PULLMAN – Since Jeff Pollard can’t drum up the right word to describe his four years at Washington State, the senior forward has another proposition.
“How about a phrase?” Pollard suggests, hunched in a seat just behind the baseline at Beasley Coliseum as teammates carry out a 3-point shooting drill in the foreground.
Through four seasons, 107 games and 1,752 career minutes, Pollard’s archive of coaching pointers, slogans and chalkboard quotes should run pretty deep, but the senior dug even deeper to recall a piece of guidance his father shared in 2016 just before shipping his son to college.
Neal Pollard, a post at San Diego State in the early 1990s, advised Jeff, “There’s going to be days that suck and there’s going to be days that are so much fun. The days that suck you’re going to want to quit, the days that are fun, you’re going to be on cloud nine. At the end of the day, it comes down to hard work.”
The phrase that stuck?
“When it’s all over,” Neal said, “it’s going to be the hardest thing that you’ll ever miss.”
As Pollard’s Senior Day approaches – a 5 p.m. tipoff against Stanford on Sunday – he’s come to realize how prescient his father’s words were.
“It’s kind of true because it’s not fun coming in and doing conditioning in the middle of summer, it’s not fun going through preseason practices and three-hour practices and a lift four days a week,” Pollard said. “But it’s been extremely rewarding.”
Within that, he found the word he was initially searching for.
“Rewarding,” Pollard said.
Of course, a few other descriptors would probably suit the forward’s time in Pullman. It’s been turbulent and tenuous. It’s been frustrating and taxing.
That Pollard, a career 4.9 points-per-game scorer who carried a winning percentage of .428 into his final season, chose “rewarding” is a testament to the senior’s unbridled optimism, but also the patience and faith he placed in Washington State’s rebuild at a point it would’ve been easy to try something different.
“It’s not perfect this year, for sure, because there’s a lot of things we can do better, I can do better, coaches can do better,” Pollard said. “But for a Year One takeover of a school that hasn’t seen a lot of success in the past, I think it’s been night and day and it’s been an absolute treat to be a part of that.”
Pollard’s family had planned an extended stay in Las Vegas following WSU’s opening-round loss to Oregon in the 2019 Pac-12 Tournament. As they were preparing to go out for dinner the night after the season ended, the WSU forward received a notification from athletic director Pat Chun – the same letter sent to every Cougars player when the school decided to split with fifth-year coach Ernie Kent.
As a junior, Pollard had already grown to be of the brightest minds in the locker room – someone who was mentally stable and emotionally mature beyond his years. But he cracked when the news about his coach broke.
“I was shook, definitely,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of rumors going around. There’s always lots of rumors. For that to actually happen in that moment, I just had to sit there and think, my world was – all the sudden, it was super unstable.”
Kent’s win-loss record aside, Pollard will always save a place in his heart for the coach who recruited him to the Pac-12 at a point when a good portion of the Mountain West and Big Sky weren’t willing to pull the trigger on a smaller post with an untrained 3-point shot. But Kent looked past those things, focusing on Pollard’s untapped potential on offense, steady commitment to defense and blue-collar approach to improving his game.
Within hours of the news breaking, Pollard phoned Kent to express his gratitude – much of it reciprocated by the coach.
“I sat there and we started talking and by the end of the phone call, we were both crying because he was just so expressive of how much he cared about my basketball process, me as a person and everything,” Pollard said. “We were both kind of shook because I was going into my senior year and I had this great relationship with him. So really looking forward to that and obviously he was on his way out and everything. His life was changed, my life was changed.
“There’s just a tremendous feeling of indebtedness to him for giving me that opportunity, for sure. When you see someone who gave that opportunity, like he’s not going to be in the picture anymore, it kind of shook me and I didn’t know what my future held.”
Not specifically, at least, but Pollard was cognizant of his options: Squeeze the most out of his senior season somewhere else as a graduate transfer and possibly compete for an NCAA Tournament bid, or roll the dice one more time in Pullman, mindful that his skills and qualities may not align with those of a new coach.
Pollard dropped his name into the NCAA transfer portal. His first bite came within the hour. A West Coast Conference program from the Bay Area was intrigued.
Todd Golden, the top assistant to Kyle Smith at the University of San Francisco, contacted Pollard and had positive back-and-forth with the free-agent forward for the next few weeks. Then, inexplicably, the communication line went dead.
“I was like, maybe they’re just not interested anymore,” Pollard said.
The Cougars, of course, were finalizing a deal to bring Smith to the Palouse, and Golden, who’d taken over USF, cordially pulled back his efforts on Pollard.
“Pollard’s a stud,” Golden said earlier this week after USF’s 71-54 loss at Gonzaga. “He’d fit perfectly within this program. I know he’s been really important to Kyle this year.”
While he was in limbo, Pollard fielded phone calls and communicated with approximately 15-20 Division I coaches. Many of them sold an NCAA Tournament pedigree, guaranteeing Pollard his career wouldn’t end without a trip to the postseason. Pollard listened intently.
“One of the recruiting trips I went on, sat down in the coach’s office and you’re sitting there and on the back wall, there’s all the championship trophies,” he said. “You’re like, ‘OK, you’ve been to the NCAA Tournament five times out of the last six years and that would be really cool.’ ”
Smith, on the other hand, was hardly finished unpacking his things in Pullman, and had nothing to pitch but a vision. At the time, even that was hard to sell with just three players on his roster. While CJ Elleby received NBA draft evaluation, a slew of other Cougars entered the portal to mull their transfer options.
