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Dec. 2, 2023

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Tattoos, JFK and Rosetta Stone. WSU’s record-setting QBs had unique, impactful experience with ‘deeply loved’ Mike Leach

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New York Jets quarterback Luke Falk (8) throws a pass in a preseason NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019 in Atlanta.
New York Jets quarterback Luke Falk (8) throws a pass in a preseason NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019 in Atlanta. (Michael Zarrilli/AP Images for Panini, via AP) Photo Gallery

SPOKANE — Mike Leach always despised the star system used to evaluate high school football players. Maybe that’s why he had such admiration for quarterbacks like Luke Falk, Gardner Minshew and Anthony Gordon. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the coach’s decision to recruit those three — five recruiting “stars” between them — was actually a subtle way of rebelling against the modern college football industry.

“I ignore the stars — the bigger the media base, the more stars you get,” Leach said while introducing Washington State’s signing class in 2019. “There’s no sense in worrying about that because we don’t really ask media what plays we should run.”

The offensive savant, who died Dec. 12 from heart complications, was known for his work with the Air Raid and within that, a unique, uncanny ability to identify value in players overlooked by most of his peers. Generations of coaches have copied his offense, but Leach’s success didn’t just come down to scribbling spread concepts onto a small note card. It was also in uncovering the players — underrated QBs in many cases — who’d be able to execute them.

That’s the short and simple way to explain how three of the Pac-12’s most accomplished passers washed up in Pullman during Leach’s time at Washington State, setting countless program and conference records under the coach’s tutelage.

Falk, Minshew and Gordon needed a few days to mourn Leach’s death before giving The Spokesman-Review a deeper look into their relationship with the late coach. All three weighed in on his impact and dug into a deep Rolodex of Leach stories, sharing a few of the PG-rated ones.

“I owe him everything,” Falk said. “Nobody else was giving me an opportunity, nobody else was giving me a chance, and how many coaches at that level follow through on what they’re going to do? Especially to a walk-on kid.”

“When I think about the people that have really impacted my life and changed my life, outside of my parents, coach Leach is it,” Minshew said. “From the situation I was in to the path he took me on and the things he taught me. It really changed the course of my life, man.”

“He’s just done so much for so many people and when I heard the news … initially it was sort of shock and then he’s a tough old man, there’s no way it’s going to get him,” Gordon said. “He’s as gritty as they come. He’ll tell you how tough he is all day. So, I thought there was no way.”

All three represent unlikely success stories — players who didn’t measure up to the predetermined standards of Power Five decision-makers. Standards at which Leach would scoff. Leach occasionally aired out those grievances to Gordon … and anyone who’d listen.

“He doesn’t really care for measurables, doesn’t care how far you can throw it, how fast you throw it,” Gordon said. “… He would always say, ‘Either you’re accurate or you’re not.’ He goes, ‘It would always drive me crazy when some big-armed guy would show up and he can’t hit the broad side of the barn.’ They’d go, ‘Oh well, we can work on that.’ He goes, ‘How the hell do you work on accuracy?’”

Falk, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound prospect out of Logan, Utah, grabbed two stars from national scouting service 247Sports.com, which usually translates to a midmajor/FCS scholarship or Power Five walk-on. Falk chose the latter, scaled the depth chart and after an injury to Connor Halliday, became WSU’s full-time starter in 2014, setting Pac-12 career records for passing yards (14,481), completions (1,403), touchdowns (119). The best milestone of the bunch was WSU’s record for QB wins (27).

Leach’s unwavering confidence in a 19-year-old walk-on may have felt like a high-risk, low-reward proposition at the time, but Falk took the Cougars to three bowl games before being selected in the sixth-round of the NFL draft by the Tennessee Titans. He played in three games for the New York Jets in 2019 and still runs private QB clinics in his hometown of Logan, with the hopes of catching on as a college coach this fall.

“I don’t think I would’ve touched the field, I don’t think I would’ve been able to do anything without him,” Falk said. “So I owe everything to him and like I said, I deeply loved him, which meant I also hated him at times. … We had a lot of great highs and had some lows and had some conversations I didn’t want to hear from him and I probably said some things he didn’t want to hear from me.”

