* Last week, Washington State announced a one-year contract extension for Mike Leach that runs through the 2023 season.
Leach took over one of the worst programs in major college football and has produced the most successful four-year stretch in WSU history (37 wins). His appointment, by former athletic director Bill Moos, stands as one of the shrewdest coaching hires in the conference in the past quarter century.
The Hotline recently reached out to Moos, now the athletic director at Nebraska, for the story behind his courtship of Leach.
Below the story, you’ll find the Hotline’s ranking of the best football hires of the past 40 years and a reader poll on the subject. Tell me where I got it wrong.
Luring Leach out of the Keys
On Nov. 29, 2011, Washington State fired one of its own: Paul Wulff, a former Cougar offensive lineman, was let go after four dismal seasons.
At the press conference to announce Wulff’s termination, athletic director Bill Moos was asked about the composition of the search committee.
“You’re looking at the search committee,” he said.
Unbeknownst to the public, Moos’ work was already done.
At the time, Washington State was the lowest of the low, having won just four of 32 conference games under Wulff. Ticket sales, donations and energy were as bad as the on-field product.
Moos had known for months that a coaching change might be required and had a short list ready. The name atop the list: Mike Leach.
In October, after blowout losses to Stanford and Oregon State — the first at home, the second at CenturyLink Field in Seattle — Moos made the decision to dismiss Wulff at the end of the season and do everything possible to hire Leach.
“I thought the Air Raid would entertain the fans while we built the program,’’ Moos told the Hotline last week. “It would bide us time to get the facilities and recruit the players.”
Leach was out of coaching and living in Key West, having been fired two years earlier by Texas Tech after a controversial incident with the son of former ESPN analyst Craig James.
(Moos said the incident wasn’t a concern and that he received no pushback from the WSU administration or donor base: “I had done my homework. That wasn’t a factor one bit.”)
With more than a month remaining in the season — and knowing that several schools would likely pursue Leach — Moos knew speed and stealth were of the essence. Through an intermediary, he made contact with Leach’s agent, Gary O’Hagan.
A face-to-face meeting with Leach was scheduled for Key West. Moos used a personal credit cards to purchase a plane ticket and hotel suite — his university-issued versions would be subject to public records requests — and rounded up the materials for his pitch.
Three connecting flights later, he was in Key West.
“I get there and it’s like, ‘Did I just see Ernest Hemingway?’ What a place that was.”
The morning of the meeting, Moos arranged his suite. On the coffee table, he positioned renderings of WSU’s plans for $100+ million in facility upgrades, pictures of new Nike uniforms and copies of university policies and procedures. He had soda, coffee and pastries available.
He had sent word to Leach that the meeting would be casual. To Moos, that meant slacks and dress shirt but no tie.
“I go to open the door,” Moos said, “and there he is in a white V-neck T shirt, cargo shorts, flip-flops, three-day growth and a Styrofoam coffee cup.”
They shook hands and looked each other over.
“I got a message that this would be casual,’’ Leach said.
Moos asked if Leach needed his parking validated.
“Nah, I rode my bike.’’
And then it hit Moos.
“At that point,’’ he recalled with a laugh, “I’m wondering what have I gotten myself into.”
They headed for the large, wrap-around couch in the middle of the suite, next to the coffee table with Moos’ presentation.
Moos began to lay out his vision for Cougar football.
“Within five minutes,’’ he said, “the conversation had turned to Winston Churchill, George S Patton, Geronimo and snow blowers in Cody, Wyoming.”
After an hour, Moos steered the conversation back to football, but it was clear the two men had hit it off.
Eventually, Moos brought up WSU’s new drug policy, particularly as it involved marijuana.
“We have a strict drug-testing plan: Three strikes and you’re out.”
Leach thought for a moment.
“What do you think about one strike and you’re out?”
Moos was all ears.
“I find that stuff divides the locker room,” Leach explained. “I’ll probably have to cut a couple starters, but the message will get across.”
The meeting lasted four hours.
As Moos walked Leach to the door, he handed him a folder.
“This is my background.”
“I know all about your body of work,’’ Leach said, “and it would be a privilege to work for you.’’
The cargo pants disappeared into the Key West afternoon, and Moos felt he had his man. At the same time, he worried about the competition. Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State would all be active in the 2011-12 hiring cycle.
(Moos later learned that other schools made the trek to Key West.)
By then, the season was coming to a close. Moos conducted no other interviews and instead focused on Leach, worling with O’Hagan and school officials to lock down his new coach.
The Apple Cup came and went. Moos had a memorandum of understanding ready for Leach to sign. What he didn’t have, was Leach.
“So I called O’Hagan and I’m like, ‘Gary, where’s Mike? I need him to sign the memorandum of understanding. I need to pull the trigger on this.’’’
“He’s vacationing with his sister in Florida,’’ O’Hagan explained, “but I’ll have him call you.”
Later, the phone rang.
“Hey Bill, it’s Mike.”
But Moos had trouble hearing Leach over the background noice — a thunderous whooshing sound.
“Mike, I need you to sign the memorandum.”
“Yeah, OK, sure. I’ll sign it.”
“Mike, I can hardly hear you. Where are you?”
“I’m at Splash Mountain,” came the response.
“Hey, have you ever been on it? I just did it three times. It’s my second favorite ride, behind Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Leach signed the MOU that day.
The next day, Wulff was terminated.
