"Dangerously Excessive": How Washington State Football Confronted, And Didn't Confront, The First Bad News Of The Mike Leach EraS

"There are no signs of abuse," Washington State University athletic director Bill Moos told reporters last month, after the school had concluded an internal investigation into claims that football coach Mike Leach and his staff had mistreated players in his debut season there. Based on interviews with a dozen football players and staff members, the school cleared the coaches of any wrongdoing.

In early November, star wide receiver Marquess Wilson walked out on practice, was suspended by Leach, and then released an open letter announcing he was quitting the team because of the coaches' abusive conduct. According to documents obtained by Deadspin and interviews with people around the football program, Wilson was not the only person who saw trouble between the Cougars' new coaches and the players they'd inherited.

The Pac-12 is doing its own separate investigation into the program, with results expected soon. Whatever that inquiry concludes, it's already clear that Leach—who was fired from his last job at Texas Tech after a dispute over his treatment of a player—has not been treading lightly in Pullman when it comes to matters of discipline and player injuries. [Update: The Pac-12 released its report today, concluding that "there does not appear to be any form of abuse in the football program." The various incidents under investigation, the report said, "reflected a new attitude in the football program and they are all recognized as a new philosophy within the football program." The full report is here.]

Sources and documents obtained by Deadspin recount clashes between training staff and coaches over player safety, and physical—and nearly physical—altercations between coaches and players. They describe "dangerously excessive" workouts used as punishments, including an episode in which coaches supposedly sprayed players in the face with water from a hose while making them exercise in a sandpit in cold weather.

"If you run players and roll them in sand till they puke, is that abuse?" one player's parent said to Deadspin. "I don't know. There are no rules or laws and nothing defined in any handbook that says rolling a kid in the sand until he pukes is abusive. But some people might say, 'That seems abusive to me.'"

One "concerned parent" wrote in an email to university president that "some of the things that are going on with WSU are completely out of control." In another email, this one sent to the athletic department, someone wrote: "I played—I wouldn't have played for Leach."

That person added: "Sooner or later you're going to get sued over Leach." (Documents and emails referenced in the story are available at the bottom of this post.)

Wilson was not interviewed during Washington State University's internal review, according to records and sources, and the players who were interviewed were never specifically asked about the receiver's allegations.

Nor did the investigation interview Bill Drake, the school's head athletic trainer. Before this season, Drake was responsible for the day-to-day training of the football team. This past fall, athletic director Bill Moos installed a trainer specifically for the team.

On Oct. 25, Drake sent an email to Moos and associate athletic director Pam Bradetich warning about dangerous practices:

As I transition out of day-to-day football coverage, I want to reiterate my concerns about player health and safety, which we have discussed at various times over the past nine months. As you know, my concerns revolve around certain practices of the coaching staff that put the health and safety of the student athlete at risk. In particular, these practices include punishment workouts that are dangerously excessive. Thank you for your continued help in these matters.

Reached by phone, Drake declined to elaborate on why he was moved away from football duty or why he wrote the email, citing athletic department policy that requires comment to go through spokesman Bill Stevens. Stevens said that only Moos could comment on this, and wouldn't be speaking to the media until after the Pac-12 releases its findings.

The father of a player in good standing with the football program told Deadspin that the conflict between the old training staff and the new coaches had to do with how aggressive the coaches were about influencing players to return from injuries before they were ready.

"I think this staff is definitely more aggressive in that sense," he said. Players who got hurt, he said, were placed at the bottom of the depth chart when they returned, where they risked missing up to half a season trying work their way back up. "There was this sense of being punished for being hurt, for sure," he said, "so naturally a kid doesn't want to lose his starting spot to hide his injury because he doesn't want to lose his spot."

The source said he knew Drake had a great reputation as trainer "only through my own kid's experience due to my kid getting hurt a fair amount of times. Talking with Bill, he was always an outstanding guy and I always felt like he had the best interest of the athlete in mind."

