Leach, Graham take opposite paths in first year

TEMPE, Ariz. — When Washington State moved swiftly to hire former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach just a day after firing Paul Wulff late last November, the move was widely praised as a bold and smart hire. Leach was just the high-profile offensive genius to revitalize the Cougars, who had become perennial losers.

When Arizona State finally concluded its prolonged search and hired Todd Graham away from Pittsburgh after one season on the job in mid-December, the choice was widely lambasted. ASU had hired a job hopper with little loyalty to his program or the players he coached.

Although the final judgment likely won’t be known for years, the tone has changed markedly for the two programs as they prepare to meet with the 2012 season winding down.

Graham has put in place a culture of discipline, accountability and support that from early on has drawn praise from ASU fans accustomed to free-and-loose teams consistently underachieving. And while the Sun Devils’ 5-5 record is not what anyone wants or expects, the overall vibe is a positive one.

“I think there’s been vast improvement,” Graham said. “Our culture is completely different. The character of our team and the discipline of our team is one that I’m very proud of, and we’re laying a strong foundation.”

Leach, meanwhile, brought his brutally honest, edgy style to Pullman and has suddenly found himself in the midst of controversy. If a 2-8 record, including no Pac-12 wins, were not enough, Leach and his staff now face investigations from the Washington State athletic department and the Pac-12, stemming from allegations leveled by former star receiver Marquess Wilson.

Wilson left the program Nov. 4, apparently walking out of a team workout, and last Saturday issued a statement saying he had resigned from the team — though the team indicated he had been suspended — and alleging “physical, emotional and verbal abuse” by Leach and his staff.

Wilson charged that supposed “tough love” was more abuse and belittling. The claims prompted Washington State president Elson Floyd to call for both investigations.

“There’s no truth about it at all,” Leach said of the claims Monday. “We don’t have anything to hide around here.”

The claims could be, as Leach said, baseless accusations by a disgruntled player who had lost his spot in the starting lineup. But there’s also the matter of the baggage Leach brought with him to Pullman — allegations of player mistreatment that cost him his job at Texas Tech.

Further, Leach has drawn criticism for his quickness to call out his players. Earlier this season, he called his seniors “empty corpses” and “zombies” for a lack of leadership, and two weeks ago he called the effort of his offensive line in a 49-6 loss to Utah “heartless” and bordering on “cowardice.” He added the defensive line to that mix, then forced both groups to face the media instead of having the media request players as usual.

“I called out myself and the other coaches,” Leach said later. “I don’t know why, but that seems to be ignored.”

That might be true, but it all amounts to a disastrous start to the Leach era at Washington State. The on-field struggles have not been entirely surprising, given the talent level he inherited, but the peripheral issues have created a mess that could have recruits thinking twice about heading for Pullman.

Graham, on the other hand, has run a tight ship free of distractions. Potential issues might have been weeded out early, as Graham said the program lost about seven players during the coaching transition.

“My goal wasn’t to try to run everybody out of here,” Graham said. “My goal was to try to form and transform the hearts of the young men that we have. … For every one that didn’t make it, I consider that a failure on my part. I did everything that I could to help them.”

For the rest of the team, buying into Graham’s plan did not appear to take very long. Graham admitted this week he was concerned at first how players, seniors in particular, would take to a new set of rules and standards.

“It could have not gone as smoothly as it has gone,” Graham said. “All the things that go along with transition are very difficult. I think the biggest thing is mistrust. I know I went through that when I was in college. I kind of felt like right when they walked through the door I was very skeptical that these guys care.”

Graham said he and his staff were able to ease those concerns through their own actions and decisions. With a few minor exceptions, players have displayed trust and commitment to the new direction.

“Buying in gave us the best opportunity to win,” senior running back Cameron Marshall said. “I think (the program) is in a better place now.”

The buy-in from current players bodes well for Graham to further implement his grand plan and also serves to show recruits the kind of atmosphere he wants to create in Tempe.

“As far as coming in and establishing a long-term plan, it’s all based on one thing, and that’s building positive relationships,” Graham said. “You reap what you sow when it comes to relationships. We’re trying to work guys extremely hard because they ultimately want to win and be successful with their careers and in college. I think we’ve done that, and I think it comes back to the core values that we base everything on, and that’s character, respect, honesty, discipline and trust.”

It has been suggested that some of the discontent at Washington State stems from Leach demanding more of players than they were accustomed to. Graham did the same in Tempe, but it’s difficult to fairly compare the two situations.

Graham said he’s not in a position to discuss the Washington State program but explained his philosophy, saying he has learned to make himself 100 percent responsible for his players and everything that happens within the program. While Graham has called for certain position groups to step up at times this season, he has refused to place blame on any particular player or group after losses.

“I want to demonstrate to them the attitude I want to have,” Graham said. “Ultimately, Coach Graham is responsible for the win-loss record here.”

While what happened behind locker-room doors is largely unknown outside the team, Leach and Graham have created starkly different public images for their programs. In the battle of perception, Graham clearly has the early advantage.

Leach’s approach to culture building might be longer in getting established, but longer lasting. Graham’s approach might not stand the test of time if the Sun Devils can’t start winning more games. Much remains to be determined.

Coaching hires are typically a long-term proposition, but as things stand ahead of Saturday’s matchup, Leach and Graham appear to have their programs’ momentum moving in opposite directions.