SALT LAKE CITY — Washington State’s pirate-appreciating coach Mike Leach will have a couple of mateys on the Utah sideline Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and junior linebacker Trevor Reilly have a special appreciation for Leach, who is in his first season with the Cougars.
“I go back quite a ways with Mike and I would consider him a good friend,” Whittingham said. “He’s got a lot of family in town — mostly his wife’s family is from the area — so they spend some time down here and whenever he comes down we try to get together.”
Whittingham said the Pac-12 coaching colleagues also speak on the telephone about six times a year. Leach, he added, has his respect as a coach and is unbelievably entertaining.
“First of all, he’s exceptionally intelligent and he knows exactly how he’s coming across. He’s very calculated but he’s very off-the-wall,” Whittingham said. “He thinks outside the box, but believe me he knows everything that’s going on and like I’ve said he’s an extremely cerebral guy.”
Leach’s primary passion is the passing game and Whittingham says he knows it as well or better than anyone in the country. Leach, whose concepts date back to those of passing pioneers like Sid Gillman and Doug Scovil, has shared his insights in clinics with Utah’s coaches in the past.
Before taking the Washington State job, Leach observed some of Utah’s spring practices in 2011. One of the players he watched and spoke with was Reilly. Leach recruited and signed Reilly to Texas Tech years earlier.
“He was the first guy to give me a shot. I’ve really got a lot of respect for the guy. I love the guy,” Reilly said. “Without him I probably wouldn’t be playing D-I ball because after that offer all the other ones came trickling in.”
Reilly, who had a family friend who played rugby with Leach at BYU in the '80s, visited the campus in Lubbock twice but never enrolled in school there. He opted to serve an LDS Church mission in Sweden and upon his return decided to go elsewhere because he had a feeling Leach wasn’t going to be there much longer.
“I didn’t want to be stuck out in Lubbock with a new coach (and being) the only California kid out there,” Reilly explained.
Turns out, Reilly was right. After 10 straight winning seasons and bowl appearances, Leach wound up parting ways with Texas Tech after the 2009 season.
While Leach was working as a television commentator in 2010, Reilly called and asked him about Iowa State (a Big-12 foe Leach faced at Texas Tech) before Utah took on the Cyclones.
Reilly said Leach told him that if the Utes get up on them early, they would quit. Sure enough. Utah went on to blast Iowa State, 68-27.
Leach’s success at Texas Tech and the building project he has taken on at Washington State, Reilly noted, solidifies that he’s a great coach.
The newest venture isn’t being built overnight. The Cougars are off to a 2-6 start (0-5 in Pac-12 play) under Leach.
Despite the early struggles, Whittingham is sure Leach will stick to a pass-happy offense.
“I think he wants to throw it and throw it a lot. I don’t think you’re going to see that change,” Whittingham said. “It was that way at Tech for years and years and he’s going to continue to do what he does best and recruit to that system.”
Utes on the air
Washington State (2-6, 0-5) at Utah (3-5, 1-4)
Saturday, 1 p.m. M.T.
TV: Pac-12 Networks, Radio: ESPN 700