Washington State’s Mike Leach is one of the most unique coaches in college football, with a style and personality that wouldn’t fit in everywhere.
Leach has also been one of the most successful coaches in the nation. This fall, he will take his team to a bowl game for the 15th time in his 17 seasons as a head coach.
On Friday, however, Leach will have a chance to do something he has never done when he leads the No. 8 Cougars (10-1, 7-1 Pac-12) against No. 16 Washington (8-3, 6-2) in the annual Apple Cup rivalry, to be played in Pullman, Wash.
Beat the Huskies and Washington State will win the Pac-12 North division and set up a matchup with South division champion Utah (8-3, 6-3) in the conference championship game.
Throughout a career that has included 10 years at Texas Tech and now seven at Washington State, Leach has never won a conference title, or even a division title.
To this point, Leach’s best conference finish game in 2008, we he led Texas Tech to a tie for the Big 12 South title. The Red Raiders lost the head-to-head matchup with Oklahoma that year, though, and the Sooners went to the conference championship.
Leach’s rise at Washington State has been years in the making.
Hired in 2012, he took over a program that went 9-40 in four seasons under Paul Wulff. Leach went 12-25 with three losing seasons to start his tenure in Pullman, although he did take the Cougars to a bowl in 2013.
Since 2015, however, Washington State has been one of the most consistent teams in the conference, going 36-14.
“I think one thing is he just really believes in his style, his way,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said of Leach’s success over the years. “I think there’s a lot of ways to skin a cat, obviously. I think he believes in his way. I think he’s a really smart guy and he sticks to the script and he can weather the storm. He just perseveres and comes through it.”
Despite their sustained success, the Cougars haven’t been able to solve the Huskies in recent years. Washington has won the last five in the series, and the last four haven’t been close.
Leach, of course, isn’t too worried about history. He’s focused on a rivalry game with plenty at stake.
“It would haven’t decided anything if both teams hadn’t won a bunch of games in the process,” he said. “This game is only a big game because of a whole lot of other big games prior to this.”
Both teams have played stellar defense this season, and while Washington State has the more explosive offense, Washington has stars on that side of the ball, as well.
Going into the season, Washington was the overwhelming favorite to win the North, and the conference in general, but it’s been a roller-coaster year. Despite some unexpected bumps, Petersen has his team in position for a second North title in three years.
“I think it’s been a couple steps forward, a step backwards, where you’d like to kind of get a little more on a roll,” Petersen said of this season. “I think that’s maybe been the thing that’s been a little bit frustrating.
“Now we’re set up for why we come here, to try to play for a Pac-12 North championship and see where that goes.”
Three go for bowl eligibility
Seven Pac-12 teams have already secured bowl eligibility, but three more could get there this weekend.
Colorado, Arizona and Southern California all come into this week with 5-6 records and seeking one last win to extend their seasons.
Colorado will visit California on Saturday with hopes of secure a second bowl trip in the last three years. Arizona will host rival Arizona State and is aiming for a bowl in coach Kevin Sumlin’s first year.
USC, meanwhile, hosts No. 3 and undefeated Notre Dame. The Trojans are hoping to avoid their first losing season since 2000.
Washington State is seeking the first outright conference title in program history. The Cougars tied for the Pac-10 title in 1997 and 2002, going to the Rose Bowl in both seasons. … Utah will tune-up for the Pac-12 title game by facing bitter in-state rival BYU on Saturday night. … Washington’s Myles Gaskin is 39 rushing yards away from 5,000 for his career. He could become just the fifth player in Pac-12 history to reach that mark. He needs 122 yards to finish his career third in Pac-12 history.