Another parent said coaches had been trying to cut injured players from the team in the spring, even if the injuries were not severe. The efforts to convince players "their careers were over" were a source of contention with the old training staff, the source said.

* * *

On Nov. 1, a week after Drake's message, university officials received an email from the parent of a player saying that coaches had watered down the sandpit and made players exercise there in the cold, among other allegations.

Offensive linemen were punished for "Poor Performance" during the season and were forced to do drills in the sand pit. Players were made to hold 45-pound plates over their head while coaches sprayed water in their faces with water hoses.

Two days later, the Cougars lost their sixth straight game, getting pounded by Utah, 49-6. "Our effort today was pitiful," Leach said in the press conference after the Utah drubbing. "It starts with our coaches. Our coaches, starting with me and starting with the assistants, we have to be able to reach our players and get a good effort. Square one is a good effort and our effort was horrible."

Leach also described the offensive line play as "one of the most heartless efforts up front I've ever seen." According to a different email to the university from the same parent, outside linebackers coach Paul Volero got into an altercation with two offensive linemen in the locker room during the game.

"I just got phone call from parents that stated Coach Volero struck players to include Wade Jacobson and John Fullerton over the weekend," wrote the parent. "With that being said I expect an investigation to be done. You do not want an Ohio State situation on your hand."

"Dangerously Excessive": How Washington State Football Confronted, And Didn't Confront, The First Bad News Of The Mike Leach Era

There was more open conflict between players and coaches the next day at practice, according to two players' parents. Running backs coach Jim Mastro publicly berated quarterback Jeff Tuel, they said, resulting in linebacker Travis Long yelling back at the coach.

"The running backs coach got in Jeff Tuel's face, yelling, 'You aren't shit, you haven't done anything in three years!'" one of the parents said. "And that's when Travis Long stood up and said, 'Come say that shit to me, I'll fuck you up!'"

At the same practice, players were again getting sprayed with water, according to one of the parents. In a conference call with reporters after the school's investigation, Moos, the athletic director, said that if any water did get on players, it was incidental.

"They're trying to make it sound like they were spraying the hose on the ground for the sand, but they were spraying the fucking players," the parent said. "And that's what Marquess walked out on."

When players returned to the locker room after practice, Wilson's locker was already empty.

"Some players saw him walk off, but they had no idea why," another parent said. "Like he didn't make a scene or quit on the field, he just walked off the field. When you're a player who is being punished as a team, in the middle of getting your but kicked, if one player walks off you don't break rank and go chase after him."

Wilson was done with the team. That Tuesday, Moos received an email sent by Wilson's stepfather Richard Miranda. The school redacted identifying information when supplying the letter, but a source confirmed the writer was Miranda.

[Marquess Wilson] is a grown man capable of handling his issues in college.

[...]

I am not writing to be critical of Coach Leach or his staff, but I am very aware of problems that be brought upon himself at Texas Tech. You sir, by all indications a man of character, I hope the problems that preceded Coach Leach are not continuing at Washington State.

If [Wilson] is out of line, I will support Coach Leach 100 percent, but if Coach Leach is bullying, deflecting and basically acting like an ass, then as an athletic director it is your place and right to fix the situation.

That day was the last time Moos would speak with Wilson. "I told him, and I think I've gone on record on this, that we were disappointed in his effort," he told reporters in last month's conference call. "And I understood, and I mean, it was kind of a a tough-love visit, but that I understood the pressures that were on him. But that he had not risen to a leadership role, but I still believed in him. And the fact that Mike Leach suspended him instead of cutting him left the window open for the possibility of him returning to the team, if he so chose." Moos recommended Wilson come to the Nov. 10 game against UCLA and then meet again the following week to see if Moos would "go to bat" for Wilson to return to the team—"if I'm satisfied with what I'm hearing."

Wilson did not do that. Instead, he released his public letter hours before the UCLA game. The abuse allegations drew instant attention, thanks to the circumstances of Leach's departure from Texas Tech.

