Thursday, December 1, 2011

is Mike Leach necessory for Washington?

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Flash back a mere four seasons ago. The 2008 Apple Cup in Pullman. Washington and Washington State came in with a combined one win in 21 games and this game, and these programs were the sources of derision around the nation. That is, if anybody was paying attention.

Football in the state was irrelevant. Programs that had produced Rose Bowl champions, national titles and dozens of All-Americans were the targets of one-liners.

And that day, the Apple Cup lived down to expectations. That day the Cougars took advantage of just enough Husky mistakes to beat Washington 16-13 in double overtime. And afterward, you had to wonder how long it would take for the Apple Cup to have meaning again.

Now we know.

With Washington State's hiring of former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach on Wednesday, football in this state once more became competitive.

"The Pirate" is in Pullman. Hiring Leach is a game changer, it's an Apple Cup changer. Rivalry week is alive again in Washington.

With this hire, Washington State emerges from the deep shadows of college football and back into the spotlight. The nation will pay attention to Leach. Cable pundits will be curious to see if he can win in Pullman like he did in Lubbock.

Guess what? He will.

Who knows? Maybe even ESPN's "Game Day" will show up in Pullman next year. Maybe Lee Corso will utter another expletive as he fumbles with a Husky head or a Cougar mask while making his Apple Cup prediction.

The game and now both programs have juice again.


I know there are many Husky fans who wish Wazzu would be Apple Cup patsies in perpetuity. But for the rest of us, the idea of regularly having two bowl-going universities in the same state is exciting and intriguing.

And the athletic directors at both schools, Washington's Scott Woodward and WSU's Bill Moos, deserve credit for standing their ground and demanding revenue sharing among their Pac-12 brothers.

The money Washington State is getting from the conference's new television deal allowed Moos to be bold this week and hire exactly the right guy for the job.

But as he insinuated on Wednesday, now that he has written the check to hire a high-profile coach like Leach, he expects boosters to open their checkbooks and contribute to the tangible improvements planned for Martin Stadium and the football program.

Moos worked on this hire like a coach recruiting a blue-chip prospect. He traveled to Key West, Fla., to meet with Leach. He understood Leach was the exact fit for Pullman. This was his Cinderella hire.

Leach, 50, knows how to recruit to a small university town far away from the brightest lights. And he knows how to win there.

He is the perfect marriage of place and predicament. He coached in Lubbock, Texas. Ever been to Lubbock? It's Ellensburg without the hustle and bustle. (That's just a joke, Lubbock.) It's as windy as Candlestick at sunset and as exciting as Colfax on Monday nights.

But Leach made it a destination for football players. He brought the nation to Lubbock. History says he will do it in Pullman. He will fill Martin Stadium. He will cause a commotion.

In 10 seasons at Texas Tech, before his controversial firing, Leach's teams were 84-43. And the truth is football fans in Pullman will walk across wheat fields in bare feet in November to watch Washington State teams that are as good as Leach's were at Texas Tech.
Thus far, Leach has espoused things that are supposed to be simple and that offensive football execution relies on the interaction between the mental side, numbers and leverage, blocking and tackling, and sound fundamentals. But what metrics are important to Leach? What matters to him?

“The most important statistics in football are wins and losses and whether or not a team can outscore his opponent.”

Groan.  Another maxim. “Isn’t that akin to saying the key to being wealthy is having with the most money?”

Mike cracks a smile and concedes the point.

“The three most important factors that I look at on offense are first downs, number of plays, and converting third downs, because those statistics tell you how well you are controlling the football.

“If you have the most first downs, you’re controlling the football. You want to be able to run more plays than your opponents, because more plays generally mean that you have more opportunities to score.

“Third-down conversion rates tie in with first downs and number of plays. Those plays extend drives. While those statistics are important indicators, a coach has to be able to interpret the results.

“Here’s the catch. While those statistics are important to us, every single one of them might be meaningless depending on the type of game we happen to be playing. If you’re in a game where you can score on three-play drives all the time, those statistics don’t really mean very much. As a coach, you have to be flexible about how you interpret them.

“Statistics and analytics have their place in sports. They help to organize data and crystallize tendencies. However, statistics also have their limitations. Football is made up of numerous variables. People who try to define the game through one or two variables underestimate the game’s complexity.

On the other hand, there is a risk that too much emphasis on statistics can overwhelm a coach’s or player’s thought process. Statistics inform judgments, but human beings ultimately make decisions. There are countless errors that can occur in a physical contest like football.”

Mike argues that advocates of quantitative analysis in sports have to be careful about overstating their case. These proponents look at historical data, and make judgments about coaching decisions, “Coach so-and-so should have done this, because the odds suggest that his probability of success would have been better if he had done x instead of y.

