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Originally published November 30, 2011 at 12:22 PM | Page modified November 30, 2011 at 9:51 PM

Cougars hire Mike Leach as football coach

Former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach will be the next Washington State football coach, the school announced Wednesday afternoon.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Even as Washington State fought a physical football battle with Utah in a snowstorm Nov. 19, WSU athletic director Bill Moos had begun exploring a grander plan for the Cougars, one developed in a much warmer clime.

Moos spent more than three hours with Mike Leach on Nov. 16 in Key West, Fla., Leach's home. And when WSU lost that day to Utah and fell out of bowl contention, Moos drew nearer to a conclusion that was consummated Wednesday.

WSU hired Leach, the former Texas Tech coach, to a five-year rollover contract that will pay a guaranteed $2.25 million annually, far above the school record for any coach. Ex-basketball coach Tony Bennett made $1 million a year. Leach will be introduced at a news conference Tuesday in Pullman.

"Lots of schools wanted him," Moos said late Wednesday afternoon. "He wanted us."

Referring to later talks, Moos said, "I put those figures out to him, and there was never any bargaining. He said, 'That's great. We can see success with that.' "

Moos believes the hire will kick-start a donor campaign for planned facilities improvements at WSU, and, when asked about how Leach would be expected to handle 19 committed recruits to the Cougars, Moos gave a broad hint at what he expects on another front.

"I'm going to guess they'll (the new staff) be solid on most of these kids," Moos said. "I'm going to tell you: There's going to be a lot more wanting to come here."

Leach, 50, coached 10 straight bowl teams with prolific offenses at Texas Tech (2000-09) before a messy exit that ended with him suing the school. It terminated him just short of his realizing an $800,000 bonus, alleging that he had mistreated a player, Adam James, by directing him to sit in an equipment shed while being treated for a concussion.

Between the departure, the pending lawsuit and some eccentric ways, Leach then became a radioactive figure for prospective employers. But Moos said Wednesday afternoon, "He and I discussed it. I'm comfortable with where he is in his legal situation."

The Times had reported Leach to be WSU's top target if it fired Paul Wulff, but it appeared the Cougars might have serious competition from Kansas because of an old friendship between Leach and KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger.

Asked specifically about Kansas, Moos said, "I really didn't feel we were battling anybody. I do know there were schools pounding on his door. A lot of people wanted him and he wanted Washington State, and I think that says a lot."

There were things about WSU that might have appealed to Leach over Kansas: He's a Western guy — born in Susanville, Calif., and raised in Cody, Wyo. — the school has a rich history of quarterbacks and two good ones on hand in Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday; the Pac-12 is far more stable than the Big 12; and Moos has a solid reputation as a football-minded athletic director.

"He's a legend in this business," Leach said in a statement released by WSU.

In that same release, WSU president Elson Floyd said, "I asked Bill Moos to select the best head football coach in the country, and I'm convinced he has done exactly that."

Moos said he took pains to tell Leach on their initial visit that "I hope my football coach (Wulff) finishes strong." But he said Wednesday, "I've always got to have another plan. I felt if we had a chance to get Mike Leach, I had to set the foundation for that before the season was over.

"To tell the truth, he's the only guy I talked to and the only guy I wanted."

Leach's contract — also "pretty full of incentives," according to Moos — calls for an initial buyout of $2 million, which Moos says will be reduced by $450,000 annually through the life of the deal. Also upgraded will be assistants' salaries to a package of $1.8 million, compared to $1.3 million currently.

Moos credited the Pac-12's move to equal revenue-sharing of TV income among conference members, and the leap in revenue from TV contracts with FOX and ESPN starting next year, as pivotal in the hire.

"We could not have gone in this direction," he said, "nor could we have (planned) the stadium renovation."

Raised Mormon, Leach attended Brigham Young and thought he was going to be an attorney, eventually getting a law degree at Pepperdine. One of the few college coaches not to have played at that level, he became intrigued by football's pass offenses and hooked up with passing devotee Hal Mumme at Iowa Wesleyan in the late 1980s.

"We traveled all over the country drawing up ideas," said Leach in 2008, referring to the passing game. "Just anything we thought that packaged well."

Leach coached at Valdosta State from 1992-96, and had assistant's jobs at Kentucky and Oklahoma before taking over at Texas Tech. Everywhere he went, there was high-octane offense.

Off the field, he became known for a natural curiosity about a lot of things, and for speaking his mind. In 2007, he criticized Big 12 officials' performance in a game as a "complete travesty," and when he was fined a record $10,000 by the conference, he said he didn't regret saying it.

In a 2005 piece for The New York Times Magazine, writer Michael Lewis explained, "Each offseason, Leach picks something he is curious about and learns as much as he can about it: Geronimo, Daniel Boone, whales, chimpanzees, grizzly bears, (painter) Jackson Pollock."

He was accused of running up scores at Texas Tech and didn't seem to mind. Once in 2004 against Nebraska, his team led 42-10 entering the fourth quarter and it threw 16 passes the rest of the way — the regular offense — and three straight after Tech went ahead, 70-10.

Moos, meanwhile, was asked what message he would like the Leach hire to send to WSU fans.

"I opened my checkbook for you," Moos said. "It's time for you to open your checkbook."

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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