PULLMAN – There is a statue on the lawn of an elementary school, roughly 73 miles northeast of where linebackers coach Jeff Choate sits in his Washington State football office, about which the St. Maries native loves to rib his colleague.
Choate and Eric Russell, WSU’s special-teams coordinator, went to high school together in the town of 2,400.
And while the city has yet to name any streets after the improbable small-town duo, Choate does see some symbolism in that big ol’ statue of Paul Bunyan situated outside Heyburn Elementary.
“Eric’s the big guy,” Choate said in his rapid-fire delivery, “so I tell him it’s a statue of him. I always polish it when I go by.”
Consider the WSU job Choate’s way of establishing his own legacy.
He left a higher-paying job as Boise State’s special-teams coordinator to coach linebackers for Mike Leach, partially because his reputation as a “special-teams guy” was getting in the way of his ascent up the coaching ladder.
“I had interviewed for head (coaching) jobs and that was one of the things that came up – you haven’t been an offensive coordinator, you haven’t been a defensive coordinator,” Choate said, “which quite honestly I think is ridiculous, because as a special-teams coordinator you address the entire team. It’s probably the best training ground for being a head coach.”
He’d been at it for a while, coaching special teams at Eastern Illinois and Utah State after serving as head coach at Post Falls and Twin Falls high schools.
Fortunately for Choate, Leach hired a secondary-oriented defensive coordinator – Mike Breske – which created an opening to hire a linebackers coach.
That’s where the St. Maries connection came in handy. Choate had no previous relationship with Leach, but he knew Russell and other coaches Leach had already hired.
“I knew enough guys around Mike where they went to him and said, ‘Hey, this is a guy you need to take a look at and consider,’” Choate said. “And the way the defensive staff came together, it was a good fit for me.”
Choate said the Cougars will use multiple defensive fronts, but that they’ll use a 3-4 base to start with in the spring. Some help in that department is on the way, with WSU expected to sign five linebackers to national letters of intent today.
He learned plenty from Boise State coach Chris Petersen, someone he said shares more in common with Leach than one might think.
“Two of the most brilliant guys in their profession right now,” Choate said.
“Coach Leach isn’t going to lead you around and tell you exactly what needs to be done every minute of the day, so you’ve got to be able to manage your time and stay a step ahead whether it’s your opponent, academics with your players, those types of things. I come from a program where we had a similar directive from our head coach and I think it’ll be fairly seamless for me.”
He can admit now that he grew up rooting for the Idaho Vandals, a stance that would not have gone over well with his previous employer. But Choate was also a Cougars fan, attending his first college football game at Martin Stadium, where he watched Mark Rypien quarterback the Cougars against Joe Kapp’s California Golden Bears.
In a way, Choate’s arrival on the Palouse might feel like a homecoming, although he was born in Columbus, Ohio. But he really never left the area, spending time during the summers at his lake house in Coeur d’Alene.
He makes sure his children, Jory and Jacy, appreciate the lifestyle they have, because “Dad’s was a little bit different growing up.”
It was a time that helped shape him.
“Nobody’s going to get up and shovel your driveway out,” Choate said. “You’ve got to get up and do it yourself. Nobody’s going to go out and split that wood for you so you can get a fire. You’ve got to go out and do it yourself. And I think that work ethic is something both Eric and I would probably point to as things that have helped us in our careers.”
It’s helped him take the next step toward becoming a coordinator – by moving even closer to where he started.