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Jeff Choate enjoyed his stint at Washington State, but this weekend’s all business

Montana State head coach Jeff Choate returns to Pullman on Saturday to face Washington State six years after he was the Cougars’ linebackers coach. (Patrick Record / AP)

PULLMAN – Mike Leach and Jeff Choate will make plenty of walks Saturday night. Just not the one down memory lane.

Yes, the respective head coaches at Washington State and Montana State know another, but no, the season opener at Martin Stadium isn’t doubling as some grand reunion between old pals.

Leach, the sixth-year Washington State coach, and Choate, the second-year boss at Montana State, spent one season together in 2012. Choate worked on Leach’s staff as a linebackers coach, but took off shortly after the season ended when an opportunity arose to become the defensive coordinator at UTEP.

Choate was in Pullman for less than a calendar year. Not exactly enough time to forge meaningful bonds or eternal friendships, especially when you work on opposite sides of the ball. Choate was on the defensive staff and Leach was, and still is, WSU’s de facto offensive coordinator.

The head coaches will probably exchange a few words before Saturday’s game. They might even embrace. There’s sure to be a handshake. But that’s about as festive as Choate’s Pullman homecoming will get.

“I’m sure we’ll exchange pleasantries before the game and I’ll wish him well after the game,” Choate said by phone Monday afternoon. “But obviously, I worked for (Washington coach) Chris Petersen for eight years. I worked for Mike Leach for eight months.”

“There’s not a lot of memory-lane stuff because they’re on the other sideline and their players are dealing up one problem after the next, so you try to solve those,” Leach said.

But memory lane is still worth a brief look.

Both coaches have beefed up their career resumes since sharing the same office six years ago. Choate did it by bouncing around the country and taking a handful of “stepping-stone jobs” that ultimately lead to his first head coaching gig in Bozeman. Leach did it by staying put in Pullman, steadily raising the profile of a Pac-12 program that won only four conference games in the five years before his arrival. The Cougars enter Saturday’s game as the nation’s 24th-ranked team.

Though Choate’s time at WSU was short, it was also sweet and insightful.

“Mike’s a really smart, interesting guy in terms of how he looks at football. It’s very different than many of the coaches I had worked for. Kind of a little bit more of a global view,” said Choate, who graduated from St. Maries High in Idaho, about 90 miles north of Pullman. “… Just how he structured practice I thought was interesting. I’ve taken a couple of those ideas and implemented those within our program here at Montana State.”

Leach’s three-day install on game weeks was one thing that caught Choate’s eye. The WSU coach drills first- and second-down scenarios – what Choate calls “mixed downs” – on one day, third-down scenarios the next day and red-zone scenarios on the final day.

“Then you kind of come back to that and recycle through that,” Choate said.

The general framework of that system is what Choate uses at Montana State.

He was also intrigued by Leach’s recruiting formula. Coaches are given a limited number of “live evaluations” of high school players throughout the year. Leach would often sent his assistants on recruiting trips early in the season to get those done, which was unorthodox but also intelligent, Choate said.

“So a lot of our coaches would leave and go to California or go over to Seattle to be able to get eyes on guys and do live evals,” the MSU coach said. “And I thought that was kind of a unique and smart way of doing it because that live evaluation is almost a lost art with all the access you have to Hudl films and things like that.”

Maybe there’s a certain advantage to be had this Saturday for Choate, who was a defensive line/special teams coach for Peterson at UW from 2014-15 and twice game-planned for the Cougar Air Raid. Not to mention all the hours he logged scheming for the WSU offense as the linebackers coach in Pullman.

That could all be useful, but while the core concept of Leach’s system is the same, the coach has also changed it up quite a bit.

“Some of the things he’s doing creates more problems for you,” Choate said. “He’s a little bit more diverse in terms of his formations. Utilizing shifts, motions, empty, different things of that nature. He’ll get into three-back sets at times. So while, yeah, there’s some familiarity with preparing for and seeing this offense on a regular basis when I worked there, I just see it as, not a little different, but fairly different approach then he had six years ago.”

That’ll make the Bobcats coach a busy man Saturday night. Even less time to exchange greetings with his old boss.