SPOKANE -- Mike Leach opted for lunch in Pullman, not Spokane, on Monday as he prepared his team for Friday's ESPN game in the desert with UNLV. While there was some disappointment in a near-capacity room in the Red Lion at the Park for the season's first Cougar Coaches Lunch, fans like Don Barnett of Spokane Valley said he understood the reason for the head coach's absence.
The short practice week is why Leach wasn't on hand. With the game on Friday rather than Saturday, Leach has little time to spare before heading to Las Vegas, where the Cougars will face the 0-2 Rebels.
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"It would have been nice to have Coach Leach here, but I understand," said Barnett, WSU Class of '74. "I'm just excited about having him as our coach."
Washington State Athletic Director Bill Moos
did address the lunchtime gathering of alumni and boosters Monday afternoon, beginning with a few thoughts on the atmosphere at Saturday's home debut against Eastern Washington. The Cougars drew an announced crowd of 33,598, the first sellout for a WSU home opener since 1952.
"I think we had an environment on Saturday that was a major-college football environment," Moos said.
As for the Cougar's narrow 24-20 win over the Eagles, Moos said it had him hearkening back to the early 1990s when he served as athletic director at Montana and brought a Grizzlies team into Pullman to face the heavily favored Cougars led by Drew Bledsoe.
"We only lost that game by a touchdown," Moos said. "It was because we knew how to win. When we get that mentality here, we're going to win, but we need the fans' help. At Washington State, we've had some winning teams, but we've struggled to keep the program continuously moving forward. That means we have to improve every day."
While Moos was happy with the sellout, he expressed some concern with the early exit by a portion of the Cougar faithful.
"One adjustment we have to make is that people stay in their seats or come back to them for the second half," Moos said. "We need to have our fans in the stands when the game starts and when it continues in the second half."
Moos gave credit to the team from Cheney for pushing WSU to the limit.
"That game could have been lost," Moos said. "I'm not sure our next two opponents (UNLV
and Colorado) are as good as Eastern Washington. The one thing they know how to do is win."
Regarding the $65 million upgrade of Martin Stadium, Moos said the venue premiered to primarily positive reviews.
"By and large, I think our new building ran right," he said. "We do have some glitches we need to work out. It's just like the first football game ... we need to make some adjustments."
Longtime voice of the Cougars, Bob Robertson, served as master-of-ceremonies for Monday's lunch. He said the refurbished facility has been cause for considerable enthusiasm among WSU fans.
"It's a great new structure we have to work with on the south side," Robertson said.
One of the improvements, Robertson noted, is the air-conditioned broadcast booth set squarely above the 50-yard line. Before the renovation, the veteran broadcaster called the game from a seat much further down in the stands that featured a challenging vantage point.
"I could only see down to about the 20-yard line," Robertson joked. "It became truly speculation on the part of the announcer."
Saturday's festivities included a salute to the
, a squad that finished with the program's first winning record (7-4) since 1965 and defeated the University of Washington to bring the Apple Cup back to Pullman after a four-year hiatus. Moos, a team captain and all-aonference offensive tackle on that squad, joined former teammates, head coach Jim Sweeney, now 85, and all but two assistant coaches for the reunion.
"Bringing that '72 team back was a lot of fun," he said. "That was the very first team to play in Martin Stadium."
THE LUNCH GATHERING IN SPOKANE MONDAY WAS TREATED TO A HORN-LED RENDITION OF THE COUGAR FIGHT SONG.
Moos said there are plans to honor other teams from Washington State's past each fall.
Commenting on Leach's empty chair at the lunch, Moos said the head coach is dealing with a unique set of responsibilities.
"He's not just head coach -- he's the offensive coordinator and the quarterbacks coach," Moos said. "He can't be with us all the time and I hope you understand that, but he will be represented and, of course, I'll be here to address any complaints or comments."
Dave Emerick, Leach's chief of staff and recruiting coordinator, stood in for Leach at the event, answering questions and reviewing snippets of the EWU game film. In the fourth quarter of Saturday's contest, when the Eagles were still threatening to pull the upset, Emerick said his thoughts turned to a speaking engagement a few miles up the road.
"I'm sitting there on the sidelines Saturday, thinking ‘I have to speak in Spokane on Monday. I sure hope we win this game,'" Emerick said.
Emerick has known Leach since 1997 when both were at the University of Kentucky. After a stint in the NFL with the Houston Texans, Emerick joined the staff at Texas Tech. In addition to "chief-of-staff," a Leach-inspired moniker, Emerick is also known as "Super Dave." He oversees recruiting and is the liaison between the program and marketing, academic compliance and media.
"I deal with a lot of different people," Emerick said.
Emerick said his boss was happy to get a win, but sees plenty of room for improvement.
"Coach Leach is very excited to be a Washington State Cougar," Emerick said. "He is really fired up to be here and excited for challenge in front of us. One thing about Coach Leach is he won't accept mediocrity. I know he's excited about the win ... there were a lot of strong points, but obviously a lot of things we need to work on. He wants us to excel at everything we do."
On the offensive side of the ball, Emerick applauded receivers Gabe Marks
(three catches for 77 yards) and Isiah Myers
(six catches, 58 yards, two touchdowns) for their efforts while noting that senior running back Carl Winston
(12 carries, 67 yards, one touchdown) "is really stepping up into a leadership role."
On defense, Emerick called attention to sophomore linebacker Logan Mayes
for "being in the backfield all day, putting pressure on their quarterback."
Sophomore walk-on linebacker Cyrus Coen
also came up big for WSU, contributing three tackles and a key interception that led to a Cougar touchdown.
"Cyrus Coen walked on here and has earned a scholarship," Emerick said. "He's what you're looking for, effort-wise. He really was all over the field on Saturday."
Another walk-on to earn a scholarship, junior running back and kick returner Leon Brooks
, will likely see more time against UNLV, according to Emerick.
"He has big-play capability," he said.
The special teams effort was cause for encouragement, Emerick added. In addition to Andrew Furney
's riveting 60-yard field goal to end the first half (a feat that earned a top-10 mention on ESPN), he called out the critical blocked extra point in the fourth quarter after Eastern had narrowed the gap to four points.
"Special teams really improved from week one to week two," Emerick said. "That blocked extra point was huge. Without that, Eastern Washington would have only needed a field goal on that last drive. It put them in a tough situation."
Emerick was less than enthused about the play of the offensive line. Holding penalties negated two WSU touchdowns.
"We need to improve on that," he said. "For this offense to really start clicking, we need to have great offensive line play. That's kind of the key to it all. As soon as that gets going, you'll see this offense really improve."
In recruiting news, Emerick said WSU has 14 verbal commitments (now 15 in the wake of versatile Jamal Morrow's announcement late last night, with two of the total being grayshirts from the previous freshman class). Signing day is Feb. 6.
California, Texas and Washington have been key states on the scouting front, Emerick said, and noted that Leach and his staff are focused now on adding offensive and defensive linemen.
"Coach Leach believes that games are won in the trenches," Emerick said.