As Nick Rolovich boxes up his conspiracy theories and vacates his office as Washington State football coach, I’m reminded that there’s a time-honored custom at WSU: Hire the guy who broke the mold, who can’t be pigeonholed, who lends a splash of color as a public face.
This time, though, the Cougars really went and did it.
Walk with me through some crimson history:
I was an undergrad back in 1967, and distinctly remember watching on TV as WSU got trounced at Stanford on an October afternoon. After that game, Bert Clark, the coach, weighed in that he doubted WSU’s resources were sufficient to allow competing in the Pac-8 Conference. WSU administrators concluded he was right, that no team coached by Clark was going to succeed in the league, and it fired him five games later.
That augured the colorful, brawling Irishman from Butte, Mont., Jim Sweeney, who was never at a loss for response, even when, in his final game at WSU, the Cougars coughed up a 13-point lead and the ball inside three minutes and somehow lost to Washington. In 2010, Sweeney told me, “When we scored 52 and beat Washington, they gave me a lifetime contract. After that game (his finale in 1975), they had me declared dead.”
In the ‘80s, it was Jim Walden who elicited this one-liner from the taciturn Don James of Washington as an Apple Cup week commenced: “I’m a 2,000-word underdog.”
Mike Price’s early calling card at WSU, before he somehow coaxed two teams to Rose Bowls five seasons apart, was puerile stunts like mounting a horse on the practice field and making like USC’s Tommy Trojan, or donning camo gear with a rifle – the duck hunter about to play Oregon.
And who could forget Mike Leach’s serial wackonomics, like hose-blasting offending players in a sand pit, or tweeting out a doctored video of Barack Obama?
So there’s a lot of precedent for Cougar coaches, and not just in football, to be out of the box.
But Rolovich – this wasn’t just out of the box, it was out of a shipping container.
Go ahead and applaud Rolovich for having the courage of his convictions. You’ll be right in step with some of the bizarro Internet theorists that caught Rolovich’s eye. Just remember that he sought a religion exemption, and the vaccine seemed good enough for the Pope.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to tote up the collateral damage Rolovich inflicted:
The players he abandons have endured tragedy, pandemic upheaval and now a mid-season coaching convulsion. And this isn’t a 1-6 team that just wants to stagger to the finish line. It’s above .500, a solid bowl candidate and (if not for this) maybe a viable possibility to win the Pac-12 North.
Coaches are by definition itinerants, but imagine the number of wives and kids uprooted, 22 months after they settled in Pullman.
Oh, and those sudden coaching vacancies at WSU (four assistants joined Rolovich and were cashiered)? How does one hire coaches who can parachute in and work up a game plan for BYU Saturday? Are those on Indeed.com?
Long-term – as in two months– athletic director Pat Chun ideally needs to find somebody familiar with the run-and-shoot offense, so the transition isn’t so wrenching. But run-and-shoot practitioners are much rarer, say, than those who operate the Air Raid.
As for Chun and president Kirk Schulz, imagine the endless talks and hours of sleep lost over something that’s been an embarrassment to WSU across the land. They have to own that spectacle, thanks to Recalcitrant Rolo, as well as mend a fan/alumni base ripped apart.
Across the state, Washington has mucked along to a disheartening 2-4 record. Under most circumstances, this would be cause for WSU fans to believe this is the year their school flushes all the Jimmy Lake frustrations of seven straight series losses. But wouldn’t a cohesive, complete coaching staff improve the odds of an Apple Cup victory?
Finally, recruiting. Rivals.com has the Cougars at a tidy No. 87 in the nation for its commitments in the 2022 class. For some reason, not a lot of prospects have been eager to race into a burning building.
And that about does it for WSU’s latest colorful football coach. If this is color, beige looks pretty good right now to the Cougars.