Cougar coaches buy in to rivalry

WSU coach Mike Leach (Dan Pelle)

PULLMAN – The dark stripes of black paint gracing the cheeks of Mike Breske and Eric Russell were evidence enough that there’s just something different about this week.

This time of year, there always is.

“We’ve got the war paint on,” said Breske, WSU’s defensive coordinator. “It’s rivals week.”

Breske isn’t from here. He’d never lived in Washington before Mike Leach hired him in January. And, like every other member of Leach’s assistant coaching staff, he has no previous affiliation with either WSU or the University of Washington (though there are some exceptions among the Cougars’ graduate assistant and support staff).

Coaches, especially those in the first year at a new school, like to talk about players buying in. But when it comes to Apple Cup week, maybe the question is whether these coaches – none of whom possessed any previous crimson persuasion – are fully invested in the region’s foremost football rivalry.

It doesn’t appear that will be an issue.

Breske said he plans to show his team a highlight package of past Apple Cup plays – some involving players currently on WSU’s roster, such as safety Deone Bucannon and defensive end Travis Long – during the team’s defensive meeting on Thursday night.

 Russell said Leach has already shown the team plays on both offense, defense and special teams that helped decide Apple Cups throughout the years.

“It’ll be interesting to be a part of this thing and see if there really is a rivalry still,” said Russell, WSU’s special-teams coordinator. “Or if we can kind of revitalize it a little bit and come out and win a game.”

Russell, along with linebackers coach Jeff Choate, represent the coaching staff’s strongest ties to the region. Both are from nearby St. Maries, Idaho. Choate coached high school ball in Post Falls. Russell played at Spokane Falls Community College before earning a degree from the University of Idaho while also serving as a graduate assistant.

But that’s where the semi-connections end, and it’s a stark contrast with previous coach Paul Wulff’s staff, which included a number of former Cougar players.

Leach said he’s excited to coach in his first Apple Cup, but that it’s more important that WSU simply win the game for the sake of winning the game.

(It should be noted, however, that Leach’s contract includes a $25,000 bonus for beating Washington.)

“I think every game’s important,” Leach said. “You put your full faith in effort in every game. You’re only allowed to play one game a week. You don’t play that many games to begin with, so I think you make the most of all of them.”

But this one especially. The potential of an Apple Cup win has been viewed throughout the years by WSU fans as a way to salvage, at least somewhat, a disappointing season.

Is that a philosophy these WSU coaches embrace, too?

“It can make your whole offseason that much more enjoyable, just as far as a player going to work and trying to start over and get your body back, and as coaches hitting the road and being able to recruit a little bit, especially if you’ve got a chance to beat these guys,” Russell said.

But also: “You’d love to get this game back to where it’s meaningful. But for us as coaches, this game’s more about, are we going to come out and compete in the 12th game of the year? Or are we going to shut it down?”

Breske seemed downright giddy about the whole thing, proudly displaying his “war paint” and reminiscing about past rivalry games while coaching at Montana (which hates Montana State) and Wyoming (which is not fond of Colorado State).

“It is special,” Breske said. “It’s 364 days after this of winner-can-talk. And it is a big thing. It’s a big thing in this state.”

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