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New WSU coach Mike Leach brilliant but controversial

Ross D. Franklin
AP Photo
Mike Leach celebrates after Texas Tech beat Minnesota 44-41 in overtime in the Insight Bowl in 2006. Leach took the Red Raiders to a bowl game in each of his 10 years there. WSU officials hope he'll bring his winning ways to Pullman.

He coached Texas Tech to 10 bowl games in 10 years. That's the winning record that Mike Leach brings to Washington State University as the new head football coach.

But KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel says he also comes with controversy.

New money = big contract

Money and desperation. Art says that's what prompted Washington State to sign Leach to a five-year contract of $2.25 million per year plus incentives. That makes him the highest-paid official in WSU history.

A lot of the money comes from a lucrative new television deal between Pac-12 teams and FOX and ESPN. The networks will pay $3 billion for the rights to football and men's basketball games.

"As a result of that, the Cougars have money that they didn't normally have. And they also have been 9-40 in their last four years under Paul Wulff, who they fired Tuesday. So, they said 'let's go for the big name.' And Mike Leach is one of the biggest names in college football."

High-risk, high-reward hire

There's no disputing Leach's talent as a coach. In addition to the 10 bowl games in 10 years at Texas Tech, he had one of the highest-rated passing offenses. Art called it "an absolute spectacle."

"The guy is a master innovator on offense. Very accomplished. I think he's going to make Cougar football as exciting as it's ever been."

But, Art says Leach is unorthodox, high maintenance and blunt spoken. He says things about his own players as well as other players that are not politically correct, as demonstrated in a  YouTube video of Leach addressing his Texas Tech team after a loss to Baylor in 2009 (warning, the video contains explicit language).

Latest colorful character at WSU

Art says there are many sides to Mike Leach. For example, he has a law degree from Pepperdine University and is also fascinated with the lore and legend of 18th-century sea piracy.

"He's a really colorful, dynamic character that fits in the great traditon over at Washington State of George Raveling, Jim Sweeney, Jim Walden, Mike Price. You've got to be an outsize character at Washington State because you're not in a big media market."

Art predicts Leach will fit in well at WSU but will also ruffle some feathers.

Legal action still lingering

Texas Tech fired Leach for insubordination in 2008. He was accused of locking a player (Aaron James, son of ESPN commentator Craig James) in a shed during a practice.

Leach said James had a concussion and he told him to go to an open room to be in the shade, so the sun wouldn't bother him. Leach sued Texas Tech and ESPN for wrongful termination. That lawsuit is still pending.

Warts and all

Leach has also had other clashes. He was fined $10,000 by the Big-12 for accusing officials of being biased toward the University of Texas.

In a column on the website Sportspress Northwest, Art wrote that the University of Washington was interested in hiring Leach to replace Tyrone Willingham in 2008. But they deemed him too controversial. And that was before his lawsuit against Texas Tech.

"Until there is resolution, I think Leach was radioactive to most schools. Washington State was in a desperate situation and they had the cash now that they didn't have before. They said 'let's make a deal.' And Leach apparently agreed to terms almost immediately to get back in the game, especially at a place where he can build up very, very quickly."

Kirsten Kendrick has been hosting Morning Edition on KNKX/KPLU since 2006. She has worked in news radio for more than 30 years. Kirsten is also a sports lover. She handles most sports coverage at the station, including helping produce a two-part series on the 50th anniversary of Title IX and the ongoing series "Going Deep."
Art Thiel is a co-founder and writer for the rising sports website Sportspress Northwest. In 2003 Thiel wrote the definitive book about the Seattle Mariners, “Out of Left Field,” which became a regional bestseller. In 2009, along with Steve Rudman and KJR 950 afternoon host Mike Gastineau, Thiel authored “The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists,” a cross between and Mad Magazine that has become mandatory reading for any sports fan who has an indoor bathroom.
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