- Kyle Bonagura, ESPN Staff Writer
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When Mike Leach decided he was ready to return to coaching in 2011, he knew he'd have some options. That's the nature of the business for a coach who has guided a program to 10 bowls in 10 seasons like he did at Texas Tech.
So, why Washington State?
For Leach, it was simple: WSU checked all the boxes. He wanted to be in a college town, needed the support of the school president and athletics director and sought a place with a real opportunity to build a winner. The nearby hunting and fishing options didn't hurt, either.
After two years in Pullman, Leach reaffirmed he made the right choice.
Few questioned whether the town or administration were a good fit, but few expected a timely turnaround after the Cougars were among the least competitive FBS teams in the four seasons before Leach arrived.
"Nobody thought we'd go to a bowl this year," Leach said. "They thought we'd win two games or something.
"And even though we all felt like we left meat on the table, the program hadn't been to a bowl game in 10 years. So from that standpoint we're ahead of schedule."
There would be decisively less meat on the table if the Cougars had hung on to beat Colorado State in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, but a late-game meltdown prevented that and the team finished 6-7. Instead of an offseason focused on another winning season, the Cougars' attention is on finishing.
"It's every day," said receiver Kristoff Williams, who finished third on the team with 51 catches. "We don't want to have that feeling again, so that's become the emphasis. It doesn't matter what we're doing, we're always focused on finishing strong."
That goes with recruiting, too.
With less than two weeks before national signing day on Feb. 5, Leach and his staff are in what he called "the hand-to-hand combat portion of recruiting" and are trying to solidify what has the potential to be one of the program's highest-ranked classes in recent memory. Leach said it seems like more doors opened this year, and he has been happy with the job his staff has done on the recruiting front.
"We've had a pretty good reception," he said. "Part of it is this is one of the best recruiting staffs I've had. They work hard work at getting to know people and building relationships."
A stigma that has long-been attached to the WSU football program is the concept that it's difficult to convince big-time recruits to play in such a small town. A lot of the time -- maybe even most of the time -- it holds true, but Leach pointed out there are times when Pullman's setting is a positive.
"In [the Pac-12] there are mostly urban settings," he said. "The two schools in true college towns are WSU and Oregon State. If you're the type of player looking for that atmosphere, we're it."
Those are the kids they've made a priority to go after.
Once the staff ties a bow on the recruiting class, it'll get some time off before spring practice begins on March 27.
"I'm optimistic about getting some skiing in," Leach said. "I'll do the best I can to make that happen."
For the players, it's not that simple. They're currently in the midst of the most intensive part of their offseason training regimen. It includes three days a week of running, four days of weight-lifting and two days of seven-on-seven competition.
"We're teaching each other to compete," Williams said. "Coach Leach is tough. He doesn't take any nonsense. He definitely knows what he's doing and expects a lot out of you so as long as you buy into what we're doing, it becomes easier."
When classes begin following spring break on March 24, the team will spend the first three days back on campus watching cutups of the season before entering spring-practice mode. Leach, who doesn't believe in splitting the spring into multiple sessions, will spread out the 15 sessions between then and the spring game on April 26.
In terms of replacing outgoing players, WSU's top priorities in the spring are on the offensive line and secondary, where it loses three players from each group -- most notably safety Deone Bucannon and center Elliott Bosch. Other than that, the team returns pretty much intact.
"In our case, we have a very young team, predominately freshman and sophomores getting still getting acquainted [to college football]," Leach said. "A lot of them haven't been through a college offseason so it's really important for us to get them acclimated. They'll discover they can work a little harder than they think they can."