I WAS IN PULLMAN over the weekend for Dads’ Day and my son Travis and I watched the Cougars fight back from the abyss in an impressive way. The Cougs, down 37-7 at one point, refused to quit. They lost their starting QB again. And the special teams fell apart. But they kept battling hard. That should have been the story of the day.
But instead it was all about the letter Marquess Wilson chose to distribute shortly before kickoff.
I’ve always liked Marquess. He’s a great talent and from everything I’ve heard from those who know him, a really good kid. I know Paul Wulff thought the world of him.
But for me and Cougar fans everywhere, Marquess is nothing but a giant disappointment. And it’s not just because he left the team. Lots of guys leave lots of teams for lots of reasons every season.
He’s a disappointment, three times over, for the way he's handled the situation.
First, he walked out in the middle of a team workout a week ago, literally and figuratively abandoning his team. If he’s the fifth-string walk on safety, no one cares. When you’re the best player on the team and a school record-holder, that’s just immature nonsense straight from a reality TV show. If you’re going to leave, you do it face-to-face in an office with the coach.
Second, he released his letter of accusations on Saturday an hour or two before kickoff. That is another betrayal of his teammates, because he took all the attention off them and what they were trying to accomplish that evening and put it on him.
And third, he lit the fuse on that incendiary letter and then didn’t have the guts to return reporters’ calls or text asking him to put bona fide meat on the bones of his argument.
Anyone in this day and age who is going to toss around the phrase “physical abuse” can’t do so lightly or without specifics. Moreover, how easy a target is Mike Leach for an attack like that following the widely publicized (and, it turned out, completely debunked) Craig James imbroglio? If Wilson's physical abuse allegation proves not to be true, Marquess has set the right of free speech back about 100 years, and offered prime evidence why it’s better to talk through problems than to write press releases about them.
Whomever was advising Marquess on Saturday ought to take a course or two at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communications, because everything about that episode was amatuerish.
The closest we’ve come to clarity on it from Marques is his stepfather telling a reporter that there’s “hearsay” about a coach pushing linemen at halftime of the Cougars’ blowout loss to Utah two weeks ago.
Given that no other players -- either the ones on the team or the 18 or so who have left or been booted in the last year -- have come out with similar accusations of abuse, I have to believe Marquess’ letter was written in heat, not in fact.
President Elson Floyd and athletic director Bill Moos have launched a review of the allegations and have asked the Pac-12 Conference to lend a third-party evaluation. That is exactly what they should have done, because Wilson’s allegations are serious.
You can call me a homer or old-school or anything you like, but I will tell you right now that there will be absolutely no findings of wrongdoing.
A coach grabbed some players at halftime? In the game of football? Stop the presses!
I’ve seen Lou Holtz and Jim Walden grab guys by the facemask and scream till they were blue in the face. It’s part of the game. Certainly not a part I especially enjoy, but it’s going to happen once in a while given the intensity of the sport.
Now, if you toss out Marquess’ physical abuse allegations and just focus on the rest of his letter, what you have is a picture of a coach who is, as Moos characterized yesterday, an old-school disciplinarian. No doubt, Mike Leach is a “my way or the highway” kinda guy.
And like all of us, Mike is a multi-layered personality. In my dealings with him, I’ve always found him to be interesting and earnest and honest. I like the guy.
In his coaching, he demands excellence and won’t settle for anything less. Have you ever seen that profane-filled YouTube video of him talking to one of his Texas Tech teams after a game? He yells a bit and swears a lot. It’s wildly entertaining. He talks about mental toughness and overconfidence and togetherness and listening and excuses and mediocrity and being strong.
But what’s most interesting is that this speech takes places after a victory. A victory!
Mike Leach is driven.
He’s intense. He’s a disciplinarian.
He’s tough love and old school, and that sometimes means being a jerk to your team and your coaches.
I remember Jim Walden making us do 30 110-yard-sprints back-to-back-to-back at the end of our regular practice because our effort hadn’t been good enough. No one quit, everyone finished, and we got the message. That team went on to compile an 8-3-1 record and break WSU’s 51-year bowl drought.
I also remember joining other “select” members of the team in getting dropped off in Moscow with our jogging shoes and told to be back at Martin within 68 minutes.
It’s called building mental and physical toughness. Leach and his staff are shaking up the status quo.
Paul Wulff did the same thing when he arrived at WSU and he was criticized for not doing more to win over the holdover players, dozens of whom quit or were booted. When Barry Alvarez became the head coach at Wisconsin, a perennial loser at the time, 58 players left the program in the first year. Getting to the Rose Bowl, he said, is not for the faint of heart. It’s a huge commitment, physically and mentally.
Mike Leach is finding out who all is buying in and who isn’t. He is doing it the same way he did it at Texas Tech, where he went to 10 straight bowl games.
The effort and pride I saw in Martin Stadium this past Saturday told me things are headed in the right direction.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Paul Sorensen played safety for the Cougars from 1980-81, earning first-team All-American honors as a senior. He later played in the NFL and USFL. From 1985-98 he was the color commentator on radio broadcasts of Cougar football. He has held a similar role on Eastern Washington University broadcasts over the last several years. Also a long-time assistant coach in the Greater Spokane League, he’s been writing periodically for CF.C since 1999. His columns here are labeled SLAP! The acronym stands for Sorensen Looks At the Program. The word also aptly describes the way Paul played safety and the way he does color commentary: in-your-face, nothing held back.