It might be a stretch, but local Washington State football fans could find themselves in a rooting interest pickle for Friday’s Apple Cup in Seattle.
On one hand, the Cougars.
On the other, the Washington Huskies, whose head coach happens to be a former Gonzaga Prep standout and walk-on football player at WSU.
Bob Gregory enters his third game as Washington’s interim head coach after Jimmy Lake was suspended and then fired by the school.
Gregory is in his eighth season as the Huskies’ linebackers coach and his first as defensive coordinator, then replaced Lake on an interim basis. He was the special teams coordinator the previous five seasons.
Before coaching, Gregory was a “fierce competitor” at Gonzaga Prep, according to his former track coach, and then an undersized linebacker who scrapped his way to a starting role and a scholarship at WSU.
Tony Maucione, Gregory’s track coach at Gonzaga Prep, said Gregory was a muscular sprinter.
“He was truly one of the more special people I have taught or coached,” said Maucione, who taught and coached at Gonzaga Prep for 41 years.
Maucione said Gregory was a hard worker and committed to helping his team any way he could.
“He was an inspirational athlete,” Maucione said. “There’s no doubt. So I expect that carried over in his coaching as well.”
Gregory was listed as a running back, team captain and “most inspirational” in the Gonzaga Prep yearbook in 1982 – the year he graduated.
He then walked on to the WSU football squad as a “grossly undersized” linebacker, said Jim Walden, who coached the Cougars from 1978 to 1986. Gregory also played defensive back for the Cougars.
Walden, who lives in Coeur d’Alene, said Gregory should not have been playing Division I football because of his size. But he would not be denied.
Walden said Gregory played on special teams and did the things coaches asked of him. By the time he was a senior, Gregory earned a starting outside linebacker spot.
“Maybe it tells you that we weren’t doing a very good job recruiting since he was about 190 pounds,” Walden said. “In this day and age, they wouldn’t even let their kickoff team guys play with that size.”
But Gregory was an overachiever and overcame his relatively small stature, Walden said.
“He’s like, ‘Hey, I know I’m undersized, but until you can find somebody better than me, doing better than I do, I’m going to be out here.’ And I think that’s what carried his mindset into being such a good coach,” Walden said.
Walden said he figured Gregory would be a “tenacious businessman” after WSU. Perhaps a lawyer or a CEO, he said.
“You just know that whatever he chooses to do, he will probably attack it the same way he attacked and overcame Division I football for a guy who wasn’t Division I size,” Walden said.
“But doggone, he’s made a great coach,” he added.
Gregory started his collegiate coaching career immediately after graduating from WSU in 1987. His resume includes stints at Oregon, Boise State and California. He served as defensive coordinator at the latter two schools.
You could say Gregory understands this rivalry better than most.
“I think everything’s different,” Gregory said this week when asked what separates the Apple Cup from other rivalries he’s experienced. “We’re on the West Side. They’re on the East Side. Big school, small school. Pickup trucks versus Audis. It’s the whole thing. Beer versus Champagne.”
As for his future?
“We’re all mercenaries anyway, coaches,” Gregory said when asked if his allegiances would be divided Friday. “Whoever pays us and puts food on the table for our kids, that’s who we’re rooting for. So, no.
“I get a lot of texts this time of year, though, from a whole bunch of Cougars. That’s for sure.”
Walden said Gregory should not be graded for his three games as interim head coach of the Huskies, who are 0-2 under Gregory heading into Friday’s game. Instead, he should be judged on his coaching performances at places like California, Boise State and Washington (before the head coaching gig).
Maucione said he is happy for his former student-athlete and friend, adding he hopes Washington considers Gregory as the permanent head coach.
“I know it’s a tough position for him to be in, to take over in that situation,” Maucione said.
Walden and Maucione said they root for Gregory, but Friday’s matchup with the Cougars, who are trying to snap a seven-game losing streak against the Huskies, challenges their loyalties.
“I particularly can’t pull for him this week,” Walden said. “I love him to death but I can’t quite get there … I’m sorry. I can’t quite go that route.”
Still, for Maucione, “It’s hard to root against the Cougars, but I’m going to pull for Bob Gregory.”