When the coaching carousel chewed its way through the Palouse last November, one of the reluctant passengers was Washington State co-defensive coordinator Jody Sears, a Pullman native, former Cougars player and coach.
The carousel ride was jarring enough. How he landed is a story like few others.
“It was the first time I’d been fired, and everybody says that’s good for you,” recalled Sears, now the interim head coach at Weber State, during an emotional interview at the Big Sky Conference Kickoff event in July in Park City, Utah.
“But at the time, I’m not thinking about my career, I’m thinking about my five boys and girls, and how they’re not going to see their old man kicking rocks down the street and moping, feeling sorry for myself.”
He dusted off his pride, looked up an old friend, John L. Smith, the new Weber State coach. He worked first as an unpaid assistant, was promoted to defensive coordinator on April 1, and three weeks later became interim head coach when Smith abruptly left to take over at Arkansas.
“I’m very blessed and appreciative,” said the 44-year-old Sears, “I just hope I can make them proud.”
The Wildcats are 0-3 going into Saturday’s Big Sky opener against Eastern Washington, with losses to Fresno State (37-10), Brigham Young (45-13) and McNeese State (35-21).
Sears spent five successful years at Eastern from 2003 through 2007, serving as Paul Wulff’s defensive coordinator, while current EWU coach Beau Baldwin ran the offense.
“My two youngest were born at Sacred Heart, and we had a good life in Cheney,” said Sears, who has five children with his wife, Molly. “On the field, my favorite memory was winning the Big Sky in 2004, sitting next to Beau in the press box …”
On Saturday, they will meet again, this time as head coaches. “I’m really looking forward to it,” Sears said Wednesday morning. “It’ll be nice to see Beau and the boys.”
Sears and Baldwin are still good friends, and sought each other out in Park City.
“It was great to see him,” said Baldwin, whose Eagles will visit Weber State on Saturday. “He’s competitive as all get-out, but he doesn’t have a big ego. He’s as big a team guy as it gets.”
In the fall of 2007, the Eagles took eventual national champion Appalachian State to the wire in the FCS quarterfinals. Two weeks later, Wulff took the reins at WSU and offered Sears the chance of a lifetime.
“When we got the job, it was a dream come true,” Sears said.
Four years later, the dream ended. Some Cougars fans saw only the 9-40 record, but Sears saw promise – and promises – unfulfilled.
The question was posed at the Big Sky Conference Kickoff: “Was it a surprise that Coach Wulff was fired?”
A full minute passed before Sears reached for a glass of water, took a sip and softly replied. “It was. Yes, a little bit.”
The former walk-on wide receiver, WSU class of ’91, added that he’d never been asked that cathartic question, then regained his composure and his game face.
Sears, who played for three different coaches at WSU, including Jim Walden, Dennis Erickson and Mike Price, said he knew what he was getting into, even before Cougars football hit rock-bottom in 2008. It didn’t matter.
“That’s my team, the Cougs, growing up those were my guys,” he said
Apart from the scores from those disastrous first two seasons, “We did exactly like we set out to do,” Sears said.
Modest improvement in 2010 brought hope that the corner would be turned in time.
“We knew we needed some luck in Year Four (2011), because we built this thing for five years,” Sears said.
But Wulff and his staff didn’t get it.
“We left a couple games out there, or we’re in a bowl game,” Sears said, noting a tough 28-25 loss at UCLA in October and an overtime home loss to Utah in November.
“We felt like we were turning the corner,” said Sears, whose defense improved from 115th nationally in 2010 to 82nd last year. “The kids, the culture from the time we got there, it was like night and day. Leaving, we held our heads high, not from a win-loss standpoint. We knew we wouldn’t even get to 85 scholarships until Year Five, we knew that. We did what we said we were going to do, we have our integrity, our word, our character and we did our job.”
The carousel has stopped for now, and Sears come full circle back to the Big Sky, “I’m very humbled,” he said. “I’ve been bucked off before. Now I just have to get back on.”
Another win over FBS
Cal Poly became the fourth Big Sky Conference team to beat an FBS team this season, upsetting Wyoming 24-22.
The Big Sky has won more than four games against FBS or I-A teams in a season before, but it’s been a long time, and the college football landscape looked a lot different.
In 1982, Big Sky Conference teams won six games over I-A or FBS teams.
Boise State beat Cal State Fullerton 20-9 and Pacific 22-15. Both Fullerton and Pacific belonged to the Pacific Coast Athletic Association, which later became the Big West Conference.
Boise State also beat Utah State 30-15 that season. Idaho beat Pacific 36-17. Nevada beat Fresno State 40-26, and Nevada beat Cal State Fullerton 17-7.
Prior to this season, the last time the Big Sky notched three FBS wins in the same season was in 2000.
North Dakota fell just short of upsetting San Diego State of the Mountain West Conference 49-41 on Saturday.
Three Sky teams in top 10
Three Big Sky teams are ranked in the top 10 among FCS teams in this week’s Jeff Sagarin Ratings.
Eastern Washington is rated fifth and 86th overall. Cal Poly is seventh and 98th overall.
Montana is ninth and 104th overall. North Dakota (23), Montana St. (26), Northern Arizona (27) and Southern Utah (29) give the Big Sky seven teams in the top 30 of FCS.