PULLMAN — With everything else that was happening here last week, Washington State players and coaches probably didn’t make a concerted effort Wednesday night to watch the latest episode of “24/7 College Football” on HBO.
For those who did watch, the experience must have been jarring.
Filmmakers for the documentary series had spent the previous four days chronicling as much of the Cougars’ meetings, practices and private gatherings as they could gain access to. And if Wazzu coach Mike Leach is right about his players’ collective psyche, they must have been enormously gratified by the experience.
Then they went home that night, turned on their TVs and found themselves cast as the bad guys, as it were. They were expecting it, of course. But the reality of this particular reality show must have been hard to take.
Maybe it did them good — not specifically the HBO episode but the whole series of gut-checks they’d been dealt in recent weeks.
For whatever reason, the Cougars regained their equilibrium Saturday in a rain-soaked, wind-swayed 41-10 win against Colorado before a thin, shivering crowd at Martin Stadium.
This time, the Cougs were the good guys.
Of the four schools selected for starring roles in the inaugural season of HBO’s all-access look at college football, the Cougars were the only ones to appear in two episodes. In other words, they happened to be the opposing team for the featured school in last week’s show, Arizona State. The episode that airs this Wednesday, on the other hand, will focus on the Cougars as they prepare for and vanquish hard-pressed Colorado.
As the filmmakers did their thing in Pullman, Leach didn’t betray much anxiety about the possibility his players would be distracted by the cameras. But he must have been feeling some.
P.T. Barnum told us that all publicity is good publicity, but the Cougars were testing the veracity of that assertion in the weeks ahead of the cameras’ arrival. The circus-like 67-63 loss to UCLA, the dreary performance at Utah, the jaw-dropping resignation of defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, the last-minute loss at Arizona State — it was hard to imagine any of this, when referenced by narrator Liev Schreiber, impressing four-star prep recruits whose parents subscribe to HBO.
Not that trust would be an issue in the presentation. To judge by the first three episodes of “24/7,” not to mention the long history of the NFL-themed series after which it’s modeled, “Hard Knocks,” the producers weren’t looking to cast an unflattering light. But Wazzu was making it awfully difficult for them to cast a flattering one.
In Leach’s fairly credible theory, flattery is at the heart of the issue here.
In the midst of that recent sequence of Wazzu foibles, the coach went on a rant that characterized his players as a hard-working bunch undone by kind words. He imagined them sitting around their apartments reciting laudatory feature stories and tweets to one another until they were so buttered up they couldn’t tackle an inflated toy clown. Or something like that.
Leachian rants are nothing unusual. But The Pirate then upped the ante by prohibiting his players from using social media for the rest of the season. It wasn’t shocking — he’d done that once before, during his 3-9 debut season at Wazzu seven years ago. But this time he tacked on a curious comment. He said he wished he’d imposed the ban during preseason camp.
Huh? The Cougars were coming off an 11-2 season and, by all accounts, had slaved like honey bees during the entire offseason. Leach himself said so. So why would he have considered 86ing them from Instagram etc. during preseason camp?
Well, consider this. It was during camp that we all learned HBO was looking hard at Wazzu as one of the featured teams for its doc series. Leach laps up national publicity but he’s also obsessed with avoiding player distractions. Did it enter his head that impending TV stardom piled on top of ordinary Twitter slathering was a recipe for disaster for this team?
Whether it did or didn’t, the Cougars’ three-game losing streak had something wiggy about it. Yes, their defense had X-and-O problems. Yes, it had some unseasoned starters. But it also had an identity crisis. The Cougars indeed looked as if they’d spent months hoisting their self-confidence, rising to the belief that they were one of the premier teams in the country, and now they were thrown into confusion by all this evidence to the contrary.
In the game at Tempe, Ariz., the Sun Devils rang up 10 points in the final two minutes of the first half to tie the score. Thanks to the HBO cameras, we now know that ASU coach Herm Edwards told his team at halftime, “We’ve got the momentum — these guys will crack.”
And they did.
Then, in the week that followed, cameras that had recorded the Cougs’ failures in Tempe now trekked to Pullman and began lavishing them with attention, like a lover giving them a second chance.
Calmed and gratified, the Cougars made it worth their while.
Grummert may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2290.