SEATTLE — You’ve probably heard of the (mostly) erstwhile tradition in college football of relegating the visiting team to an undersized locker room with bad plumbing and crumbling floor tiles.
The postgame adjunct to this tradition is to throw visiting players, coaches and reporters into an undersized interview room and hope they tear one another apart. Vladimir Putin, a noted sports fan, is now deploying this strategy in the overheated vestibules of American social media.
Anyway, the ploy worked wonderfully at Seattle on Friday when, in a glorified broom closet in the bowels of Husky Stadium, Washington State coach Mike Leach dressed down a Spokane newspaper columnist who happens to be enshrined in the Inland Northwest Sports Hall of Fame.
It’s unclear why Leach, who is quick to defend people’s right to speak their minds, was so peeved by “the nasty stuff” that John Blanchette writes that he decided he was a “sanctimonious troll” who lives “a little meager life” in a “little hole.”
We do know that Leach doesn’t actually care what the man writes. He said so twice.
But I suspect this diatribe had more to do with the Washington Huskies than with John Blanchette. OK, maybe their postgame press accommodations aren’t the crux of the matter. Their football team is.
In losing 31-13 on a bright but bone-chilling afternoon near the shores of Lake Washington, the Cougars put up more resistance than usual in this city, where they’ve won only 15 times in a rivalry that began in 1900. But they lapsed abruptly in the second quarter, squandered a chance to rebound early in the fourth, then slid away to their seventh consecutive loss in the series. The Cougs haven’t beaten the Dawgs in Seattle since 2007 or in Pullman since 2012.
Afterward, Leach’s players genuinely tried to explain what’s happening in this recurring Cougar nightmare called the Apple Cup. It’s mainly mental and emotional, they said. They allow the hype of the rivalry to shatter their focus.
A couple of them suggested, gently, that WSU players from the west side of the state are prone to an inexplicable Husky anxiety. They’re definitely on to something there, but how could that have been a big factor in this game? Leach’s recruiting tack has largely ceded Husky country to the Huskies. His starting lineup this time included only four Washingtonians.
No, if the problem is mental and emotional, its roots are physical — not just the Dawgs’ talent, but how well they match up with the Cougars, how thoroughly their coaches understand the vulnerabilities of Leach’s Air Raid offense, and perhaps how well-suited their ferocious brand of football is to intrastate grudge matches.
Leach plays down the rivalry aspect of the Apple Cup and implores his players endlessly to shut out the “outside noise.” But he’s obviously frustrated by these outcomes. In that broom-closet presser, somebody (not Blanchette) pulled out one of those “How frustrating is it?” questions, which sent the proceedings in the wrong direction.
Leach fell back on a response that’s become standard for him in recent years: He expressed puzzlement that reporters routinely laud Washington’s recruiting triumphs and yet supposedly act surprised when it wins the Apple Cup. (They don’t really.)
“So you’re not supposed to beat teams that have higher-ranked recruiting classes?” Blanchette said.
That’s when the 45-second harangue started. If Leach had stopped with the “sanctimonious troll” line, we’d have all just winced and moved on. The Twitterverse wouldn’t have gone berserk. Washington state lieutenant governor Cyrus Habib wouldn’t have felt compelled to weigh in. But no, Leach kept ranting, and Blanchette couldn’t rightly respond at the time (and declined to do so in his column that night). It’s his job to report and interpret the news, not become part of it.
Habib later tweeted:
“Coach Leach continues to demonstrate that he is unfit to work with students or represent one of our public universities. I apologize to (journalists) on behalf of our state for the conduct of one of our top paid employees.”
There’s a reason Leach coaches offense. He likes to deliver the blows, not receive them. He doesn’t like being put on the defensive, which is why he lowered his helmet and did some targeting.
The thing is, he has no reason to feel defensive. He’s led the Cougars to bowl-eligibility five straight years. No other WSU coach has bowled more than twice in a row. Leach’s Air Raid has never exerted more influence over all levels of football than it does now. Everyone understands that.
Yes, it’s weird that his team can’t at least stay within single digits of its rival. But nobody in that broom closet was implying anything beyond that.
And what if we were? If Leach wants his players to shut out the “outside noise,” it might behoove him to do the same.
Dale Grummert may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2290.