“For some reason, many members of the media have developed a sort of reverence for the power of statistics in football. Few genuinely understand it, and even fewer still have actually applied them to coaching in a football game.” Mike raises an amusing observation. It is doubtful that many in the media have ever run a regression analysis.

“I am open minded about the potential benefits that applied statistics might one day provide for the sport. I am someone who appreciates innovation and am always looking for advantages. Right now, it is probably fair to say that some of those innovations are not yet compelling enough for coaches to embrace completely. While there are a number of analytical tools that help to better analyze information, these tools so far are replicating the sorts of things that most coaches have been doing manually for a long time. There is no question that this sort of software has made the process of game analysis more effective. We employ these tools to help us break down an enormous amount of information. For example, we chart plays by down, by distance, by formation, by the receiver’s routes, and by the opposing defense’s formations.

“We perform a comprehensive evaluation of our play-calling tendencies using these statistics about four times a year. The statistical outputs can tell us which plays are more effective than others are and whether a certain play works better in certain formations. For example, our analysis will show us that our offense is able to gain more yards on a particular play when we send a receiver on a wheel route. We might not complete a single pass to that receiver for an entire game or series of games. However, our analysis can show that our offense is able to generate more yards on those plays, because the wheel route opens up more space for the receiver who catches the ball.

“What the stats proponents tend to forget is that while things like historical data analysis are interesting, most of those analyses are not situational. Going for it on fourth-and-three on the opponent’s forty-three-yard line might statistically be a better decision over the course of a thousand games than punting. Keep in mind, I generally try to go for it on fourth down more than most coaches, but we have yet to see data refined to a situational basis, which incorporates time of the game, any injuries, fatigue, weather conditions, personal issues (like did a player break up with his girlfriend before the game), and a host of other factors. Coaches also have to rely on their experience, the team’s psychology, and game momentum, when deciding to make a certain call.

“I coached a game two years ago in which my team was leading by five points on the road with about eleven minutes left to go in the game. We were in a fourth-and-one situation from the goal line. We ran a quarterback sneak and the other team managed to prevent our team from scoring. I was roundly criticized for not kicking a field goal and increasing the lead to eight points. I don’t exactly recall the statistics crowd jumping to my defense at the time.

“Nevertheless, the decision to ‘go for it’ was well supported by the statistics.  We even had two opportunities to cross the goal line.

“The calculus I employed was straightforward. If we score a touchdown, the game is more than likely over. If we score a field goal, the opposing team still has about eleven minutes to overcome what would be just an eight-point deficit. The opponent has a great quarterback and our defense was struggling in that game. In the worst case, if we fail to score a touchdown, the opponent’s offense will get the ball on their one-yard line. In other words, the opposing offense will have to defy the steepest odds in the game to convert the change of possession into a touchdown.”

“’Going for it’ was statistically the best choice. There were other qualitative factors which went into the decision making process.

“In terms of talent, we had a superior offensive line. Our offensive line had two All-American caliber players. Our offensive line outweighed our opponent’s defensive line by fifty pounds per player.

“As it turns out, we run the ball behind our best lineman, who accidently slips as he is blocking the defender. The opponents stop the quarterback and we fail to convert a touchdown. If we ran that play ninety-nine times, we score.”

Despite being stopped, the game is not over yet. The opponent’s offense now has the unenviable task of marching ninety-nine yards down the field to score the go-ahead touchdown.

“As the statistics would suggest, we managed to stop the ball, in this instance, by intercepting the opposing quarterback’s pass. We’re still up by five points, there is over seven minutes left on the clock, and we have the advantage of operating with good field position. Our offense, which is ranked among the top five at the time, is facing a defense that is ranked in the bottom quintile of college football. However, on our first set of downs, we punt the ball after just four plays. Still, our punter gets off a great kick, and pins the opponent at their own five-yard line with under six minutes left to play. The opponent’s offense takes over, marches ninety-five yards down the field, and scores the go-ahead touchdown.”
Washington State is a unique place, with a unique fan base. It needs a creative coach with an innovative system. Leach proved he doesn't need a gaggle of four-star recruits to win.

Give him a bunch of guys who can run and catch, and his offense will find the space to make them effective. The pass-happy spread offense that Leach calls "Air Raid" will be ideal for the Cougars.

Imagine the excitement returning quarterbacks Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday are feeling today. Eight of Leach's quarterbacks have led the nation in passing.

Think about the offense next year with Marquess Wilson and Bobby Ratliff and who knows how many other skittering wideouts and slotbacks running loose in the secondary.

If Moos is smart — and we know he is — he should immediately introduce Leach to Bothell's senior wide receiver, Trent Sewell, a big, sure-handed receiver who runs crisp routes. Sewell is close to signing with Wyoming, but wants to play at Washington State. He would be a good fit in Pullman.


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