Canzano: Mike Leach takes dog -- and Pac-12 -- for a walk
Why did the coach leave Washington State?
Mike Leach recently got a dog. I know because he called me on Monday night — well after midnight, his time — while he was taking it for a late-night walk.
It’s a British Labrador.
“She can do anything,” the Mississippi State football coach said. “It’s pretty cool. Kind of a new adventure. She’ll walk always on your left side, if you insist on it. She’ll fetch anything. The best is watching her swim out in the water and haul all kinds of stuff back.”
Leach, 61, has been known to give wedding advice, talk about battle axes and UFOs, and explain why tree houses are underrated. While Leach was the coach at Washington State, he became a frequent guest on my statewide radio show in Oregon.
He’d call in while he was riding his bicycle, or driving, or walking across Washington State’s campus. Over the years, Leach kept my audience on the line while he ordered coffee, made small-talk with the barista, stopped to talk with students, posed for photographs and pumped his gasoline. Amid that, Leach frequently vented about Pac-12 leadership while a lot of other coaches sat silent.
On Monday night, Leach confessed that one of the primary reasons he left Washington State after the 2019 season was the downward trajectory of the Pac-12 Conference. After eight seasons in commissioner Larry Scott’s conference, Leach traded Pullman for Starkville, Miss. Leach, 1-0 this season, now looks prescient.
Leach returns to the Pac-12 footprint on Saturday, when his team travels to Arizona. Mississippi State is an 11.5-point road favorite. The coach and I spoke for a half hour on Monday night. I taped the interview and will air it today on the radio show (3-6 p.m. Pacific Time). But his candid comments invite a deeper discussion about coaches and the role they play in setting off conference alarm bells.
Mel Tucker left Colorado for Michigan State. Willie Taggart bailed on Oregon for Florida State. Mike Riley left Oregon State for the Big Ten (Nebraska). Leach bolted to the SEC. Then, Mario Cristobal fled to Miami. We were given a variety of good reasons for their exits — including the allure of home. But I’m reminded of something my Italian great-grandfather once said about the small village in Italy he left behind when he immigrated to America.
“If it was any damned good,” he said, “I wouldn’t have left it.”
The conference got a nice win when the College Football Playoff’s board of managers voted on Friday to expand to 12 teams in 2026. An expanded format gives the Pac-12 access to the playoff. But everyone knows the conference needs another victory — a media deal that generates a pile of revenue.
The most-successful, long-standing coaches in the Pac-12 (Kyle Whittingham and David Shaw, in particular) stuck with their universities not because of money, but because of loyalty.
Leach made $3.9 million in his final season at Washington State. He’s now paid $5.5 million a year at Mississippi State. Tucker was paid $2.4 million at Colorado. At Michigan State, the same coach will make $5.9 million in base salary and another $3.5 million-per-year in media appearances and bonuses.
Cristobal probably leaves Oregon for Miami, regardless of the money. It’s his alma mater. Taggart likely goes to Tallahassee, too, because it was home. But the Pac-12 didn’t make those tough decisions for either.
Leach isn’t for everyone. He’s opinionated and can be intentionally difficult. But I’ve never found him boring and I don’t think the Pac-12 is better off without him around.
I didn’t agree with all of Leach’s thoughts, but I liked that he wasn’t afraid to share them. He reminded me of that on Monday night while he was out walking his dog.
Leach on the biggest difference between the SEC vs. Pac-12:
“I don’t think there’s much with the skill guys — there may not be any. With the defensive line in particular, especially the D-line, it’s significant. I’ve thought this for a long time — the SEC, what they do better than any other conference — everybody wants to say, ‘skill guys.’ Well, there’s been skill guy after skill guy after skill guy who has torn up the SEC who is from California or Texas. No — it’s defensive lineman. The defensive lineman in the SEC region, there’s a lot of them and they’re really good… a lot of teams in the SEC can line up with 4-6 bonafide defensive lineman. That’s the biggest difference.”
Leach on the college football expansion:
“A lot of this is impetuous decisions based on keeping up with the Joneses. As soon as you attach the name ‘University’ to it, everybody acts like it’s brilliantly thought out. Some are, some aren’t.”
On UCLA in the Big Ten:
“I think under even circumstances, UCLA is capable of competing in the Big Ten. But I’d consider this, those guys are going to have to take five trips over two-to-three time zones every year. Their opponents will have to take less than one — every other year. It’s a taxing deal.”
On how to handle Week 1 as a coach:
“The important thing is to fix and don’t panic if it went bad. If it went good, do not hesitate to hammer on them next week in practice. Football — under the best of circumstances — is played under adversity and in pain. It’s always tempting to relax and that kind of thing, but you don’t have time for any of that.”
I left the conversation with Leach thinking about the Pac-12. I’m convinced the conference will partner with ESPN in the coming months. I also think it will announce a move to eight conference games vs. nine and sign on for a series of crossover football games vs. the ACC with ESPN as the carrier.
Maybe some expansion (San Diego State still appealing? How about SMU? Boise State? Someone else?). Regardless, the Pac-12 must continue to invest in football at the same levels as Big Ten and SEC members.
Those conferences receive 25-50 percent more in annual media-rights revenue payouts. Matching them when it comes to funding won’t be easy. It will place a financial strain on the Pac-12’s non-revenue generating sports, but that’s what it will take to keep the Big Ten and SEC in view of the front windshield.
A 9-3 non-conference record in Week 1 isn’t awful at face value. The Pac-12 took care of the Mountain West and some other small conferences last weekend. But going 0-3 vs. other Power Five conference members was another alarm bell. One that nobody should ignore.
Some other stuff:
• Fresno State opened as a one-point favorite at home against Oregon State. That line moved on Sunday and now has the Beavers listed as a 1.5-point favorite. Fresno State is much better than OSU’s last opponent, Boise State. It’s well coached, playing at home, on what promises to be a warm Central California evening… it will be a huge test for Jonathan Smith’s team.
• Boise State coach Andy Avalos is struggling. The former Oregon defensive coordinator is now 7-6 as a head coach in one-plus seasons. Ex-Broncos’ coach Chris Petersen didn’t lose his sixth game at Boise State until his sixth season.
• Portland State is being paid $500,000 to play at Washington on Saturday. The Vikings are a 28.5-point underdog. PSU lost 21-17 to San Jose State last week, but collected $435,000 for playing the game.
• Bruce Barnum, PSU’s football coach, will also join me today on the radio show. Barnum is always a delight. Washington fans may want to tune in via the stream or grab the podcast of the show. Barnum is liable to buy you a beer for listening.
• The Samford Bulldogs are a 52-point underdog vs. the Georgia Bulldogs this week. Maybe it’s just me but that doesn’t at all feel like nearly enough points.
• SEC commissioner Greg Sankey talked with a group of media members on Saturday in Atlanta before the Oregon-Georgia game. I was in the press box as Sankey held court. He didn’t sound certain that the playoff would expand before 2026, as others have speculated. But I sort of felt like he was trying to take a measured approach and manage fan expectations.
• Jon Wilner and I posted a new podcast episode today, breaking down the fallout from Week 1 of the college football season. Make sure you’re listening to “Canzano & Wilner.”
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