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Excitement and Uncertainty for 2017 and Beyond: Leach, Grinch, or Both?

Image result for Image of Mike Leach

Happy Monday to you, Followers.  Hope you enjoyed yet another weekend of winning Cougar football!

As we all know, the win against the Utes on Saturday sealed the deal for us regarding the significance of the Apple Cup.  And while the Dawgs may or may not be eliminated from the North by the time November 25th rolls around, their loss on Friday night to Stanford had ZERO impact on our fortunes or standing:  Meaning, after UW beat Oregon last week, there was no way for WSU to back-in to a North Division title.  Only by defeating Darth Vader can we reach the promised land.

Yesterday, Brian Floyd from SB Nation rather brilliantly unpacked what Saturday’s win meant for this team heading into the Apple Cup.  Clearly the defense is the best that we’ve had since 2003 and ranks, at least in my mind, as the third best defense we’ve ever had at WSU (1994, 2003, 2017).  And, on the flip side, the offense is also strikingly reminiscent of 2003:  Explosive at times, but overall, wildly inconsistent as well.

Rest assured, folks, our coaching staff is well aware of all of that.   And while Leach has fittingly and admirably stuck with the conference’s all-time leading passer in Luke Falk through his senior week and homecoming, his actions against Boise State and Arizona show that he won’t mess around if the thinks there’s a better option out there.  And to that point, I would expect to see us implement several subtle changes and/or new wrinkles in our offense for the Apple Cup.  I’ll write a bit about that next week.

But for this post, I am going to head to the Dark Side of the Moon and talk about our lingering coaching “situation.”  I do so because the win at Utah on Saturday sealed the deal on the WONDROUS job that Leach, Grinch, and the rest of the staff have done with this football team—not only this year—but over the past three.  And because of their “most excellent” work, the fact of the matter is that both Leach and Grinch are going to get a lot of calls and feelers over the coming weeks.  In fact, I would be surprised if they haven’t already been getting multiple calls and texts from their agents.

So, let’s get right down to the meat of this very long post:

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Mike Leach took over a Cougar program after a near 10 year bowl drought and a 9-41 record from his predecessor. Since going 12-25 in his first three years at WSU, Leach is now 26-11 over the past three seasons. He has taken WSU to bowl games in four out of the last five seasons—which has NEVER happened at WSU.  He has groomed the conference’s all-time leader in passing yards, touchdowns, and total offense in Luke Falk, and his first WSU QB shares the all-time D1 record for passing yards in a game.  His academic record and graduation rate at WSU is at an all-time high, while attendance at home games has been the highest that I can remember—if not ever.

In short, Leach has done a FANTASTIC job as head coach: He has rebuilt the program into a consistent Division contender, and has WSU on the doorstep of national relevance (including a Top 10 ranking which actually is in the “living room” of national relevance).  And because of that, he should be a leading candidate for a host of so-called “bigger” jobs that are either already out there or figure to be: starting with Nebraska, but also including Tennessee, Arkansas (which I think will be open), and perhaps even a place like UCLA or Arizona State.

Of course, the big question facing Leach—and others like Grinch—is “why leave WSU?”  Here are a couple that come to mind:

