Washington State safety Deone Bucannon remembers all the shouting and the criticism spewed by coach Mike Leach in 2012 while the Cougars struggled to win three games in Leach's first season in Pullman.

After a particularly ugly 49-6 loss at Utah last fall, Leach called his team's effort “heartless” and described his players as “exhumed corpses” fit for a “zombie convention.”

Some players covered their ears. Others couldn't take it. More than 18 players quit the team during Leach's first 12 months on the job. Bucannon, now a senior, didn't consider leaving. In fact, he figured some “tough love” was necessary to change the culture.

A year later, Washington State (6-6, 4-5 Pac-12) has qualified for its first bowl in a decade. The Cougars will face Colorado State (7-6, 5-3 Mountain West) in the Dec. 21 New Mexico Bowl.

“I think tough love is needed in any program, any organization, because this is serious business,” said Bucannon, who recently became WSU's first all-conference first-team honoree since 2007. “If you don't have that tough love, there's no passion for what you're doing. Coach Leach is very passionate about the game of football. He is consistent about that. And he's always been a winner.”


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Leach guided Texas Tech to a bowl game during each of his 10 seasons in Lubbock and set a school record with 84 victories. Leach was fired by Texas Tech in 2009 in the fallout from his alleged insensitive treatment of a player with a concussion.

Yet, his aggressive tactics are working with the Cougars.

“Under Coach Leach, we've become closer,” Bucannon said. “And when you have a stronger connection with your teammates, that makes you want to play, it makes you want to fight.”

Colorado State players would say that sounds a lot like the message from Rams coach Jim McElwain, who, like Leach, has his rebuilding project trending upward in his second season.

CSU and Washington State both have improved by three victories over 2012. And Leach and McElwain have leaned on their offenses to turn things around — although McElwain prefers a balanced attack, while Leach might be the most pass-happy coach in the country.

“From what I see on film, I'm really impressed with Colorado State's offense,” Bucannon said. “Kapri Bibbs is one of the top running backs in the nation. Their offense all around is pretty solid.”

Whereas Colorado State began 2013 by winning only one of its first four games, Washington State made early-season headlines. The Cougars almost upset Auburn in the opener before losing 31-24. The next week, Washington State won 10-7 at Southern California.

“Those let us know that we could play with anyone,” Bucannon said. “Things are looking up around here.”