Last month, the university released a text message Wilson had sent to Moos after the game, and after his letter had gained national attention:

Mr. Moos this is marquess… With that letter I wasn't trying to accuse the coaches of hitting players or anything. I was just trying to put it in different terms and now everything is getting misinterpreted and I didn't mean it like that at all… I simply was trying to get my name cleared instead of having to say I'm suspended for breaking team violations… That could mean like I did drugs or something… I was never trying to harm the university or the program with it.

Moos did not respond and hasn't talked to Wilson since their Tuesday meeting. Nobody in the athletic department contacted Wilson regarding the allegations, and he did not take part in the internal review.

A source critical of the program said Marquess distanced himself from the letter because other people around the program had told him they were going to back him up, but never did.

"They left Marquess out to dry, and that's probably why he went ahead and wrote the letter in the first place, because they said they were going to back him up," the source said. "He was told by parents and players he was going to be backed up, I know that for sure. None of the parents are speaking up now because they're worried about their own kids."

* * *

What did Washington State University find in its investigation? Moos released a four-page summary last month. Deadspin then obtained unredacted documents from the investigation, including a list of the 12 players interviewed, a handwritten summary of their answers, the names of staff members interviewed, and what those staff members had said.

The players interviewed were redshirt junior offensive lineman Elliot Bosch, junior kicker Andrew Furney, senior quarterback Jeff Tuel, redshirt freshman linebacker Darryl Monroe, freshman wide receiver Gabe Marks, freshman wide receiver Brett Bartolone, senior linebacker Travis Long, junior safety Deone Bucannon, freshman running back Teondray Caldwell, senior running back Carl Winston, sophomore linebacker Cyrus Coen, and redshirt freshman defensive end Xavier Cooper.

Asked about the program in individual sessions with athletic department officials, the players had positive things to say. "All athletes indicated that they have had a very good or 'great' student-athlete experience," the handwritten summary of the interviews reports. Also: "Athletes feel they have been challenged as an athlete and student by current staff."

"All student-athletes interviewed were on time," a typed interview summary reports, at the top.

Marquess Wilson and his teammates are not portrayed well in the documents. The typed summary of the players' interviews reports that they:

• Felt Wilson made a mistake walking out of practice
• Felt Wilson let the team down by quitting
• Felt Wilson put the team, Leach and WSU in a bad light

Staffers, meanwhile, described Wilson as "pouty" and "noncompliant," said that he "does not put out max effort" in conditioning drills, and speculated that he hadn't read his own letter, "and certainly didn't write it."

By these accounts, Leach took over a program full of players who "don't know how to win" and "don't know what it looks like," and who were "resistant" to change, as one conditioning coach put it. The Cougars "struggle with believing in themselves," another said.

The department did not interview Bill Drake, Wilson himself, or any of the other players who'd left the program since Leach took over. A parent familiar with the investigation said the players were never specifically asked about abuse.

According to the unredacted documents, the new team athletic trainer, Chris Lange, did say that there was "[l]ots of pressure to get them back on the field after an injury" and that "[c]oncussion diagnosis and return to play has been controversial." And an academic services staffer mentioned nonspecific "yellow flags" about "comments the strength coach makes."

"In their first year at WSU, the football coach has set the tone for how the manage their program and their student-athletes," the summary of the academic services staffer's interview reported. "Either be in agreement with their philosophy or don't be on the team."

* * *

One season has not been enough to settle the question of how tough is too tough. "Parents certainly discussed it," one parent of a player said. "Parents that were close the past three or four years for sure talked about it. It was varying opinion.

"Some said, 'I don't care, that's what football is, kick my kid's butt if you want, suck it up and get it done.' And some parents had a different opinion and didn't think this was reasonable. There was no consensus among parents but it was certainly talked about."

"A lot of it has to do with how you classify abuse," the parent said. "Obviously Marquess felt like it was bad enough for him to personally leave. I think until someone defines it, it's really hard to term it. I think there's a big gray area."