  1. Leach has been vocal the past several years about the talent gap between his WSU teams and others in the league. Part of that might be attributed to a “defensive” need to prop up his own coaching staff (which he should), but at the end of the day, his assessment is HIGHLY accurate. And one has to wonder about whether he now wants to go to a place where he can compete with the so called “Big Boys” for the 4-5 star recruits across ALL position groups, not just some.
  2. Having just been to Pullman last week, I can vouch for how magical that place is. Moreover, having somewhat recently transitioned from city life and the day-to-day doldrums of hour long commutes in heavy traffic, I personally find small town/small city living to be not only acceptable, but desirable.  But for some folks, small town life gets, well, too small.  Obviously, we’ll never know how Leach and his family truly feel about living in Pullman for the long term (until we know), but it could be that they’re ready to spend more time closer to their place in Key West and/or find a place where there’s more things to do (and where there’s better shopping).  Moreover, given that coaches are now allowed limited contact with players in the summer—they used to be allowed NONE–it’s harder for coaches to get away during the summer months and off-season.
  3. Sometimes folks just want a change in their lives. And for guys like Leach who are elite coaches, sometimes the prospect of another opportunity—including one that has more pressure—is enticing and necessary for personal and professional growth.  And, from afar, Leach feels like a guy that may need a change of scenery from time to time to keep the ideas pumping.
  4. Leach’s last job at Texas Tech went awry when there were changes in university and athletic administration. And while Leach would never use these words to describe his experience, it seems pretty clear from afar that he was more than a bit “traumatized” by how all that crooked stuff at Tech went down. So, he’s got to feel more than a little bit of dissonance about the way things have unfolded at WSU—even as he has gotten assurances from the President that he is wanted and needed. For that reason, if Bill Moose came a calling, you have to think that Leach would give him a good hard listen. Plus…..
  5. WSU is in NO POSITION to give Leach the kind of raise that he may want or command on the open market right now. In the SEC, a guy like Leach can and will command something to the tune of 4-5 million per year without a huge increase in cost of living (and I’m talking about Knoxville, Fayetteville, and Lincoln here).

In summary, leaving WSU now would potentially enable Leach to get more money, gain (known) stability with his AD situation, have better recruiting success/access (but not at Nebraska), AND provide himself and his family with greater access to Key West and other stuff that small towns cannot and do not afford.

Now, here are a few reasons why Leach might stay:

  1. Like Mike Price, Leach has a job for life in Pullman. He can be himself, say what he wants, and face little repercussions for any of his actions with his fan base. Hell, most of us LOVE who he is and what he does.
  2. The “donor” circuit for WSU is 1 million times smaller for WSU than it is for any other major college program in the country. That limited donor circuit allows more time for family, football, summer travel, and Key West than any other program or setting.
  3. Because Leach has a job for life at WSU, he can endure losing seasons and not really have to worry about it (unless the wheels totally fell off for multiple years). He can also win 7-9 games a year and have that be a reason to get salary increases for himself and his staff instead of getting run out of town.
  4. Pullman’s small town feel and nature enable a quality of life on a day-to-day basis that you can’t find anywhere else. Leach and his staff don’t have to sleep on his couch if they want to and he can leave the office at 2:00am and be asleep in his bed by 2:20.  That is a GREAT luxury for a coach, and its also an incentive for staff stability–which is also great for a HC.  In short, position coaches who make around 250k a year have to live an hour or more from a place like Westwood, CA. And that makes living hard, since Assistant Coaches are often young and have young families (see Grinch and Phelps as Exhibit A and B).
  5. Access to get OUT OF PULLMAN is improving with a new runway at the Airport. That makes recruiting easier, and makes weekend trips to Key West more manageable not only for him, but his family if they want to get the hell out of dodge without him.
  6. The cupboard is LOADED FOR HIM over the next two years, but especially for 2019. Consider:

On offense:  The 2019 Cougar team will have at WR:  Mack (Sr), Patmon (Sr.), Calvin (Jr.), Bell (Jr), and Tay Martin (Jr) plus the highly rated others that are redshirting/incoming.  At the other skills, Boobie and Hilinski will both be Seniors.  Freddy will be a Senior and, presumably, so will Valencia and Osur-Meyers.  All in all, that group figures to lose only 1 offensive lineman in 2018 (Dillard)—meaning that they should return 9 of 11 starters in 2019 from the 2018 squad.

On Defense:  On the DL:  Moore and Oguayo will be seniors, Woods and Rogers will be Juniors; Thompson, Harper, Strong, and Singleton will all be seniors.  And then guys like Willie Taylor and Fa’ave Fa’ave—who EVERYONE is really high on, will be ready to take their next steps as sophomores.  In short, when you factor in the sneaky depth that is being brought in at all of those positions, WSU will need to add TWO defensive tackles to the one DT recruit we have coming in to be (presumably) BETTER in 2019 than we are in 2017.

