by Lisa Horne
Hollywood, CA—Washington State stole the show at Pac-12 Media Days held at the Paramount Studios lot last Wednesday. Yes, head coach Mike Leach was his usual fascinating self. But it was more than Leach. It was the whole Cougar thing.
And it was spectacular. It also brought back memories.
When then-head coach of USC Pete Carroll walked up to the podium for his turn at the 2008 Pac-12 media day, it was like watching a rock star make his entrance. Cameramen came out of the woodwork, media members suddenly sprung to life and there was a distinct buzz in the room. It probably irritated other head coaches, but Carroll was king. And the media treated him as such because Carroll appeared to have embraced the media. It was a bromance.
When Carroll left for the NFL, Chip Kelly, then-head coach of the Oregon Ducks, took his place as the King of the Pac but it wasn't the same—Kelly held closed practices, never won a BCS Championship and moved to Philadelphia several years later.
There was a void in the Pac-12. It had no snarky spokesman such as Nick Saban. It was devoid of a foot-loose and fancy-free character like Steve Spurrier. It was a league of nice, albeit boring, men. Then Leach was hired at Washington State for the 2012 season.
Last Wednesday, media members lined up—actually, they scrummed for position—near the podium to be the first to ask Leach questions. At one point, it was a mass of humanity around Leach. As usual, he delivered. When I asked him how he felt about four-year scholarships being offered to recruits, he said he didn't like the idea.
"I like renewing the one year," Leach replied. "If they don't behave and hold the team lineup to your standards, I think you should have the leeway."
And then Leach went all Leach on us. Fasten your seat belts.
"I think you should have to perform each year, and if you do, you renew your scholarship, but there have been few I haven't renewed," he explained.
"Right on the papers [if] it says felony, or kicked out of school, obviously, you're getting a scholarship for what? Being in Folsom Prison, that would be a little difficult."
Leach is quirky, very unconventional and demands your full attention. He can go off-subject without any warning but it is worth a listen. He is probably a genius. When you walk away from a conversation with Leach and completely understand what he said, it's akin to acing the SAT. You walk the walk. You feel like the smart kid.
But the magic in Pullman just isn't about Leach. Not anymore.
Quarterback Connor Halliday, if the school acquiesces, could upstage Leach.
Halliday was one of few players who appeared eager to talk to the media. He had that "bring it on" look about him. Taking SEC champion Auburn—on the road, mind you—to the limits last year can give a quarterback confidence. Beating USC on the road will give a quarterback confidence.
Halliday is not arrogant—he is exuberant and a delight. He really likes his school. And his team's fans have endeared themselves to him.
This is the school whose crimson and white flag makes a weekly appearance at ESPN's College Game Day locations. The flag was also reportedly spotted at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. And the Masters. Nobody asks why. But we appreciate the commitment of these flag bearers.
While college football fans recognize Washington State's flag, how well do they know Washington State's fans? The state of Alabama got to know Wazzu fans last August. Their drinking and partying—previously only regional lore— made headlines east of the Big Muddy.
Quixote's Bar and Grill in Auburn, Alabama reportedly had to close four hours early because Wazzu fans had drank all of their beer. Wazzu schooled SEC fans on how to drink? The West Coast did a fist pump.
So I asked Halliday, with a wink in my eye, what he thought about Cougar fans.
Halliday grinned widely and nodded. Yep, he knew where I was going. I didn't even have to explain.
He paused and then loudly acknowledged the legend that is Wazzu fan. "We can party," he said while nodding his head and grinning. And then he just let it out.
"Our fans go haaaaard," Halliday proclaimed with a laugh.
No other explanation necessary. Mr. Halliday knows his fans.
These fans are probably the greatest football fans in the country. Who travels across the country to watch games in hopes that his team may become bowl eligible? Wazzu fan does. Just make sure and stock your beer.
Halliday went on to tell me how wonderful the Auburn fans were. He spoke of their Southern hospitality and how well the team was received. He even offered up a tidbit about how easy it is for a quarterback in Louisiana to throw a spiral—the humidity makes the ball sticky. Halliday licked his hands like most quarterbacks do before taking the snap just to show me how important it is to have sticky hands.
What the heck is in the water in Pullman "The Palouse" Washington? Has Mike Leach invaded his players' bodies?
I like this Leach mini-me. I wanted to talk to him for the rest of the day. Maybe even get a #GoCougs tattoo.
What a swaggy move by Washington State to throw Halliday in front of hungry media and let it rip. Halliday was even entertaining his school minders—they were laughing. How often does that happen at media days?
In this age of political correctness, most players are ostensibly coached to give canned answers to the media's questions. Alcohol consumption is usually a taboo subject but Halliday addressed that as well as all other topics with enthusiasm, humor and genuineness.
Washington State gave us a head coach talking about gnats in Valdosta. It gave us a quarterback acknowledging the legendary partying status of his team's fans. Can I get an "amen" here?
Connor Halliday reminded us all what it is like to be a college student. And a football player.
And how a team's fan base can penetrate a player's heart and leave an indelible mark.
Well done, Washington State.
Now go out there and win and please, don’t Coug it.