The day after that, the Cougars announced Leach had agreed in principle to a five-year deal.
“A lot of schools wanted him. He wanted us,” Moos said at the time.
He laughed at the memory of the Key West meeting — of the cargo pants and the three-day growth, of Patton and Churchill and snowblowers and Splash Mountain.
And he became a quick study in Leach’s unlimited curiosity.
“I met with all my coaches regularly,’’ he said, “and with Mike, I would always go to his office. That way, I could leave when I wanted.”
Ranking the best Pac-10/12 hires
Leach’s hiring was well-received, but few expected him to elevate WSU to its current level:
The Cougars are 26-10 in conference play the past four years, with four consecutive victories over Oregon and three in a row over Stanford.
He has been named Pac-12 coach of the year twice, in ’15 and ’18, and national coach of the year in ’18.
By any measure, Leach stands as one of the best hires in Pac-10/12 history. Exactly where he fits into the hierarchy is a delicious topic for debate.
For context, the Hotline plowed through 40 years of history and produced the following ranking.
* Don James (Washington) and Terry Donahue (UCLA) were in place before expansion to the Pac-10 and thus not included.
* Nor did I consider hires made by Utah and Colorado prior to those schools joining the conference.
* Lastly, this is not a ranking of the quality of the coaches so much as the shrewdness of the hire itself — a calculation that takes into account circumstances, options, fit, program resources, the background of the particular coach and his eventual success.
In other words: Not every elite coach qualifies as a genius hire.
* Nine of the 10 hires reflect the naming of a head coach. One involves the appointment of an offensive coordinator.
(Year listed is first season as head coach.)
10. Dick Tomey, Arizona (1987): The Wildcats had lost Larry Smith to USC when they plucked Tomey off the island (Oahu), where he had miraculously revived the Hawaii program. During a long tenure in Tucson, he produced the Desert Swarm and five finishes of third place or better.
9. Mike Bellotti, Oregon (1995): Sure, it was the obvious move: Bellotti was the offensive coordinator under Rich Brooks for the Rose Bowl run in ’94. But his success is undeniable (seven seasons of 9+ wins), and his coaching tree (Chip Kelly, Chris Petersen, Dirk Koetter, Jeff Tedford) is one of the best in modern conference history.
8. Chris Petersen, Washington (2014). Petersen had been coveted for years by Pac-12 programs when the Huskies convinced him to finally leave Boise State. It took a few seasons to get his system, culture and players in place. Since then: Two titles and 32 wins in three years.
7. David Shaw, Stanford (2011): The only hire on our list that involves a coordinator being promoted to head coach, but decisions need not be bold to be smart. (Petersen’s appointment wasn’t bold, either.) Bob Bowlsby’s move to elevate Shaw after Jim Harbaugh’s departure was proven prescient by three conference titles and an average of 10 wins per year.
6. Mike Riley, Oregon State (1997): After four years as USC’s offensive coordinator, Riley accepted what many believed was a lost cause: The Beavers hadn’t produced a winning season in decades. Yet in two seasons — before leaving to coach the Chargers — he set the course for OSU’s success under Dennis Erickson and then his second stint in Corvallis.
5. Mike Price, Washington State (1989): Dennis Erickson had just won nine games and bolted for South Beach when the Cougars turned to a little-know coach from Weber State to build on their momentum. Price proceeded to win at least nine games on four occasions and collect two conference titles and two Coach of the Year awards.
4. Jeff Tedford, Cal (2002): The football world expected Cal to hire Marvin Lewis, the successful coordinator of one of the greatest defenses in NFL history (Ravens ’00). Instead, the Bears, fresh off a 1-10 season, turned to Oregon’s under-the-radar playcaller to revive the program. In just his third year, Tedford had the Bears dueling with USC for conference supremacy.
4. Mike Leach, Washington State (2012): Given what he inherited — we’ll repeat: WSU was 4-32 in conference play in the four years before his arrival — where he inherited it and what he has done with it, Leach stands as one of the best hires of the era. The move would rate even higher but for the lack of a division (or conference) title under the Air Raid, which can’t be overlooked despite the success.
3. Jim Harbaugh, Stanford (2007). If your memory has faded, note that Stanford was beyond dreadful prior to Bowlsby’s decision to hire a former NFL quarterback whose only head coaching experience was at an FCS school (San Diego). The move was met by skepticism in numerous corners, including what was then a fledging Hotline. Four years after taking over a 1-11 team, Harbaugh led the Cardinal to a 12-1 mark and Orange Bowl title.
2. Chip Kelly, Oregon (2007, as offensive coordinator). The only entry on our list that doesn’t involve the head coaching position. Bellotti had plenty of candidates at the major college level when searching for an OC in the winter of 2007. He opted instead to raid the New Hampshire staff. Sure, you could make the case that Kelly’s promotion to head coach in ’09 should qualify for inclusion. But from here, the true genius was getting him to Oregon (and the conference) in the first place. And I wasn’t inclined to allocate two spots to Kelly.
1. Pete Carroll, USC (2001). Yes, the Trojans stumbled into brilliance with their (at least) fourth choice, and yes, they’re one of the bluest of blue bloods — the turnaround would have been vastly more arduous anywhere else. Even so, Carroll was an out-of-work, twice-fired NFL coach who won six consecutive conference titles, two national titles and had the Trojans on top of the football world.
What do you consider the best coaching hire in recent conference history?
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