They had to change something, right? They had to.
Not changing anything would have been the stupidest call imaginable, signing a contract with mediocrity in the darkest of inks. They'd lost to their in-state rival 20-17, lost to Maryland and to Wisconsin. Minnesota plowed them 51-14. They finished the 2014 season by losing three games in a row, including a humiliating bowl game loss to Tennessee, a team that hadn't won a bowl game since 2007.
They finished the season 7-6, and something had to change, because change is what you do when things go wrong. Iowa had always run outside zone as its play and offensive identity, because as long as Kirk Ferentz had been coach that's what they'd done. The Hawkeyes ran a cover 3 defense, and were very comfortable punting on an offensive possession, and never bought a pair of skinny jeans or fell for a fad or ran the spread or changed anything, ever, ever.
Iowa football never changed, and needed to badly, at least from the perspective of someone looking at the long decline of the program into a 7-6 stasis interrupted by bumps into 11-2 and drops into 4-8 territory. The Hawkeyes had become an EKG of a drunk man falling into a deep and dreamless sleep. This drunk man was also hypothermic and sleeping under a bridge.
Then in 2015, that drunk man woke up, found a flawlessly tailored suit under a concrete overhang beneath that bridge, downed a bottle of Steel Reserve, and walked into the nearest investment bank and become a confident, beaming tycoon overnight.
Iowa should have changed everything, and didn't. They're undefeated despite doing few things they haven't done for years. You didn't think they could do it, but they did. Iowa, the laziest hard-working team in America, wore the same shirt until it came back into style.
* * *
He called right as I was going to bed. Mike Leach was walking home in the dark. It was 9 p.m. or so where he was, and 30 degrees. It sounded like there were cars where he was walking -- a disturbing amount of car noise, to be honest, for someone listening as someone walked through the freezing dark. It sounded cold and dark. I have no idea how, but the acoustics just worked out that way.
I asked him if he'd changed anything.
"No, honestly, we didn't change anything, we just executed better."
He says this knowing the exact circumstances of the question, that it refers to losing to lowly Portland State, an FCS team that won three games the previous year, to open the 2015 season. It was a dangerous, foolhardy thing to do for a coach in his fourth season in Pullman. The football equivalent of walking home in the freezing dark on a road, which is something Leach did while talking on the phone.
(He says this as he cuts from the main road, and decides whether it's too muddy to go through the field he normally prefers. It is, and he's got on the wrong shoes to offroad it.)
"The team was young, just a really young team. We're a team of mostly freshmen and sophomores. Luke Falk had played four games. We just had a lot of people who'd never played college football before. We just needed live game reps."
Wazzu played better after that game -- a lot better, better with increasing reps and experience. They beat Oregon for the first time since 2006, finished 8-4, and suffered a horrendous beating in the Apple Cup against Washington. Ignore that last part: it's sort of a mandatory curveball in this story, because this is a story of Washington State. Life is never completely easy for them. Luke Falk finished the regular season as the national leader in passing; Washington State had their best season since 2003.
Do people change too quickly? I ask him this as he turns up the boring paved road up to his house, the one he prefers not to take because it's boring, and not the middle of a field. The one with the lights and traffic and people who would find you if you happened to break an ankle, and where you would not die from being eaten by coyotes if you fell.
"I think people just change too much and too quickly sometimes."
Is that natural?
"Yeah. You have to get past the learning curve fast. I think people get bored. It's a game of execution. If anything, I think you can try to do too much. I think people have at least 20 too many plays in the book. I think I have about six plays too many. If I've made mistakes, it's in trying to do too much."
When did you know it had turned around? The season, that is?
He pauses. He's definitely cutting through the subdivision now. There's just an occasional car, and things are quiet, and it sounds like a person walking.
"I can't say for sure that it has."
James Snook, USA TODAY Sports
* * *
That was just before the Colorado game, which the Cougars won 27-3. Washington State would finish 8-4. Leach didn't know that, just like Iowa probably didn't know they were going undefeated. At least I hope they didn't know. If Kirk Ferentz is psychic then he's officially more overpaid than everyone already believed him to be prior to the Hawkeyes going undefeated, since he has only used his powers for either private gain, or simply doesn't care to warn people about global disasters, impending changes in the economy, or most shocking of all, his team going undefeated for the regular season.*
*There is a scenario where Ferentz has, like Superman, already prevented an untold number of disasters. Prior to this year, this would actually be the best explanation of the terms of his massive contract.