Leach’s appetite for quarterbacks with circuitous routes led him to Falk’s successor, Minshew, an East Carolina graduate transfer who reworked his plans after getting a phone call from the WSU coach. Leach’s pitch to Minshew is well-documented: “How’d you like to come lead the country in passing yards?” Before that, Minshew was planning to back up Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts at Alabama, secure a graduate assistant gig with the Crimson Tide the next year and enter the coaching space.

“I’d be … GA’ing, coaching. Getting … ripped by Nick Saban,” Minshew said on Monday while driving from his family home in Brandon, Mississippi, to Leach’s memorial service in Starkville. “Which would be great, but I wouldn’t trade it for this. Whether I end up playing in the NFL or not, that year at Washington State, that was as much fun as I could ever imagine playing ball. That in itself was worth so much.”

Plan B worked out just fine. As a one-year wonder at WSU, Minshew won Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and was fifth in Heisman Trophy voting while becoming a cult icon — at times surpassing his famous coach in national popularity.

Minshew will be making his second start for the NFC-leading Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday in place of Hurts, who injured his shoulder. Minshew, who walked on at Troy, played one junior college season and shuffled between starter and backup at ECU, was the 94th-rated quarterback in the 2015 recruiting class. None of the 93 players ranked ahead of him is starting in NFL games this weekend. Less than a dozen of those are on pro rosters.

“I think that was one of coach Leach’s gifts, I think he saw things in people,” Minshew said. “Not only that, but he knew how to bring it out of you. … Man, he just opened my perspective way up and changed what I even though was possible and really brought the best out of me.”

Considering how the last two panned out, it was hard to fault Leach for taking another chance on a QB with an unconventional path and perceived deficiencies. Gordon was a heralded baseball player with a snappy release, but his wiry frame kept recruiters from offering a scholarship to the Pacifica, California, native.

Gordon’s name didn’t even register on the 247Sports database, and he was banking on a second year at City College of San Francisco when Leach offered a scholarship in 2016. Gordon’s best chance to win WSU’s starting job came after Minshew left, but Leach spiced up the competition when he brought in Eastern Washington transfer Gage Gubrud, a mobile QB with an impressive FCS pedigree.

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“It kind of felt like déjà vu all over again,” Gordon said “… I brought it every day, and (Leach) commended me for it and he kind of recognized it, and I’ll never forget the conversation we had when he told me it was my job. He told me, ‘Now if you slip up, don’t you think for a second I won’t … put someone else in there.’ I go, ‘Coach, you don’t have to worry about that, I’ll never slip up.’ And that was that.”

As a senior, Gordon eclipsed Minshew’s year-old, single-season Pac-12 records for passing yards (5,579), completions (493) and touchdowns (48). He had two NFL stops as a free agent, with Kansas City and Seattle, has tried out for 11 NFL teams and continues to tutor QBs in the San Francisco Bay Area while exploring football and other opportunities.

Late in his senior season, Gordon, keen on proving his toughness to Leach, the ultimate tough guy, decided not to disclose he broke the fourth metacarpal in his throwing hand late in a game against Stanford — something that, by all accounts, had not been declared by the QB in a public setting until a phone conversation last week.

“I don’t even think he knows,” Gordon said, “but I played with a broken hand the last three weeks of the season, too, and I never told him.”

It would’ve been hard to detect, seeing as how Gordon sustained the injury near the end of a 49-22 win over the Cardinal in which he passed for 520 yards and five touchdowns. Gordon reached “peak pain” the following week against Oregon State, but on the strength of determination and Advil, he still managed to pass for six touchdowns and 606 yards — on 68 attempts — in a thrilling 54-53 win to secure bowl eligibility.

Leach demanded toughness and expressed tough love — something Falk experienced throughout his time as WSU’s starter — never more than during a turbulent senior season when he was benched twice, against Boise State and Arizona.

“He wanted me to get on the side of the field, he wanted me to see the game from a different perspective,” Falk said. “I’m still mad to this day and I’d tell him to this day that he didn’t put me back in because I had Arizona’s number. The year before, I think I had more touchdowns than incompletions. … I was bitter for a very long time, but ultimately I saw what he was doing and I had it from a different perspective now.”

