It shouldn’t seem unusual that Washington State University President Elson Floyd has called for an independent review of an abuse allegation within his school’s football program. But nothing about big college sports is usual, including at WSU. In a week’s time, a star player was suspended for violating team rules and then, just before a big home game on Dad’s Weekend, he issued a statement resigning from the team and accusing the head coach and his assistants of physical, emotional and verbal abuse.
The coaches immediately denied the charges by all-time leading receiver Marquess Wilson. Athletic Director Bill Moos seemed to put the blame on Wilson. He said he had hoped to meet with Wilson and find a path to reconciliation “if he was willing to meet the standards that have been set by Mike Leach and his staff in their effort to establish a competitive football program at Washington State.”
“Unfortunately, during times of coaching transitions, departures are not uncommon,” Moos said. So the wagons had been circled on the Palouse. And that’s often where it ends.
In a study of competition and control in college football, University of Washington professor Jennifer Lee Hoffman wrote: “College football culture is driven by many factors, but one individual — the head football coach — largely defines the football program and in some cases the institution itself. His influence and authority as the symbolic face of the university can surpass even the president or trustees.” Still, in a post-Penn State world, Floyd had no choice but to take it all seriously.
Few can be surprised by the events. Leach was hired despite his reputation for being a tough guy. He was let go from his last job at Texas Tech after an injured player alleged he was forced to stand in a darkened shed while the healthy players practiced. And Wilson’s charges have credibility because they stem from an unseemly incident a week before when Leach marched his offensive and defensive linemen in front of the post-game media session. The point could have only been to humiliate them for play he’d already described as “bordering on cowardice.” Later, there were reports of physical confrontations between coaches and players in the locker room at halftime.
WSU coach on his way out?
Despite all this, Leach is now rumored to be a candidate for jobs in Arkansas and Kentucky, just one year into a $2.25 million per-year, five-year contract with WSU. (Or maybe that’s just a way to send a not-so-subtle message about what might happen if Floyd is too judgmental). I know some say this type of tough love builds character. But there is a line between motivation and sadism, even in football. And these aren’t high-paid professionals, but instead are 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds who make about $2.25 million less than Leach.
Before you get all Cougar vs. Husky on me, I don’t doubt that the power structure at the University of Washington is the same. In Seattle, the tail wags the dog just as vigorously as the tail wags the cat in Pullman. And as far as institutional control, the UW has an athletic director who brags about not putting anything in writing so as to thwart public records requests. Having made such a request, I can say he is successful. Last January, when his department committed several million dollars to sack one batch of assistant coaches and hire another batch, there was no apparent communications with the university’s president. Text messages, which are covered by records laws, were deleted in apparent violation of school and state records retention policies.
All this comes in the wake of the Penn State sex-abuse scandal and a report funded by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics that said college regents and trustees need to become more involved in the operations and oversight of college sports. So, good for Elson Floyd. It’s time for the adults to take control of college athletics.