SALT LAKE CITY — Washington State coach Mike Leach has been drawing a lot of praise this week. On Monday, his contract was extended through 2018.
“He has elevated the program on the field, in the community and in the classroom,” WSU director of athletics Bill Moos said in making the announcement. “I believe he is among the best college football coaches in America and is a fantastic fit in Pullman.”
Saturday against the Utah Utes, Leach has an opportunity to make the Cougars bowl eligible for the first time since 2003. They’re 5-5 in his second season at the helm.
“They’ve got a good football team,” said Utah co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson. “Mike Leach has done a great job with that program.”
With Pac-12 wins at USC (10-7), California (44-22) and Arizona (24-17), Erickson added that Leach has the Cougars going in the right direction.
And although Leach is plotting against them this week, there are a couple of other guys on the Utah sideline who think highly of the coach.
“I consider him a good friend,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “He’s a good friend and I have all the respect in the world for him. He does a great job.”
Although Whittingham and Leach both attended BYU, they didn’t get to know each other until rubbing shoulders in the coaching world. Their wives have become very good friends and speak to one another often. The Leaches have family in Utah and try to get together with the Whittinghams when visiting the state.
“He’s a very entertaining guy, exceptionally smart — a great football coach,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got a great relationship and I respect everything he’s doing and what he’s done in the past.”
Leach, who led Texas Tech to 10 consecutive winning seasons from 2000-09, is now in the midst of his second campaign with the Cougars — already surpassing last year’s 3-9 mark — and eager to take the next step.
Utah (4-6), meanwhile, needs to prevail in its last two games to be considered for a bowl game.
Regardless of circumstances, Whittingham admits that facing a friend is kind of a double-edged sword.
“You enjoy getting to see him and visiting with him but then you compete against him. It’s kind of like when we played Gary (Andersen’s) teams (at Utah State) and that type of thing,” Whittingham said. “It’s something that has got some good and some bad to it.”
However, the mixed emotions are secondary to the task at hand.
“Once the ball is in the air and going you’re oblivious to who’s on the other sideline,” Whittingham said. “It’s just game time and you get in game mode.”
In their first meeting last season at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Whittingham and the Utes topped Leach and Cougars 49-6.
This reunion, though, has extra special meaning for Utah senior Trevor Reilly. The Butkus Award semifinalist committed to Leach and Texas Tech out of high school before serving an LDS Church mission to Sweden. He then opted to enroll at Utah when it appeared Leach wouldn’t be with the Red Raiders much longer.
“Any kind of success I’ve had I owe it to coach Leach. First off, because he’s the guy who gave me my first shot. He gave me my first offer out of high school. I was a skinny, white kid from San Diego and my first offer was a Big 12 offer,” Reilly explained. “He recruited me as a player. He saw that I could be a decent player. So I’ll always owe him that. I’ll always be loyal to coach Leach and I’ll always be loyal to coach Whitt, but I’ll always be loyal to the fact that he stuck his neck out for me.”
Now, however, the player and coach are crossing paths at a critical juncture in Reilly’s senior year. After missing out on a bowl game last season, there’s a sense of urgency to this meeting.
“This is the biggest game of the season and the biggest game of the last two years — bigger than the BYU game, bigger than the SC, Oregon and Stanford game — because if we win we’ve got a chance to go to a bowl game,” Reilly said. “So it’s like a Super Bowl for us. It’s our National Championship this week.”
Utah (4-6, 1-6) at Washington State (5-5, 3-4)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MST
TV: Pac-12 Networks