Will a leader emerge?

Greetings Cougs, and a happy Humpday to you and yours.  As always, we hope all is well in your neck of the woods.

So, last week happened and the Cougs are 0-2.  Things are already looking bleak at this point, this sudden feeling of hopelessness that appears to be working it’s way through many corners of the usual stops on the WSU interwebs.  Not all corners, mind you, and in fact our friends at Cougcenter are keeping things in a decent perspective when times are rough.  Instead of just piling on and following the “Eeyore perspective” that has seized most of Cougar Nation at this point…..

….I would encourage some of you to read this from Nuss, or this from Brian Anderson to get an idea that this isn’t the end of the world.  Both of them hit on some really good themes – that luck plays a part in the sometimes randomness of sports, especially in close games, and that we THINK we know what’s going to happen, but we really don’t know at the end of the day.

But hey, I get it.  Things haven’t gone according to plan, know what I mean?  There were many, including yours truly, who felt like this was a 6-win team, maybe 7 at the most, provided things went “according to plan”.  But when things don’t go according to the plan??

Will a leader emerge?

But this season, it brought heightened expectations.  All offseason we thought that the team collectively would take that step forward, and especially at the start of this season when WSU was actually favored to, you know, win?  I touched on this a few weeks ago, but happiness is often times a product of expectations going in to an experience.  Some of you might think it’s total BS, but I look at it this way when it comes to being a fan of a certain college football program – upset a team better than you (USC or Arizona in 2013), and you are JACKED AND PUMPED to be a Coug.  Lose to a team not looked at as good as you when you are favored (Colorado State, Rutgers, Nevada) and, well, we all collectively have a SAD.

The usual path to follow when you open the season that doesn’t meet expectations is to not only be miserable, but to also look hard at the reasons why the expectations haven’t been met.  And there have been some really great posts-n-comments-n-such as to why we are where we are.  Cougcenter and Cougfan have had some good reads on the state of the program, and I thought our own Sutra really nailed many great points as to how we got here and why we have struggled to get a win out of the chute in 2014.

But one thing that has been hinted at and even Leach has mentioned in the aftermath of this 0-2 start is leadership, or lack thereof.  Leach mentioned that there just aren’t enough older players in the program who have actually won anything at the Pac-12 level, I mean they were successful in high school or whatever but they haven’t experienced great success up here, a 6-win bowl season the exception.  I think of it as a leadership “gap” right now, and there are two sides with a vast emptiness in the middle.  On one side you have the experienced seniors and some redshirt juniors who have been here even before Leach, guys brought in under Paul Wulff and his staff.  Guys who yeah, they are productive players at the NCAA level in that they are regular contributors on a Pac-12 team and are on TV every week.  But that has always been good enough, know what I mean?  Being productive to where you are on the field has been good enough, but there hasn’t been enough demand in their own minds to be GREAT.

On the other side of the bridge you have the underclassmen, the sophomores, redshirt frosh and true frosh who have been brought in under Leach in last few recruiting classes.  Yeah, they were brought in by this staff and they are handpicked to be in this system on both sides of the ball, all that stuff.  But they are still young, in many cases still teenagers while on the other side of the locker room there are 4th/5th year guys who are, in their eyes, 22-year old men.  Remember when you were 18, how old someone looked when they were 22 or somewhere in there?  Some of those older guys are starting to get that man strength that you get in your 20’s, but as a teenager you still have your mind on, well, being a teenager?

Anyway, I think that’s what we are experiencing right now.  Above and beyond the X’s and O’s and Jimmie’s and Joe’s of why WSU has lost these first two games of the season, there seems to be something missing on the leadership of this team.  Not exactly with the head coach or the assistants, but leadership must emerge amongst the players for this thing to really work.

One guy who I believe has at least tried to do this is Connor Halliday.  He’s emotional and wears it all on his sleeve, to the consternation of many in Coug Nation.  When things go wrong he gets the brunt of the hatred from the fan base, and when things go right, well, he doesn’t exactly get praise that isn’t really of the backhanded variety.  I mean it seems like no matter what, the kid can never win in the eyes of many around here and elsewhere on the web.

But I recall his actions vs. Rutgers, seeing it in person, and I thought he did a good job of at least trying to lead.  When they got down early, you didn’t see him hanging his head.  There was a confidence that they were going to get things going, that it was just a matter of time before they would click, and of course the offense took off for the bulk of that game after the slow start.  And he did get out on the field after River Cracraft’s fumbled punt that gave Rutgers new life, trying to urge the defense to hold their ground and focus on the next play instead of feeling sorry for themselves that they have to drag their butts back out on the field after a costly turnover.  Of course the outcomes were still losses these last two games, so it doesn’t look like it’s completely working at the moment.  But at least he’s TRYING to lead as a senior QB should be expected to, and not just hide in the corner somewhere and hope it all works out!

On Monday, Jason Gesser was on the Bill Moos weekly radio show on KXLY, and Gesser and also Moos hinted at this idea of leadership, the need for someone to step forward in this storm and basically take the reins.  Gesser mentioned that when he and his young recruiting class arrived in the late ’90’s, they were coming off some losing seasons as a program.  By the time those young guys saw the field, when you think about it, the older players on the roster at that time were coming off some low moments by the time the 2000 season rolled around.  The older players on the roster that weren’t part of the Rose Bowl 1997 season only knew losing was becoming OK, and so the culture was not living off success or trying to be great.  It was as if they didn’t know what it took to be great, and what they had been doing was just good enough.  But the younger players, led by Gesser, banded together.  After a tough 2000 season in which the  kids were thrown to the wolves and the team went 4-7 with 3 OT losses, they exploded to those 10-win seasons from 2001-2003, including a Pac-10 title.  But in their minds, what happened before they got there with the seasons that Mike Price declared himself the king of poop island, it wasn’t good enough.  That young group, led by Gesser, wanted to not only play but to be great.

It is a similar situation we see today, really, only this is an even tougher nut to crack – older players not really knowing what it takes to win big or how to lead towards the ultimate goal of high success and oh yeah, recruited under a completely different coaching staff.  On the other side, young players who are “newish” to the program and are trying to figure out what it takes to see the field at this level, but aren’t quite ready or feel like it’s their time to speak up and change the culture.

Unfortunately I don’t think this thing gets solved this year.  But I also believe that 2014 could become a lot like the 2000 season, in that young players are going to get their moments to shine on the field.  Have you seen the depth chart for this week, have you seen all the youth, particularly on defense?  We are now only starting TWO seniors on defense (!).  But with those youngsters getting game experience this year, they will learn how to play at a Pac-12 level.  But that can’t be “good enough”.  They are going to have to want more.

Anyway, I have to admit that my focus as a fan on 2014 is no longer trying to find a way to win 6 games and get back to a bowl somehow.  It’s no longer about counting wins and losses and obsessing about the schedule.  Instead it’s just focus on what’s in front of you, hoping that they take to what Leach has been saying since the day he arrived in Pullman – WIN THE NEXT PLAY, control what you can control, focus on what you should be focusing on.  Don’t live in the past, whether that past was good or bad.  Live in the now and win the next play, period.

And of course, we are missing leadership in the locker room, and you are now hearing it from Leach, Moos and Gesser.  And from all this chaos, we can only hope that some of the young energy can rise up and decide that just being on the field isn’t good enough, that they want more.  Maybe leaders will be born out of all this.  As a fan, that is my hope right now!

Enjoy your day, and as always, GO COUGS!

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