WSU head man Mike Leach lights up ESPN

COLORFUL WASHINGTON STATE football coach Mike Leach drew rave reviews from all three broadcasters on ESPN2's "First Take" sports talk show Wednesday. Leach offered frank comments on new NCAA tackling rules, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, comparisons between the SEC and Pac-12 conferences and the rebuilding process at WSU.

Leach termed "ridiculous" and "insane" speculation that the jarring, oft-televised tackle by South Carolina star Jadeveon Clowney at last season's Outback Bowl might earn him an automatic ejection (pending a videotape review) as the type of dangerous hit the NCAA now deems illegal.

"I'm getting tired of everybody apologizing for playing football," Leach said. "Football makes a ton of money (for many colleges), and that's not even the issue.

"Football's fun to play … now of all of a sudden, we're nuancing this thing and cluttering this up with one thing after the next."

"Clowney's hit … with all due respect to the officials, you've got old guys (officials) out there with bifocals on trying to identify in a split second who lowered their head first."

Leach was just getting warmed up.

"If I'm a running back and I know somebody's going to hit me – in particular, Clowney – I'm going to drop my head down, too," said Leach. "I'm going to ‘button up' a little bit. And again, who dropped whose head first, who led with what, whose hangnail was there – that's crazy.

"It's understood there's going to be injuries at times in football," Leach said, "but correct me if I'm wrong, there wasn't an injury on that play (Clowney's tackle).."

In conclusion, Leach said the new tackling rules are "going to hurt the game. Hopefully, it'll get corrected shortly."

Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith, the hosts of "First Take," immediately responded to Leach's final comments by saying, "Thank you for saying that."

LEACH AND OTHER Pac-12 football coaches are making their third annual preseason visit to the ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn. When Smith asked Leach about the "situation" regarding various off-field controversies that have involved Manziel, Leach was supportive of the Texas A&M quarterback.

"I honestly don't think there is much of a Johnny Manziel ‘situation' … the biggest thing with Johnny Manziel is, Johnny Manziel is a guy that's been ridiculously successful, ridiculously fast and probably in a more explosive fashion than any other Heisman Trophy winner in history. Now everybody's a combination of jealous and fascinated by him, so a whole bunch of semi-regular college activity (by Manziel) is getting magnified.

"I would be excited to coach Johnny Manziel. If Johnny Manziel stepped over the line, he'd run stadium steps right along with the rest of 'em (teammates)."

Leach's comments on Manziel prompted "First Take" host Cari Champion to say, "Well done, Coach. We appreciate it."

"Very well done," Bayless added. "The man's on fire!"

WHEN SMITH SAID people consider the SEC "the best conference" in college football and the Pac-12 "the most fascinating conference" in the sport, Leach stopped short of seconding Smith's statements.

"The top-level teams in the SEC -- it's indisputable, they're extremely good," Leach said. "Are they better than the top-level teams in the Pac-12? I guess we'll find out.

"I think the bottom half of the Pac-12 is better than the bottom half of the SEC. I think that makes the Pac-12 the fascinating conference it is … there's a lot of diversity offensively and defensively in the Pac-12.

"And then the other thing is, there's no teams in the Pac-12 that are just awful. I mean, we had our struggles last year. We're going to be a better team this year. But there's nobody that you can just dismiss."

Last year, Washington State (3-9 overall, 1-8 Pac-12) finished Leach's first season on a high note. In their final game, the youthful Cougars came from 18 down to force overtime before beating Washington.

"The biggest thing we did is, we finished the game," Leach said. "We were a team that it was a little too easy (to let up at times).

"They'd struggled for (most of the previous) 12 years. It was too easy for us to go out there, have a result in mind and, ‘Oh, OK, this looks like it's going to be like it is most of the time, so therefore throw up our hands' rather than focus on winning individual battles and just kind of enjoying the chase."

When Smith asked Leach "how far away" the Cougars are from rivaling the highly successful teams Leach coached at Texas Tech, the coach said, "We went through our growing pains at Tech as well.

"We were closer to the top teams in the conference at Washington State than we were at Texas Tech (initially). My first year, couple years at Texas Tech, the top two teams in the (Big 12) conference, we'd get pounded by. We were pretty competitive with UCLA and Stanford (the Pac-12 championship game contestants) this last year, so that was promising."

Earlier Wednesday, Leach participated in a live chat on ESPN.com. He was typically lavish with his praise of Pullman when asked what he likes best about the city.

"Just the experience that exists as far as being a college student," Leach said. "Pullman is probably the ‘tightest' college town that I've ever been in, to the point where students don't even leave the university on Friday and Saturday nights, because it's so exciting to be around their fellow students.

"What I remember most about college is the experience I shared with my fellow students. It's more accelerated in Pullman than anywhere I've seen."