KENNEWICK -- If Mike Leach was looking for a way to start his legacy as Washington State’s 32nd head football coach off with a bang, the 52-year-old offensive guru certainly found it.
Just over two weeks ago in Alberta, Canada, on his first bear hunting trip for the Outdoor Channel show Familiar Waters, Leach bagged the catch of a lifetime — a 7-foot-4, 350-pound black bear that his guide classified as one of the biggest he’d ever seen.
“(Show host) Mike Pawlawski played football at the University of California, and he was joking that we’ve got the (Cal) Bears and (UCLA) Bruins covered,” Leach said. “I know it was a lot of luck. I didn’t know how big it was when I shot it, but it turned out to be pretty huge.”
Leach was in the Tri-Cities on Friday night, along with WSU basketball coach Ken Bone, baseball coach Donnie Marbut and rowing coach Jane LaRiviere, for a Cougars tailgate party at the Southridge Sports and Events Complex in Kennewick. The roughly 350 people who attended were free to mingle with coaches or bid on an impressive array of items — including several pieces of signed memorablia — during a live auction.
“A big part of college athletics is sharing it with the fans. This gives us an opportunity to do that,” said Leach, who was hired by Cougars athletic director Bill Moos last November after a two-season stint as a football analyst for CBS College Sports Network.
Before that, Leach led Texas Tech to 10 consecutive bowl games from 2000-2009 and left as the winningest coach in Red Raiders history.
Leach was optimistic after WSU’s spring practice session concluded in late April and was excited to bring some winning ways back to Pullman. The Cougars haven’t had a winning season since 2003.
“We pulled together pretty well, but we have to sustain that,” he said. “We’ll officially start up again on July 25. We’re just really excited to get back together and start working.”
Marbut just concluded his eighth season as Cougars baseball coach. Despite losing eight seniors, the Aberdeen native is excited about bringing back three Tri-Citians — pitchers Bryce and Ty Jackson, and outfielder Brett Jacobs — to the mix while adding two more next spring: Matt Mendenhall of Southridge and Trek Stemp of Kennewick.
“I owe Tri-Cities, that’s for sure. We want to build a fence around this place,” Marbut said. “The kids you get from Tri-Cities, they’re tough, and the two guys coming in are no exception.”
Marbut also said that WSU plans to expand the Cougar Diamond Classic, held at Gesa Stadium in Pasco, from one to three games next season.
“We’re going to take our last home series against Washington and play all three in Tri-Cities,” Marbut said. “We want to take the team where we’re appreciated, and there’s nowhere we’re more appreciated than Tri-Cities.”
Marbut led Washington State to a 28-28 record this season and established a single-season school record with a .978 fielding percentage after committing just 48 errors all season, the fewest in the aluminum bat era.
He’s more encouraged, however, about the pitching he’ll have coming back next year.
“Bryce and Ty both have a bright future in the program,” Marbut said of the two Southridge grads. “We’ll have 475 of our 494 innings coming back next year, so I feel real good about that.”
Bone, the Cougars men’s basketball coach, capped Washington State’s sixth consecutive winning season with a runner-up finish at the College Basketball Insider tournament. Bone will begin his fifth season as WSU coach this winter.
“It’s always fun to come down to Tri-Cities. The support is phenomenal. We feel it every time we come down here to play,” said Bone, a Seattle native who went 253-97 in 12 seasons at Seattle Pacific before moving on to Portland State in 2005.
Bone returns one of the top players in the Pacific 12 Conference, 6-foot-10 Australian forward Brock Motum, who earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors last season after leading the conference in scoring at 18.0 points a game.
“Brock is a very good player with a great knack for scoring,” said Bone, who will have two more talented Aussies — 6-9 forward James Hunter and 6-6 guard Dexter Kernich-Drew — on the roster this season.
“I really like the group of guys we have,” Bone said. “Their attitude and character are very good.”