PULLMAN — For the most part, two days of reflection did little to temper Washington State coach Mike Leach’s withering postgame assessment of his team’s performance against California.
But he did fall back on generalities this week when asked about his “nicey-nice” comment Saturday in Berkeley, Calif.
It went like this:
“As coaches, we have not been able to turn this into a consistently tough team. And so some of all this nicey-nice positive stuff we’ve experimented with, well, that experiment’s failed.”
He didn’t say when this experiment had begun or who had instigated it. He also sidestepped those questions at his weekly news conference Monday.
It was another indication of the quandary his coaching staff has faced in mapping out motivational and instructional strategies with this team, which has lost five of its past six games and remains winless in Pac-12 road contests.
Washington State (4-5, 1-5), which needs to win two of its final three games to become bowl-eligible, plays Stanford (4-5, 3-4) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday (Pac-12 Network) at Martin Stadium.
The Cougars lost only 12 starters from last year’s 11-2 team, but several of them were strong personalities who seemed to inspire and motivate teammates. Many of the existing players exude a certain bravado, but Leach seems to question their conviction, saying Monday, “Anytime any one of these guys thinks they’re a leader, they fall on their face.”
Hence an extra onus on coaches to set the right tone.
The degree of difficulty in this perhaps was reflected in the abrupt resignation of defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys after two embarrassing losses in late September. With the promotion of Roc Bellantoni to interim DC, together with the game-day sideline commandeering by Darcel McBath, coaches seemed to raise the team’s energy level and sharpen its communication.
Maybe they also delivered a more personal message than the stoic Claeys had been inclined to impart. If that’s what Leach was partly alluding to with his nicey-nice comment, he wasn’t saying as much at his weekly news conference. Nor did he admit, in his own case, to placing more trust in players this year based on the self-starting reliability of last year’s bunch. But that might have been the case to some degree.
“I think there’s a balance to it,” Leach said. “Everyone’s striving together. You want to be as positive as you can. But football, under the best of circumstances, is extremely demanding, and everybody needs to be pushed. I need to be pushed, coaches need to be pushed, players need to be pushed. In the midst of being positive and doing good things, there’s also got to be that element of push. And I think that’s got to be maintained.”
Some indefinable element was missing in Berkeley, and not just on defense. Leach actually pointed to his normally prolific offense as the worst-performing unit in that game. Yet his most specific remarks were directed at the defense. He spoke of missed assignments, cluttered minds, rampant excuse-making.
“You want to stop Cal? Cover your man,” he said Monday. “We had guys who actually came to the sideline with the excuse of why they didn’t cover their man. If you want to stop Cal, cover your gap. Chase the football. We didn’t do those three things. We didn’t run to the football, we didn’t play with low pads.”
In sharpening their message this week, coaches are delegating some of the cheerier coaching tasks to the players themselves. Cougars quarterback Anthony Gordon was asked Tuesday if he’d heard about Leach’s nicey-nice statement.
“I didn’t see the article, but he kind of mentioned it to us a little bit, and the positive reinforcement and stuff,” he said. “So it’s us as players that kind of need to do that now. The coaches do a great job getting us prepared. Whatever they think is best for the team, whatever mind set he needs to instill upon us, I’m all with it.”
After the game, offensive lineman Abe Lucas suggested the Cougars, because of Cal’s low profile in the league this year, had not brought the same focus and effort they had brought to their previous game, against nationally ranked Oregon.
Leach agreed, saying it’s “reckless” and “ridiculous” to mete out effort based on the caliber of one’s opponent.
“You’ve got to constantly be pursuing the boundaries and testing the ultimate extent of your ability,” he said, “in order to stretch it further. If players are doing that (holding something back), that’s totally contradictory to what any coach in this building’s preaching.”
This is hardly the first time Leach has lashed out at his team. It happened frequently during his first three years here as the Cougars were going 12-25. But his diatribes this year have made more frequent allusions to the need for coaching accountability.
“It’s awfully difficult to separate coaching staff and players,” he said. “You’re kind of in it together. One group responds to (a particular) level of motivation or training. Another group responds to something different. As a coach, you’ve got to constantly be trying to find that. But there’s a point to which players have an obligation to listen.”
And if they don’t?
“You’ve got three choices,” Leach said. “Live with it, change them or cut them. All three choices are considered in pretty much every instance. And I’ve done all three throughout my career.”
IN THE PORTAL — Sophomore backup linebacker Fa’avae Fa’avae has quit the team and entered the NCAA transfer portal, Cougfan reported Tuesday. He appeared in 17 games during two seasons and tallied 11 tackles. In April, he was one of three WSU athletes arrested and charged with vandalism in connection with a campus incident involving damaged parked cars.
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