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‘Why not us?’: Nine months after his hire, Nick Rolovich will (finally) take the field at Washington State

Washington State Cougars running back Max Borghi (21) celebrates with teammates after scoring the game winning touchdown during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, November 23, 2019, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. WSU won the game 54-53.   (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

On more than one occasion since he was hired at Washington State, Nick Rolovich has stated his admiration for the coaches who built the foundation, shaped the culture and stimulated the passion for the football program he inherited in January.

There’s Mike, the other Mike, Jim, the other Jim (Sutherland, not Sweeney) and long before each of those four, a renowned pioneer named Babe.

It isn’t just lip service from Rolovich, either.

On Tuesday, four days ahead of his first official practice as Washington State’s coach – something that’s been nine months in the waiting – Rolovich shared a glass of red wine with Mike Price, now a full-time resident of Coeur d’Alene, in front of a fireplace at an undisclosed restaurant somewhere in the region. He didn’t divulge details of their conversation, but it’s hard to envision Rolovich leaving the table without prying out a few pointers on how to win games at WSU – something Price did more effectively than nearly every coach who’s come through the Palouse.

“Quite an honor, loved all the Coug stories and knowledge,” Rolovich wrote in a Twitter caption attached to a photo of the two coaches – their WSU tenures separated by nearly two decades. “Appreciate the time coach.”

Two years ago, when WSU’s sitting head coach needed ideas to rejuvenate his program at Hawaii, he paid a visit to the man who held the position at the time, needling Mike Leach for any advice he could offer, according to a 2018 feature story by The Athletic. In Key West, Florida, they barely talked football, but Rolovich deemed the trip a success, and the Rainbow Warriors responded with eight wins and a bowl appearance the following year.

While Rolovich intends to keep his predecessors in his mind and heart as the Cougars begin their delayed fall camp Friday, he vowed his program won’t look too much like the ones run by the coaches of WSU’s past.

“I can’t do it Mike Leach’s way, I can’t do it Mike Price’s way,” Rolovich said. “You’ve got to be yourself and you’ve got to do it your way.”

During a Pac-12 media webinar that essentially served as the conference’s “media day” – the event normally held every year in Los Angeles – Rolovich spoke to reporters for the first time since the conference struck a partnership with testing manufacturer Quidel Corporation, and subsequently announced a late restart to the 2020 season.

As one of three programs in the Pac-12 that didn’t get a lick of spring football in, and as the only one installing new schemes on both sides of the ball, there are inherent challenges and hurdles Rolovich and his staff will face over the next four weeks.

But could the Cougars, in some bizarre way, also benefit from these unusual circumstances? It’s a thought worth entertaining.

“I think you’re on to something,” Rolovich said. “Everyone’s had abnormal prep in whatever ways they had to deal with, but this is an opportunity for us to jump in and make some real noise.

“I see it as a complete opportunity – I didn’t necessarily want to take that stance publicly with you guys, but I’ve already done that. But for our team? Guys, it’s 60 minutes of football.

“Everyone’s getting the same amount of training camp, there’s six or seven games and it’s about who gets hot and who stays together and who believes they can win. Early on, you might get on a roll and who knows what’s going to happen? This isn’t a three-month deal. It’s who’s hot and who’s playing well at that time.”

In a truncated season, a three-game win streak may be enough to clinch a division title, while a three-game skid would all but seal a team’s fate. The 2019 Cougars opened 3-0, plummeted to 3-3 by mid-October, but still had time to correct their errors – and make a few more – to reach 6-6 and a bowl game. The margin for mistake may not be as vast this season, but the six-game schedule could also reward a team that limits injuries – and COVID-19-related absences, potentially – as well as one that catches lightning in a bottle.

“(It’s) not necessarily something I’ve brought up with the players, but why not us? Why not now?” Rolovich said. “I see this as a good of a chance of anything to jump on people, especially if you’re picked last, jump on people. Pounce on people. Sorry.”

Honoring Beekman

For at least one season, nobody on WSU’s football team will don the No. 26.

It’s one way the team will pay its respect to Bryce Beekman, the former Cougar defensive back who died in April from an acute intoxication of the drugs fentanyl and promethazine.

Rolovich said two things factored into preserving Beekman’s No. 26.

“Because we believe he’s still with us and will have an effect on how we move forward this season,” Rolovich said.

“I think it’s hopefully a tribute to him and his life and his family. I think that also can be hard to wear that number after a tough deal this team’s gone through. ”

Beekman, 22, was a transfer from Arizona Western College. He started all 13 games for the Cougars last season and was fifth on the team with 60 tackles.

Kwete makes transfer official

Three weeks ago, Cosmas Kwete indicated he’d be playing football somewhere other than WSU this fall, announcing he’d entered the NCAA transfer portal.

The defensive end made his departure official Wednesday, revealing on Twitter he’d be finishing his career at FCS Northern Arizona. His brother Eloi is a sophomore defensive lineman and Kwete’s youngest brother, Richard, is a high school player committed to the Lumberjacks in the class of 2021.

Kwete was thought to be in the mix for a starting role with the Cougars this season.

He had 20 tackles, two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery during his freshman season in 2019.