While Gophers players staged their two-day boycott last week, leaving their Holiday Bowl status temporarily uncertain, Washington State coach Mike Leach made it clear he just didn’t care.
“I don’t pay attention,” Leach told reporters Dec. 16. “If somebody decided to boycott here, I’d cut them.”
Leach, 55, always has been a maverick, unafraid to shoot from the hip, like the quarterbacks in his Air Raid offense. He’s best known to Gophers fans as the former Texas Tech coach who turned the 2006 Insight Bowl into Glen Mason’s worst nightmare.
Minnesota led that game 38-7 midway through the third quarter in Tempe, Ariz., and Leach’s Red Raiders rallied to win 44-41 in overtime.
“It was a game where Minnesota totally dominated the first half, and we totally dominated the second half,” Leach said. “And I’ve got to be honest: I’ve never seen a game contrasted quite like that.”
The 31-point comeback stood as the biggest in major college football bowl history until TCU equaled it last season with a 31-point comeback against Oregon in the Alamo Bowl.
Mason had resurrected Minnesota’s program, only to suffer other meltdowns, including the 2003 Michigan loss. His Gophers teams went 3-4 in bowl games. Two days after that Insight Bowl, then-athletics director Joel Maturi fired Mason, eventually replacing him with Tim Brewster.
“I thought it was crazy to fire Glen Mason,” Leach said in a telephone interview earlier this month. “Glen Mason’s one of the better coaches in America. I felt like they should have done a little better job taking stock of what things were like before Glen Mason was there. And then it took them a little while to recover from firing him.”
Leach’s mother, Sandra, was born in tiny Akeley, Minn., which is southwest of Walker along Hwy. 34. Leach said he’s spent a little time there over the years. His father hails from North Dakota, and Leach grew up in Cody, Wyo.
Leach and Minnesota’s Tracy Claeys are among the few major college head coaches who didn’t play college football themselves, a list that includes Duke’s David Cutcliffe, California’s Sonny Dykes and Mississippi’s Hugh Freeze.
Leach played rugby at BYU and eventually got his law degree from Pepperdine. He had assistant coaching jobs at Iowa Wesleyan, Kentucky and Oklahoma before landing the head job at Texas Tech.
He led the Red Raiders to 10 bowl games in 10 seasons but was fired in 2009 amid allegations that he mistreated Adam James, a player who had suffered a concussion. Maturi fired Brewster after the 2010 season, when Leach was between jobs, and the Gophers eventually hired Jerry Kill.
Asked if he had discussions with Minnesota, Leach said: “Not really. It was open but nothing really got down the path very far.”
Leach landed at Washington State one year later. The Cougars had won just nine games over their previous season years, so athletic director Bill Moos rolled the dice. The rebuild went slowly at first, as the Cougars went 3-9, 6-7 and 3-9 in their next three seasons before going 9-4 last year.
This year, Washington State opened with losses to Eastern Washington and Boise State before reeling off eight consecutive wins. The Cougars started October by beating Oregon, Stanford and UCLA and began November with a 69-7 throttling of Arizona.
Then-No. 12 Colorado finally ended Washington State’s losing streak, but the Cougars still had a shot at the Rose Bowl before losing to then-No. 6 Washington 45-17.
“We won eight and got upset four times,” Leach said.
Leach is 6-5 in bowl games and said he’s not worried about his team’s psyche in San Diego, even after coming so close to Pasadena.
“You should be motivated for all of them because it’s an incredible honor to be in the Holiday Bowl,” he said. “Washington State hadn’t been to a ton of bowls, so we’re thrilled to death to be in the Holiday Bowl and have a chance to play Minnesota.”