In other words, I think that a really good case can be made that IF WSU is able to get a couple of 4 star (high quality) guys on the interior DL (be it through the JC ranks or otherwise) in the next cycle, this team should be BETTER—perhaps significantly so—in two years than they are right now.

Which brings me to the our other outstanding lead coach:

Defensive Coordinator Alex Grinch:

It is a secret to no one that Alex Grinch is pretty much the greatest thing since sliced bread.  And while I believe that Leach would have found a way to turn this thing around no matter who he hired in 2014-15, the 26-11 record we’ve experienced over the past three season has Alex Grinch’s fingerprints all over it. Moreover, as we saw on Saturday, this offense looks like that of a 6-6 team right now:  It’s the #SpeedD that is largely responsible for our current perch atop the Pac-12 North Standings with one game to go.

All in all, Grinch’s rationale to stay or go at the end of the year mirror all of the reasons cited above for Leach.  But, there are a couple other issues that merit mention here.

To begin, most reports out there suggest that Alex Grinch’s ultimate goal is to become a head coach at a Power 5 school.  And if becoming the head man is Grinch’s immediate goal (as in the next five years), then WSU represents a real attractive nuisance.  Allow me to elaborate.

Typically, folks that ascend to a Power 5 job tend to do so through a couple of avenues: (1) They take a “lower level” job—often in the form of a Group of 5 or FCS job—head coaching job, win there, and then use that to climb into a Power 5 Job.  Mike Norvell at Memphis currently fits that trajectory to a T.

The other route is to secure a coordinator job at a so-called “Big Time” school and use that name recognition to land a head coaching job.  And this is where it gets tricky.

You see, there are two kinds of “high end” DC jobs that come open.  There are places like, say, Alabama that lose their coordinators because they get head coaching jobs.  Then there are other DC jobs that become open either because the previous staff failed OR because the previous defensive staff and/or coordinator failed.  And in both cases, taking on a new job when there’s been some kind of negative churn, involves a helluva lot of risk.

The best recent example is Dave Aranda at LSU. A couple of years ago, Aranda was the hottest assistant in the country because of the job he was doing at Wisconsin (a team who seems to be doing fine since he left, by the way).  Aranda—not surprisingly—left Wisconsin to take the higher paying and higher profile job in the SEC  under Les Miles.  Of course, Aranda was brought in because Miles’ seat was getting a bit toasty.  But no one knew how damn hot that “hot seat” really was.

Now mind you, even with the tumult at LSU, Aranda has still been rumored as an intriguing candidate for a place like Texas Tech if that job comes open (more on that in a minute). But his stock is arguably much LOWER right now than it would have been if he had stayed put at Wisconsin and continued to rack up the NY6 (or better) bowl bids that have become mainstay for the Badgers.  In other words, with a talented young stable of players and a GREAT staff (especially Manning and Phelps—who I think has to be a Top 10 DL coach in the country, if not better), Grinch has the potential to continue to win BIG at WSU over the next couple of years.  And after five years of experience-and potentially—a couple of highly ranked defenses—Grinch may be significantly better poised to land that big HC gig from WSU than any other place in the country.

Now, in addition to that, there are two other important reasons why Grinch may decide to stay at WSU.  First, Grinch has young  children—and as cited above—life in Pullman, even if it may feel isolating at times—facilitates his ability to spend more time with family than he would at virtually any other institution (whether his wife likes that or not is an entirely different question—mine loves it when I’m not around!).

Second:  Grinch already acts as Head Coach of WSU’s defense and runs that entire operation.  That arrangement is unusual in higher end places where there is no such thing as a Head Coach/Coordinator.  So, while Grinch has considerable autonomy at WSU, that same level of freedom does not exist at places like Ohio State, Alabama, Florida, Michigan, and the like.

All in all, there is a strong rationale that might keep Grinch at WSU beyond this season, especially since we are just starting to see “his guys” in “his system.” But, in addition to the reasons cited above, the following are really good reasons why he might leave:

  1. His “brand” may never be hotter.
  2. He may get an offer at a great program that is hiring out of positive attrition (e.g., Ohio State).
  3. He may get his salary doubled at a place where the cost of living remains low (e.g., Arkansas, Nebraska).
  4. He may get offered a Head Coaching job at a Group of 5 school that enables him to be successful rather quickly (e.g., Central Florida, Memphis, Boise State).