Falk and Leach had something that resembled “a complicated father/son relationship,” but the QB later developed a strong friendship with the coach. Leach toured his ex-player around Key West, Florida, last summer and helped him land a coaching apprenticeship in Italy during the player’s honeymoon. Falk left a voicemail on Leach’s phone two days before the coach was hospitalized.

“I didn’t say nearly enough to him of my gratitude and all that,” Falk said.

When Minshew was up for the Davey O’Brien Award in 2018, Leach and a small WSU contingent joined up with him and a few family members/friends for the College Football Award Show in Atlanta. After the ceremony, the group moved over to Ruth’s Chris Steak House for a dinner reception.

Minshew described the atmosphere as “stiff” and “uptight,” but at one point in the evening it was somehow brought to Leach’s attention that one of Minshew’s friends — a guest at the awards show — had tattooed his rear end. Leach’s inquisitive side kicked in.

“And in the middle of this whole deal, he made us form a human wall in the middle of this dinner so he could see my friend’s butt and he just lost his mind,” Minshew said. “Thought it was the best thing ever.”

Later in the evening, the group moseyed over to a hotel bar where Leach encountered an elderly man. They two men began to exchange profane words, troubling the rest of the traveling Wazzu party.

“We think, ‘Damn, coach Leach is about to fight this old dude,’ “ Minshew said. “Then they start hugging and it’s (NFL Hall of Famer) Fred Biletnikoff. It’s like, what the heck?”

Falk had Oregon State’s number for the better part of four seasons, but the Cougars entered halftime of a 2016 game in Corvallis staring at 24-6 deficit. Falk expected to get an earful from Leach and figured he might make a change behind center.

“I go into the coaches locker room and he’s on Rosetta Stone practicing Spanish,” Falk said. “I just started laughing and then he goes, ‘There’s nothing these guys are doing. We just gotta go out there, play calm …’ Then he just goes back to practicing Spanish.”

The Cougars won 35-31.

The year prior, Falk’s WSU team trailed UCLA 27-24 with 1:09 remaining at the Rose Bowl. With a crucial fourth-quarter drive on deck, Falk approached Leach to map out some plays.

“(UCLA QB) Josh Rosen just scored a touchdown, and I’m asking him, ‘Hey what do you want?’ So the last drive he goes, ‘Ehh, probably a touchdown,’ “ Falk said. “And I’m thinking, ‘Hey, what play do you want?’ So that’s how he kept things so simple.”

Falk led the Cougars on a seven-play, 75-yard drive, capping the series with a touchdown pass to Gabe Marks to win 31-27.

He was concise on the sideline, but Leach took a different approach to the long, rambling quarterback meetings that often ran 30-60 minutes late. Conversations were often diverted. One moment, Leach was explaining how to hit a wide receiver on a mesh pattern. The next, he was deep into a history lesson on John F. Kennedy.

“We were waiting for him and we’re talking about all these different conspiracies, we start talking about JFK and then we sort of stop talking about JFK,” Gordon said. “But coach was in the hallway and overheard our conversation a little bit and the conversation had died for about 10 seconds at this point. He comes walking in, he goes, ‘You guys want to know about JFK?’ And then goes on about a 25-minute tangent about how it’s linked to the Bay of Pigs, to this, to that.”

Minshew, conscious of the fact WSU teammates were usually waiting on the QBs to arrive to start practice, characterized the long meetings as “a real issue.”

Leach had a retort to that as well: “ ‘What are they going to do, start without us? We’ve still got to watch red zone and third down,’ “ Gordon recalled Leach saying. “Good point, coach. Can’t start without the coach or the quarterbacks.”

Tyler Hilinski, who was Falk’s backup quarterback in 2017 and the team’s projected starter the following season before he died by suicide in January 2018, made a game of baiting Leach into tangents not about football.

“Tyler would look over at me and he would kind of throw a bread crumb out there, and Leach would take it a mile and it would be a 45-minute conversation on a topic we’d already discussed multiple times, like Bigfoot, like aliens, like Geronimo, like his favorite restaurant or bar,” Falk said. “It’s sad to think about those two being gone way, way, way too soon, and I would kill for Tyler to look over at me with that little wink, like, ‘Hey I’m about to set this meeting up a little bit longer,’ then Leach would go on a tangent.

“I would do anything to be able to sit in that meeting one more time.”

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