Washington State lures Mike Leach out of the Florida Keys

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Washington head coach Chris Petersen, left, and Washington State head coach Mike Leach meet at midfield after the game on November 23, 2018, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. Washington won, 28-15. (Dean Rutz/Seattle Times/TNS)

Last week, Washington State announced a one-year contract extension for Mike Leach that runs through the 2023 season.

Leach took over one of the worst programs in major college football and has produced the most successful four-year stretch in WSU history (37 wins). His appointment, by former athletic director Bill Moos, stands as one of the shrewdest coaching hires in the conference in the past quarter century.

On Nov. 29, 2011, Washington State fired one of its own: Paul Wulff, a former Cougar offensive lineman, was let go after four dismal seasons.

At the press conference to announce Wulff’s termination, athletic director Bill Moos was asked about the composition of the search committee.

“You’re looking at the search committee,” he said.

Unbeknownst to the public, Moos’ work was already done.

At the time, Washington State was the lowest of the low, having won just four of 32 conference games under Wulff. Ticket sales, donations and energy were as bad as the on-field product.

Moos had known for months that a coaching change might be required and had a short list ready. The name atop the list: Mike Leach.

In October, after blowout losses to Stanford and Oregon State -- the first at home, the second at CenturyLink Field in Seattle -- Moos made the decision to dismiss Wulff at the end of the season and do everything possible to hire Leach.

Leach was out of coaching and living in Key West, having been fired two years earlier by Texas Tech after a controversial incident with the son of former ESPN analyst Craig James.

With more than a month remaining in the season -- and knowing that several schools would likely pursue Leach -- Moos knew speed and stealth were of the essence. Through an intermediary, he made contact with Leach’s agent, Gary O’Hagan.

A face-to-face meeting with Leach was scheduled for Key West. Moos used a personal credit cards to purchase a plane ticket and hotel suite -- his university-issued versions would be subject to public records requests -- and rounded up the materials for his pitch.

Three connecting flights later, he was in Key West.

“I get there and it’s like, ‘Did I just see Ernest Hemingway?’ What a place that was.”

The morning of the meeting, Moos arranged his suite. On the coffee table, he positioned renderings of WSU’s plans for $100+ million in facility upgrades, pictures of new Nike uniforms and copies of university policies and procedures. He had soda, coffee and pastries available.

The meeting lasted four hours.

The Apple Cup came and went. Moos had a memorandum of understanding ready for Leach to sign. What he didn’t have, was Leach.

“So I called O’Hagan and I’m like, ‘Gary, where’s Mike? I need him to sign the memorandum of understanding. I need to pull the trigger on this.’ “

“He’s vacationing with his sister in Florida,” O’Hagan explained, “but I’ll have him call you.”

Later, the phone rang.

“Hey Bill, it’s Mike.”

But Moos had trouble hearing Leach over the background noice -- a thunderous whooshing sound.

“Mike, I need you to sign the memorandum.”

Whooooosh!

“Yeah, OK, sure. I’ll sign it.”

“Mike, I can hardly hear you. Where are you?”

Whooooosh!

“I’m at Splash Mountain,” came the response.

“Hey, have you ever been on it? I just did it three times. It’s my second favorite ride, behind Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Whooooosh!

Leach signed the MOU that day.

The next day, Wulff was terminated.

The day after that, the Cougars announced Leach had agreed in principle to a five-year deal.

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