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Jeff Benedict: Saturday Night Lights in Pullman

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 8:47 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012, Washington State head coach Mike Leach checks his plan during the opening day of NCAA college football practice at Rogers Field in Pullman, Wash. Washington State opens the 2012 season, the first under new head coach Mike Leach, Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, against BYU in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Dean Hare) (Dean Hare, AP) In this photo taken Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012, Washington State head coach Mike Leach checks his plan during the opening day of NCAA college football practice at Rogers Field in Pullman, Wash. Washington State opens the 2012 season, the first under new head coach Mike Leach, Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, against BYU in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Dean Hare) (Dean Hare, AP)

I'm writing this post from the air. It's a Sunday morning and I'm on a plane from Spokane to Seattle. Last night I was in Pullman for the Cal-Washington State game. It ended at 11:09 p.m. Pacific Time. By then every other college football game in America was over. This game was last, making for a very late night in the land of wheat fields and cattle ranches.

Still, I arrived at the airport this morning well ahead of my 9:30 departure time. Then the gate agent offered me the only open seat on the earlier 8:30 flight. I'm all about saving time. I took the seat, texted a friend in Seattle to tell him I would arrive early, and buried my face in the New York Times.

Next thing I know the pilot announces that the landing gear got damaged when we pushed away from the gate. What are the chances? I put away my paper. We taxied back. Everyone deplaned. All of a sudden that 9:30 flight was looking real good.

Too bad everyone else had the same idea. But it didn't matter. The 9:30 flight was full. So were the 10:30 and 11:30 flights. Lots of Cougar fans heading home.

Nonetheless, everyone on the 8:30 flight formed a long line at the counter, hoping to find a way out of Spokane. Standing in line seemed futile. Instead, I sat down and pulled out reading material. This time I chose The Book of Mormon.

Eventually the 9:30 flight had boarded and the people on the 8:30 flight were still in line. It hadn't budged. Then I heard these words: "If Jeffrey Benedict is in the gate area, please report to gate C25."

Nobody but my mother calls me Jeffrey. But I smiled at the agent when she offered me the only open seat on the 9:30 flight. I got lucky. Folks in that long line gave me dirty looks as the boarding door closed behind me.

Lesson #1: Reading the Book of Mormon brings better luck than reading the New York Times.

Lesson #2: Don't do what everyone else is doing. You won't go far.

As a writer I'm used to going my own way. Perhaps that's what attracts me to individuals who are unconventional. Washington State University's head football coach Mike Leach is that kind of guy. He's the reason I've been making frequent trips to Pullman these days. I'm shadowing him for the upcoming college football book I'm writing with Armen Keteyian.

Leach is a big-time college football coach who never played big-time college football. He has a law degree from Pepperdine and brings an analytical approach to a violent game. He's a Mormon who never goes anywhere without a Styrofoam cup of coffee in hand. He's unpretentious, true, innovative and attractively comfortable in his own skin. He's also a heck of a coach.

A couple nights ago Leach and I sat down for dinner at 8 p.m. and ended up talking until 3:45 in the morning. I can't think of another football coach that I'd want to talk to for eight hours straight. But Leach has a lot more to talk about than football. So do I.

One of the things I like about Leach is the way he handles pressure. You can learn a lot about a person by watching how they react to adversity and setbacks. At the end of last season, WSU offered Leach over $2 million annually to turn around a team that had been losing way more than it was winning. A lot is riding on Leach's performance, and WSU alumni see him as their savior.

If you think savior is over the top, you underestimate the value of football programs to colleges and universities today. Nor have you seen the RVs and campers that pack the campus parking lots days before each home game.

Alums from all over the Pacific Northwest bring generators, grills, firewood and enough food to feed a varsity roster. They are ready for football.

The night before the Cal game I went to my favorite restaurant in Pullman – The Black Cypress. It's the only place in town where you can get grilled steelhead, sautéed kale, fresh farm vegetables, homemade squash soup, Jurassic Salt imported from France, and freshly squeezed celery juice. The place was jammed. The only open seat was at the bar.

I'm not a drinker. But there is something to be said for the atmosphere at a restaurant bar on Main Street in a college town on a crisp fall night. I ended up next to Barry Bartlett and Rob Salberg. Barry is with a PR firm in Seattle. Rob is an energy conservationist for a power company on the opposite side of the state. Both guys graduated from WSU. They were in town for the game. It was their first trip to Pullman in years.

"We're just blown away," Barry told me. "This isn't the Pullman we remember. I feel like I'm in Seattle."

The only reason they were in Pullman is because Mike Leach is the new coach. They said that. Leach also has a lot to do with why a rural town near the Idaho panhandle is starting to feel like Seattle. He has electrified the place.

Barry hoisted his wine glass and proposed a toast. I lifted my freshly squeezed celery juice.

"To the Cougs," Barry said.

"To the Cougs," Rob and I repeated, bringing our glasses together.

College football has a way of bringing people together. It's also an economic engine. It's the reason the airplanes in Spokane were full and the restaurants and hotels in Pullman were packed.

I'm touching down in Seattle now. I'm headed to a downtown office building. Naturally, it will be closed on a Sunday morning at 11. But a security guard will admit me. I'll take the elevator to a law firm on one of the top floors. The lights will be off and the desks unoccupied. But I will proceed to the managing partner's corner office. There I'll find attorney Bill Marler, wearing khaki shorts and working on his computer while talking on the phone.

His office overlooks Century Link Field, where the Patriots are about to kick off against the Seahawks. Marler could be watching the game from a luxury suite, schmoozing with other suits. He can certainly afford to do that. But that's not how he rolls. He's unconventional. He works just as hard today as he did when he got started over 20 years ago.

Marler also happens to be a WSU alum. He's also the former chairman of the school's board of regents. He's one of those guys who used to approve the football coach's salary. So he knows all about the importance of football to universities, not that he thinks it makes any sense.

These days Marler is in a contest where losing is not an option. He represents 42 families with members who became ill during the September 2011 Listeria outbreak traced to cantaloupes sold by Colorado-based Jensen Farms. In all, 147 people were poisoned; 32 died; and there was one miscarriage.

Bill is a dear friend, the kind of guy who always has your back. And if I had a loved one with a serious case of food poisoning, there is no one I'd rather have as an advocate. The guy never stops working for his clients. Even on Sundays.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company