Doing the same thing over and over again might be insanity, or it might be exactly what you need to do, and the fun part is that you'll never know where you are between the two. Get a body of work, and inherit a verified gift and a very real curse. After a certain undefined period of time, you become demonstrably good at your job. And after another undefined period of time, your nine wins becomes someone else's seven wins, the ceiling becomes the floor, and what was once good becomes the new unacceptable.
Go look at Tom Osborne's resume and goggle at 20 seasons of nine wins or better before he won his national championship. Then, marvel that people wanted him fired before he ever got a chance to win back-to-back titles in the 1990s. One edit looks like this: It took 20 years for Tom Osborne to build what might be the best college football team ever put together. Another looks like this: It took 20 years for Tom Osborne to build the best football team ever put together? And who, with a reasonable amount of skill and patience, couldn't do that?*
*The answers are: Ray Goff, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis. Notre Dame employed two of them. Go Irish.
Or, if you're more recently inclined, go look at Mark Richt, a coach who averaged more than nine wins a year in 14 years at Georgia. Georgia might have done what they set out to do, sure. The next coach might execute the three- to five-year national title protocol. He might tank.
The one thing he won't do is go 20 years and then win national titles, because no one gets to do that anymore, because the idea of being merely good is intolerable for all but a thin sliver of college football programs. Your window for doing that is shorter, yes, but even with what we could call extreme patience you might get 10 years at most. Even then, you'll need some very, very good excuses and a flawless list of extracurriculars to get there, and the vague hope that the long run of trying to execute a few simple things will blossom into something beautiful.
It's just around the corner. When the program stops believing that, then that coach is over. That's a matter of the slippery eel of faith, a magical thing whose presence can elide so much of the struggle of getting anywhere at all. That struggle in football, or any game, or in anything is made up of three things so mind-numbing they can drive people to real despair: tedium, practice and uncertainty. The way towards being great at anything comes with a friend no one wants to meet: boredom. If you doubt this is true in football, go watch a recruiting scouting session, or study film with a coach, or go watch a training session.
You can blow the horn a thousand times, and switch squads, or be Pete Carroll and turn every practice into the world's most frenetic and violent boot camp. But ultimately, football consists of a pile of reps, often of the same thing, often arranged in soul-numbing order.
And you will never know if or when it will work. What if you were told you would get two national titles, but you had to wait 20 years for them? Or, alternately, that you would get a national title in five years, and then spend another 10 or 15 years scrambling after another by switching coaches frantically? And then, after all that, maybe going through such a long crawl through the shitpipe of progress than nine wins started to look like happiness again?
That's a matter of faith for the observer, and luck for the participant. That's a dirty word in coaching: luck. Luck unravels game plans, tips balls that should have been caught or intercepted, and makes kickers slip on field goals they otherwise would have made from 50. Luck is the ghost no one wants to believe in despite walking past it every day in the hall, saying hello to it once in a while.
Luck does things like turn Brad Melsby losing the ball after his knee was down in 1998 into a fumble, ruining UCLA and Bob Toledo's last best chance at a national title. Luck is why Pat White breaks his thumb in 2007, costing West Virginia their best offensive player in the second quarter of a 13-9 dismissal of the Mountaineers' and Rich Rodriguez's best shot at a title. Luck, in its worst form, cost Notre Dame dearly this year in a pile of injuries that hampered a better team than the one that made the national title game in 2012.
That may be the worst part. If you're not Alabama or Ohio State or Oklahoma or one of the baronial powers of the sport, you're at least partially dependent on the one element of any game most antithetical to planning, preparation and design. You'll need luck more than the aristocrat. You'll need to hope those following you in the dark know that, or that they at least don't forget it when the inevitable moments of being totally lost happen. (Those are totally going to happen, like when you lose to Portland State, or to Louisiana-Monroe, or God forbid Georgia Southern.)
Leach was walking in the dark, talking on the phone about how he wasn't sure if it had been turned around. This isn't the easiest metaphor for being in charge ever. That would be the end of The Muppet Movie, where Kermit talks to himself in the desert about the very real risks anyone takes in following their dreams. That is the easiest metaphor ever, and always will be. But talking on the phone while walking through the dark, late at night, sort of knowing where you're going, but also sort of not, and getting through it one boring step at a time anyway? That's the second easiest metaphor for the hazards of being in charge of anything ever, even with the discussion of the Missoula Floods and its effect on the geologies of Eastern Washington and Idaho thrown in at the end.*
*Other topics included best pedestrian walking paths in Atlanta, the necessity of having a very simple playbook and the need to stay in shape during the rigors of the football season.