What Happens If Leach Leaves?

One of the more curious situations that WSU finds itself in is that we don’t have an Athletic Director—and we also have this new thing called an “Early Signing Period” that happens in December. What that means is as follows:  (a) The Silly Season—although already underway through back channels—is going to explode when the clock strikes midnight on November 25.  (b)  WSU doesn’t figure to have their permanent AD in place until National Signing day in the first week in February.  In light of that, we can be assured that Johnson has already been given full budgetary authority by Shultz to deal with the Football Program for 2018 and beyond.

So, if Mike Leach decides to leave sometime between November 25 and December 10, there is going to be a need to respond quickly.  And the “no-brainer” replacement for Leach is none other than:

Image result for Image of Alex Grinch

As we all know, in order to win at WSU, you need to have a “system.”  And Grinch has already proved that his #SpeedD is a football version of “Bennett Ball.”  So, by hiring Grinch, WSU would maintain half of what has made this program a bondafide winner and contender for the past three years.  Then, on the offensive side of the ball, Grinch can hire from a host of attractive coordinators.  But, from my perch, three seem the most logical given (a) Leach’s Air Raid footprint on our roster; (b) WSU’s tradition as a passing school; and (c) The fact that the easiest position to recruit in major college football is RECEIVER.

These three ideal candidates for a Grinch OC are:  (1) Graham Harrell, who is currently doing well as OC at North Texas; (2) The venerable Jason Gesser—who would bring a new set of wrinkles to the job; and (3) Kliff Kingsbury if he gets the ziggy—as expected—from Texas Tech.  Importantly, all three of those guys would be AWESOME on the recruiting trail and would be VERY well poised to be successful in their first two years.

Now, if Grinch Refused (which I don’t think he would), then things get really complicated because of the fact that we don’t have our permanent AD (at least we think we don’t).  Nonetheless, here are a few additional candidates that we might immediately consider:  (1) Beau Baldwin—who is an obvious risk for an interim AD given WSU’s experience with Paul Wulff. But again, WSU’s roster would enable Baldwin to score a lot of points within his first two years–and he would come on the cheaper side of the ledger; (2)  Kevin Sumlin—might be a bit expensive and there might also be concerns that he is the Todd Graham equivalent to the SEC; (3) Jim McIwaine—not sexy but is also a guy that has won everywhere he’s been—and he’s of the area; (4)  Pete Kwiatkowski—who I don’t think would leave Coach Pete for an in-state rival, but man oh man would that make things interesting on the field, in recruiting, and of course, the weekend after Thanksgiving.

What Happens if Grinch Leaves?

One of the major losses that might accompany a Grinch move is attrition by other defensive staff—which would double the blow. I’m not going to spend much time speculating about who may be out there to replace a guy that seems so irreplaceable, but the one thing we all know that we lost when Coach Joe left was a recruiting presence in the Islands.  And for that reason, if the Cougars from the Mountain West decide that 5-8 is not acceptable to them (which it shouldn’t be), then current BYU head man Kalani Sitake may be looking for work sometime in early December.

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In case you don’t remember, Sitake was formerly DC under Kyle Whittingham and was reportedly a Leach target to replace Mike Breske before he got poached by Gary Anderson to join his staff at Oregon State a few years back.  Sitake would bring a solid resume and strong link back to the Islands for recruiting.

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In the end, there are compelling reasons to believe that WSU is going to face a major staff shake-up sometime in the next two weeks. But there are also good reason to believe that this entire group of ELITE coaches may just be “getting started” at WSU.

Ultimately, I think that we can all can proceed with a couple of important truths:  First, either Leach or Grinch will be at WSU in 2018; and (2) That the uncertainty about either (and perhaps both) make it even more important to enjoy this incredible run of WSU Cougar Football!

That’s all the time I have for today. I’ll be back next week with a few thoughts about the Apple Cup.  Go Stanford!

All for now. Go Cougs!