Lubbock, Texas, is about 350 miles east of the desert border town of El Paso, where Washington State will play Miami in the Hyundai Sun Bowl on Saturday.
It is also the town where Washington State coach Mike Leach built his reputation as an offensive savant by reviving a sagging Texas Tech program and transforming it into a Big 12 title contender.
Leach spent a decade of his career in Lubbock, and people in west Texas have not forgotten what he did for the Red Raiders.
The people of El Paso are expected to be out in full force on Saturday to welcome back a beloved man who has returned to coach a football game in the Lone Star state for the first time since he left in 2009.
“I think a lot of people here in El Paso — and there’s a bunch of people here that have ties to Tech — are real excited to see a coach that they’re so familiar with and like so much, revisit,” said Alex Torres, an El Paso native who played wide receiver at Texas Tech under Leach from 2008-09, and has since moved back to his hometown to help manage his family’s HVAC and refrigeration business.
Torres came out to WSU’s final practice on Thursday to say hello to some of his former coaches and teammates. He’ll be at the game on Saturday with a group of friends who live in El Paso.
The Sun Bowl has traditionally relied heavily on local attendance to make its annual bowl game a success.
So, before they selected their bowl teams this year, “we did a lot of nosing around to get a feel for what people in the community are thinking,” said former WSU coach Mike Price, an El Paso resident who is now on the Sun Bowl selection committee. “We know we’re not going to get 10,000 people from Pullman [Washington] the day after Christmas, but we’re probably not going to get that many from any place. It’s not really what carries our bowl game as much as the community.”
So far, the community has responded with interest.
Sun Bowl Stadium, on the campus of the University of Texas at El Paso, has a capacity of 50,426. According to a Sun Bowl spokesman, as of Christmas Eve they had sold 44,000 tickets to the game.
That doesn’t meant 44,000 people will show up, but that ticket sales number shows promise.
In the 81-year history of the Sun Bowl, only three times has the game been played the day after Christmas. Attendance never broke 30,000 on any of those occasions.
Leach’s presence “does make the Sun Bowl this year a little bit more exciting to people,” Torres said. “And it’ll probably bring in quite a few more people — some people who are at Tech now and know who he is, and some people who were graduates, who are so familiar with him from Texas.”
Texas native and WSU outside receivers coach Graham Harrell, who quarterbacked some of Leach’s most successful Texas Tech teams from 2004-08, says he and Leach still get recognized when they travel around the state of Texas.
“A lot of people are excited we’re back here in Texas and have the chance to play down here,” Harrell said. “I think with all the ties we have to here, it’s good for the game, and good for us to be here.”