Pollard did his homework on the new coach, retrieving a phone number for former USF forward Nate Renfrow, a three-year starter for Smith, who advised, “He’s a hard coach, but if you are able to follow directions and know your job, do your job, you won’t only do fine, but you’ll excel.”
When Pollard returned to the Palouse from a recruiting visit, he made it a priority to get into Smith’s office. What will this rebuild look like? Where do I fit in? More important, do I fit in at all?
“I wasn’t demanding things, but I just told him, ‘I love this place, I want to stay here if I can, but I want to make sure I fit you, your system and your program going forward,’ ” Pollard said. “ ‘I want to make sure you want me here.’ ”
The coach wiped away any doubts during his introductory press conference on April 2, bravely singling out Pollard as he spoke to a few-hundred reporters, athletic administrators and WSU fans about his blueprint for transforming the Cougars.
“There is one guy that’s on an official visit right now and I’m going to try to reel him back in,” Smith said. “I’m calling him out, it’s Jeff Pollard. He’s going to be mad, I know it, but you are welcome here, brother. You are a Coug, so we want you back. I’ll go biblical and the story of the prodigal son, man, in open arms you come back. We’re all hugs, we’re all love. So I’d love to have him and I think we will.”
Pollard also found reassurance in Smith’s defense-oriented approach, his desire to flip the culture and his emphasis on hustle stats.
“There was a lot of stress on him, a lot of angst,” Smith said. “I knew people around here really cared about him, and he’s my kind of guy. I just watch him play and so we need that for our culture.”
On April 9, Pollard penned a letter on Twitter announcing his decision to return. His closing statement read, “I am looking forward to having senior night in Beasley Coliseum and leaving my legacy with this program and this school,” followed by, “I’m too much of a Coug to be anywhere else.”
During his re-recruitment, Pollard agreed to take the aforementioned “official visit,” though another tour of campus probably wasn’t as helpful to the fourth-year player as it was to the first-year coach.
Pollard had built a strong relationship with secretary Debbie Heston, and they exchanged hugs when he met Smith in his office. Later in the tour, he bumped into Heather Erwin, the Associate Athletic Director for Academic Services, another administrator with whom he’d grown close.
Through his first few weeks on the job, Smith was routinely asked by various people if he’d be able to retain Pollard.
“I’m like, guy averages four (points) and two (rebounds),” Smith said, “but I could tell he was an important piece for us.”
That prompted Smith to brainstorm a few nicknames for the most experienced player on his roster. Depending on the day, he’s either “Mr. Pullman” or the “Mayor of Pullman.”
The back story to the latter is worth hearing.
Last November, on Election Day, Pollard received a text message from his coach, displaying a photo of the ballot Smith had just filled out. Below the category for “Mayor,” Glenn Johnson’s name was printed, and beneath that, a write-in option, which Smith used to inscribe “Jeff Pollard” in ballpoint pen.
“If I’ve got to start somewhere with my political career, I’ve got one vote,” Pollard laughed.
If Pollard’s the (unofficial) Mayor of Pullman, consider these the last stages of his final term.
He’s boosted his numbers from last season, nearly doubling his scoring (8.9) and rebounding average (4.2) on a team that’s guaranteed to walk away with more wins than any WSU team has since 2011-12. There may not be an NCAA Tournament in Pollard’s future, but the College Basketball Invitational should, on some level, satisfy his desire to play in the postseason.
“They all respect him, and he’s really had to grow that way,” Smith said. “I don’t think he had as big a voice with the previous team, and that’s part of why he was leaving. I just think what he’s about wasn’t valued as much and we really value what he brings to the table.”
Pollard doesn’t harbor any ill will toward the previous staff, but it’s inherently obvious to him how the culture has shifted a short amount of time.
“Every staff makes mistakes, and I think one of the things the previous staff kind of lost control of was the environment in the locker room and having a disconnect between what they saw and what was actually going on,” he said. “You can chalk that up to a lot of different things. Player and team leadership, how willing guys are to be coachable and stuff like that. So, I think some of it came down to recruiting and the kind of guys that were here. Maybe bringing in guys that really didn’t want to be in Pullman. There were just so many problems that stemmed from that.”
If Smith’s objective was to bring in players who find Pullman desirable, Pollard may as well be his poster boy. Since he arrived on campus four years ago, 11 teammates have transferred from WSU – finding various degrees of success at other places.
“You talk about the origin story and that’s what I said, we get it turned and that’s the thing, you’re somebody here, you become a mercenary if you go anywhere else,” Smith said. “It could be a good experience, you might have a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. Can I say we’re playing in the NCAA Tournament? I don’t know. But your thing is, and I know more now than I did then. Now more so, they’ll love you forever.”
Last week, Smith said multiple coaches in Europe have phoned about Pollard, and the player assured he’d love to give professional basketball a try – if only for a year or two.
“I want to try to. I don’t want to have that question mark of, ‘Oh, what if I would’ve done that, what if I would’ve tried that?’ ” he said.
Smith also thinks Pollard would make a fine coach – “No matter how much coach Smith says it, I don’t think I can be a coach,” he laughed.
For now, there’s still a few more items on the agenda for the Mayor of Pullman.
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