- Associated Press - Thursday, November 17, 2016

PULLMAN, Wash. (AP) - Two weeks into this season Mike Leach was ripping his Washington State team for being soft, decrying participation-trophy culture and suggesting local law enforcement and media were unfairly treating his players after several arrests and run-ins with police.

Eight straight victories later and the curmudgeonly, complaining Cougars coach has been replaced by the quirky, entertaining one who muses about picking a team captain based on ability to win the coin toss and weighs in on how soon is too soon to display Christmas decorations.

The reality is that Leach is the same but the circumstances have changed. Getting fined and reprimanded by the Pac-12 for publicly accusing Arizona State of stealing signs - as happened to Leach last month - is a whole lot easier to laugh off as Leach being Leach when the 20th-ranked Cougars (8-2, 7-0, No. 22 CFP) are leading the Pac-12 North.

And all the stuff that makes Leach a unique character in college football - his public endorsement of old friend Donald Trump, his offseason trip to Cuba - tends to obscure a more mundane but relevant fact: Leach has been one of the best program-builders in coaching over the past two decades.

Washington State had gone eight seasons without a winning record and won a total of nine games in the four seasons before Leach’s arrival in 2012. A program that traditionally had struggled to sustain success had tumbled to new depths.

“We had a deep hole to dig out of,” Washington State athletic director Bill Moos said. “We needed somebody who could provide the stability and build it the right way.”

The Cougars won 12 games in Leach’s first three seasons, causing some Wazzu fans to fret that Leach’s once innovative Air Raid offense was now behind the curve in college football.

Turns out Leach just needed a little more time to do at Washington State what he once did at Texas Tech. The Cougars went 9-4 last season and came into this season as a Pac-12 North contender. They then lost their first two games, including their opener to FCS Eastern Washington.

Leach went off on his team and got back to the basics.

“We literally simplified,” he said Sunday in his office before settling in for about five hours of film study on Colorado. “Just emphasized little techniques. Became obsessive about blocking and tackling. That gets your focus. ‘You’re not going to do it next time you’re going to do it now. Get your foot there NOW. Get your eyes there NOW.’ Then it became kind of contagious team-wise.”

The Cougars responded to the tough love.

“Instead of wilting like guys will do sometimes, they get kind of fired up and determined,” Leach said.

The Cougars play at No. 12 Colorado (8-2, 6-1, No. 10 CFP) on Saturday, trying for the first nine-game winning streak at Washington State since 1930.

Leach is one of the godfathers of the spread offense. The brilliance of his system is simplicity and repetition to the point of mastery.

“I think the fact that it’s not super complex and teams know really what we’re going to do and they’ve had film on us for the last 15, 20 years I think that makes it even more amazing when it still works,” fifth-year senior receiver Gabe Marks said.

Luke Falk is the latest Leach quarterback thriving. The junior is completing 74 percent of his passes for 361 yards per game.

Marks said Leach runs his program the way he runs his offense. Give every player and coach a clear and relatively simple task, and create an environment conducive to reaching a goal. Leach’s plan is really no different from Nick Saban’s or Urban Meyer’s.

“He’s the best I’ve been around in regards to his demands on academics and discipline,” Moos said. “You know when you come to play for him what is expected of you. It hasn’t changed in all his years as a head coach.”

Leach spent 10 years at Texas Tech, becoming the winningest coach in the history of the program and famous for his inquisitiveness beyond football. Most notably, he went through a serious pirate phase.

On the field, the Red Raiders won at least eight games in each of Leach’s last eight seasons. The 20 years preceding his time in Lubbock, Texas Tech reached eight wins in a season twice.

The end at Texas Tech was messy. He was fired after allegations from a player that Leach mistreated him while the player was being treated for a concussion. Lawsuits followed and Leach spent two years away from coaching.

He returned at Washington State and found a perfect fit in Pullman, another off-the-beaten path college town, where - for better or worse - Leach can be Leach.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP

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FBC:

More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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