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Monday, October 14, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Blanchette: Erik Coleman loving uptick in WSU football

Eric Coleman, right, was part of three bowl games as a defensive back for Washington State, including the Holiday Bowl win against Texas. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)
Eric Coleman, right, was part of three bowl games as a defensive back for Washington State, including the Holiday Bowl win against Texas. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)

That long decade when football at Washington State football had not only reached the end of the flat earth but fallen off the edge was an affliction on the fan base, to be sure. It was reflected in empty seats and chat room rage, and even beer didn’t taste as good –on fall Saturdays, anyway.

Multiply it and that was the weight on the players and coaches, who were not only in the middle of it but had to hear all about it.

And for former players – those only a few years removed, who had built Cougar football into more than just relevance and then seen their sweat squandered? Well, that was a special kind of hell.

“In NFL locker rooms, we talk a lot of trash,” said Erik Coleman. “The success of your school, if the stadium’s full, what the uniforms look like – all that kind of stuff. It’s nice when you can hold your own – when you can hold your head high and be proud of your university.”

It’s such a wave that sweeps Coleman back to his hometown this weekend – an old Coug with a fresh pair of eyes on the resurrection. The annual Crimson and Gray Game comes off Saturday at Albi Stadium, and Coleman has been reeled in to handle commentary on the Pac-12 Networks telecast of the spring intramural.

Think he’s eager? He flies in today.

“There’s never enough time when I’m back in Spokane,” he said.

But lots of attachments, and lots of memories.

Albi is where he experienced the lights of Friday night for Lewis and Clark High School. The colors on display Saturday he wore in three bowl games for Wazzu. A nine-year National Football League career as a safety with the Jets, Falcons and Lions cemented his royalty here – where his picture was already up in the barber shop and his face graced a Hoopfest poster.

Now there are new horizons.

Back in Gotham, he does two shows a week for SportsNet New York, the cable home of the Jets and Mets, and post-game work on Jets telecasts. He also just signed with Sirius, and his takes on the NFL may come bouncing off the satellite soon. And for the past few years on Saturdays, he’s worked in the radio booth as color analyst on Stony Brook University games – hauling himself off to stadiums at New Hampshire and Rhode Island and into tiny press boxes where the glamor of the NFL is very far away.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Coleman, whose general studies degree at WSU had an emphasis in communications. “You gain so much knowledge in the game of football and it’s nice to be able to use it to educate people.”

That knowledge gets delivered in stages, of course, but there are always carryovers.

When he made the jump from LC to Wazzu, there were gifted, but blue-collar veterans there to break him in.

“I didn’t know anything except what guys like Billy Newman and Lamont Thompson taught me,” he recalled. “They always said, ‘You have to know before you can go.’ That meant staying late, learning the playbook so I could show my talent. When I got to the NFL, it was the same thing – and I had success because I was used to big moments and playing under pressure.”

He’d been expected to back up free agent Reggie Tongue as a Jets rookie, but when Tongue was injured Coleman started every game – intercepting passes in his first two, recording 14 tackles in another.

“But there was always something to humble you,” he said. “That first game, I was playing well – it was a big confidence boost – and we’re up a couple of touchdowns on the Bengals. Then Chad Johnson lines up in the slot and beats me for a long touchdown and I thought the world was going to end. But my teammates told me to get back out there, that it wouldn’t be the last time I’d get beat, and I wound up getting an interception to seal the game.

“Those ups and downs, within one game, kind of showed me the spectrum of things you go through.”

From afar, he’d try to keep the faith with a Cougar program that eventually was overwhelmed by the downs – a nadir that led to the hiring of Mike Leach, the investment in facilities and, finally, a flipping of the property last fall.

“It’s a great feeling for those of us who were a part of it before,” Coleman said. “There are five or six guys I text with every day – some of us played in the NFL – and it’s a great time to be a part of it, to see what they’ve gotten back to.”

Now he’s back to see it up close, if only for a weekend. Not that it’s ever enough time.

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