PULLMAN – It took 25 minutes for Nick Rolovich’s introduction as Washington State’s 33rd head football coach to crest on Thursday afternoon.
“Two words,” boomed a voice in the quorum of 300 or so in the Rankich Club Room at Martin Stadium. “Apple Cup.”
Some nervous titters filled a couple of empty beats.
“Three numbers,” answered Rolovich, his tone even more direct. “Three-one-seven. That’s the amount of days till we get to play it.”
At this point, the room erupted in applause, and you half expected the questioning to end there and Rolovich to be ferried off on the shoulders of his exultant audience – and straight to a session with the sculptor ready to chisel his visage onto Wazzu football’s Mount Rushmore.
Man, he had the math right and everything.
So prepared was Rolovich with the answer that you had to wonder if the inquisitor was a plant. But then, it’s certain the subject came up more than once in his job interview, so the import from the islands already knew the Palouse landscape.
As well as the day’s leitmotif: that this was a demarcation point for Cougar football.
Time to move on, with the notion – the determination – of moving up.
This is delicate stuff, actually. To declare that there can be greater heights for the program can also suggest that the unprecedented 43 wins and bowl trips each of the past five years were somehow less than fulfilling. So Thursday’s principals took pains to make it clear that was not the case.
WSU president Kirk Schulz opened with a heartfelt thank you to departed coach Mike Leach and his assistants. Rolovich noted that “The pirate left his treasure in Pullman.”
But at the same time, it was clear this change was viewed as opportunity – that the recent formula for success could use some tweaks.
“Some of the fans were frustrated that there didn’t seem to be much emphasis on the Apple Cup,” Schulz said. “And it didn’t look like we were recruiting the state of Washington very hard. I think we were looking for a new coach that might put a little emphasis in areas of interest to our fan base and the people in the state of Washington.”
Well, that’s an eyebrows up.
It’s routine for administrators to shrug away any dubious themes in their coach’s approach with an all-purpose, “Well, it’s his program” – when in fact it’s the university’s program. That doesn’t mean the assistant prof of psychology gets to call the plays on fourth down. But it does mean that all aspects of the program need to reflect the best interests of the school – and that conversations need to occur when that isn’t the case.
“I also wanted somebody that cared about the players,” Schulz said, “and not just as a football player.”
Rolovich – only 12 years removed from being a player himself – apparently managed to strike the proper chord in his first 36 hours on campus.
“It was evident he’s a big players’ coach, which is huge,” Cougar running back Max Borghi said. “It’s a lot different than what we’re used to. He cares about his guys, no matter if you’re the scout guy or the starter.
“He’s almost like a fatherly figure.”
No need to read between those lines.
But transition can still be traumatic.
“When coach Leach left, it was like an open wound,” offensive lineman Liam Ryan said. “I’ve had some great coaches who made a big impact in my life, and I’m not a big fan of change. So the initial instinct is to hold back and not be open to it. But then you think, well, it is your last season and you want to make it your best season. I’m ready to get to work with (Rolovich) and I know he’s a great dude.”
No wonder, then, that WSU Athletic Director Pat Chun felt an extra responsibility to find the right man for the job.
“The guys in the program now all committed when Washington State had started winning again,” Chun said. “They were recruited with the promise that we’ll compete to win championships. We owed it to that locker room that we weren’t going to take a step back.”
The details are now left to Rolovich – assembling staff, filling the last open scholarship (all likely defenders, he said) and even getting a buy-in on his run-and-shoot offense, a cousin of Leach’s model but still different.
“But in the end, if they don’t play for each other, we don’t have a chance. It doesn’t matter who’s standing up here in a suit. It doesn’t even matter the scheme, to be honest with you,” Rolovich said.
“I’m not here to break records. I’m here to win football games.”
Including the one 317 days away.
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