Mike Leach and 300 of his closest friends and fans from the Tri-Cities got together Friday night at the Three Rivers Convention Center to celebrate his latest batch of signings: 24 athletes from around the country and overseas.
I think its a really good starting point, said Leach in an interview before A Night With Cougar Football began. We wanted to get a foothold in the state of Washington, and we did that. We wanted to get a foothold into southern California, and we did that.
We wanted to get some big linemen, and we did that on both sides of the ball, he continued. We got some big guys, several of them offensive linemen.
It was an interesting first full year for Leach.
When WSU Athletic Director Bill Moos hired Leach in December of 2011, many Cougars fans felt the program was on a fast track back to a bowl game.
But that didnt happen when the Cougars went 3-9.
There has always been a transition (when coming in), said Leach. The biggest thing is to keep improving. I thought our team grew a lot last season, and we played well against Stanford and Washington. I was proud of them. Now we just keep trying to improve.
Leach has a solid supporter in Moos.
I hired one of the premier coaches in the country, said Moos. I did not hire the Wizard of Oz. You cant do this overnight.
While everyone would have liked to have seen a few more victories in 2012, Moos sees the program on course.
I think weve followed the (football) blueprint to a T, said Moos. Were building the program on a solid base. Were starting to piece together what I think is a good future. Young people want to play for (Leach).
The evening had another touch of celebrity with Cindy Brunson, who played emcee to the event.
Brunson, a WSU graduate, had been a 13-year veteran as an anchor for ESPNs SportsCenter until December, when she and her husband ESPN SportsCenter anchor Steve Berthiaume quit at ESPN and moved to Arizona. Berthiaume will be the Arizona Diamondbacks play-by-play man this coming season.
My husband was kind enough to tell me to do whatever I had been saying no to in the past, Brunson said. (Helping WSU) is one of these things.
Brunson believes in the Cougars.
The bad football teams? Thats changing, said Brunson. We believe in the school. Its a great environment. Its a great small college town. There is such tremendous pride in the Cougar logo, the Cougar fight song. Which was no doubt sung by the sold-out crowd a few times Friday night.
COUGARS THRIVE IN TRI-CITIES
Moos said it was easy to schedule a mens basketball game in December at the Toyota Center and four baseball games at Pascos Gesa Stadium in late May, especially when the students are not in class in Pullman at that time.
We want to play (contests) at home, Moos said. But if the students are not in class, wed like to schedule something here. So we will work it out on a year-by-year basis.
Moos believes the Tri-Cities is important to Pullman.
I think its important to hit this market as best we can, he said. We have a full-time athletic director here now at WSU Tri-Cities (in Casey Fox). And we have a lot of younger fan base.
After Fridays event, the Cougs have two more A Night With Cougar Football nights: one tonight in Portland, and then one in Seattle on Feb. 22. ... Leach, who shot a bear last year on a hunting trip, said he did go duck hunting recently in Othello. If invited and I can go, I will, he said. But football guys talk about hunting more than they actually do it, because the seasons run at the same time. ... As for his latest non-football project, Leach said hes working with historian Buddy Levy on a book about Geronimo.