of Portland, set for Gesa Stadium in Pasco on May 8.

But on Friday night, WSU fans were mainly interested in football and Leach.

There will obviously be high expectations. Just don't ask for a number of victories that'll make Leach happy.

"If we focus on getting better, that'll make me happy," Leach said. "If we go out and work harder, work every day. Do the best we can. And just focus on the game we play that week."

That'll make him happy.

It'll make a lot of Cougar fans happy too.

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