PULLMAN – Tales of how he broke into this profession aside, Eric Russell stops and circles back to the message coach Mike Leach tries to drill into his players each week.
“For us, it can’t be a walk down memory lane or anything,” Russell said after Washington State finished practice on Tuesday. “It’s got to be another faceless opponent.”
But for Russell, it doesn’t seem possible to look at Idaho and feel nothing. The WSU special-teams coordinator is more likely to display his dry humor than he is to crack a smile, but ask him about Idaho, John L. Smith and his first college coaching gig, and the guy lights up.
A native of St. Maries, Idaho, Russell was an all-conference quarterback at Spokane Falls Community College before heading to Idaho to complete his Bachelor’s degree, which he earned in 1991, the same year he served as a graduate assistant for the UI football team.
Russell said he fell into coaching nearly by accident. As an Idaho student he would coach at St. Maries throughout the week (and on Friday game nights), then drive back to Moscow to work as a spotter in the press box for sports information director Rance Pugmire during Vandals games.
That’s when Russell got the urge to become more involved. He started bugging Smith, the Vandals’ coach, about letting him help out with the team. For “about a year,” Russell said, Smith held him off, warning him of the lack of stability inherent in the profession, telling him it wasn’t something he should want to pursue.
“All the stuff you don’t care about when you’re young,” Russell said. “Finally, there was an opening, and he brought me on board and let me get involved with the program. And I was pretty proud to be on that sideline with the Vandals and wearing the colors.”
Russell started as a film guy before talking a roommate into handling those duties so he could do something that would get him on the field. Eventually, he worked his way up to a graduate assistant position before leaving for New Mexico.
“It was a fun time in my life,” Russell said, “and the first taste of coaching.”
He rattles off the names of notable coaches who stopped for stints in Moscow before, during and after his time there – Smith, Scott Linehan, Nick Holt, Art Valero, Bobby Petrino, Ronnie Lee (who returned as an assistant on current coach Paul Petrino’s staff).
“One of the things I’m thankful for, I was around some great ball coaches during that time at Idaho,” Russell said. “That was kind of my first taste of what college coaches were about.”
This was in Idaho’s heyday, back when it competed for – and won – the Big Sky championship on a regular basis. It’s that kind of success that serves as a primary argument for fans who believe Idaho, playing this season as an Independent before joining the Sun Belt in 2014, should return to the Big Sky.
Russell won’t get into all that, and he’s hesitant to pontificate much upon whether the Vandals and Cougars should play more frequently. They haven’t met since 2007 and have played only 11 times since 1982.
“I think having rivalry games is always big,” Russell said. “We are close, obviously. … Both programs have struggled for a while, and I think getting both programs back to competitiveness and competing and winning games would be huge. I’ll let whether we should be playing every year … that’s kind of up to presidents and ADs and those people, really.”
But he is at least permitted to reminisce, if not come Saturday.