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John Blanchette: Nick Rolovich had a shot to be a real leader, but instead chose to leave his WSU players hanging

 (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

Nick Rolovich was the players’ coach who wouldn’t do what was necessary to keep coaching his players.

That’s it. That’s his legacy.

If 11 games as head football coach at Washington State University can even be said to produce a legacy.

The details are even more bizarre: a coach riding a three-game winning streak 13 days before Halloween will not be on the headset for Saturday’s game at Martin Stadium against Brigham Young – or any beyond that. Gone, too, are four assistants who like their boss refused a COVID-19 vaccine in the face of a governor’s mandate that applied to all state employees.

And then tried to play chicken with the university over the enforcement of that mandate.

The reportage of Wazzu’s Black Monday – and it’s nationwide, folks, just the way GameDay was – will mostly be parsed as Rolovich being fired for cause by WSU athletic director Pat Chun, with the delicately phrased explanation that he was “unable to fulfill his duties.”

But it was Rolovich’s inscrutably intractable stand that created this tire fire for the school.

The pink slip he got Monday was one he handed to himself.

And the ones who have to clean up after him?

That’s right. His players.

“They don’t deserve this,” Chun said Monday evening. “That is a real point of heartbreak.”

Heartbreak, yes, but also an exceptional lesson in what might be expected of them in a cold, cruel post-football world where grown-ups must function.

The appearance of Chun and WSU president Kirk Schulz via Zoom on Monday night provided no pithy details of words exchanged during Rolovich’s denouement, or of whether he and his posse had their requests for exemptions to the mandate rejected – the two administrators begging off due to the ubiquitous “privacy laws.” Chun did allow that Rolovich’s “accommodation request was denied today,” which doesn’t address whether it got beyond the exemption panel or not.

But there had been the feeling long ago that Chun wasn’t going to cut a deal to keep the coach working – not that it was even possible. Just the image of Rolovich trying to recruit via FaceTime while his rivals were encamped in prospects’ living rooms blows the notion to smithereens.

What’s more, Chun’s tone and body language couldn’t have been more transparent.

“This is unacceptable,” he said, “on so many levels.”

Naturally, this will set loose another wave of fist-shaking at Gov. Jay Inslee, the mandate boogeyman, by the Freedom Whiners, who can’t be bothered to grasp that Rolovich is free to pursue employment in the many precincts mandates aren’t in effect.

And good luck to him on that front. This will be quite a feather in his good-employee resume.

Schulz, certainly, was having none of it.

“Vaccine mandates work,” he said, noting WSU was the first public university in Washington to have one. “Vaccines are safe and highly effective. Here in Pullman, the total number of COVID-19 cases as of today is seven – out of a population of nearly 24,000 students, faculty and staff.”

But being right doesn’t shield the school from the fallout.

It’s been dealing with some of that for three months, since Rolovich’s stance went public – or as public as he was going to make it. Schulz acknowledged the PR hit the university has taken nationally from its $3 million football leader refusing to take a role in the health and safety of his team and campus. And he knows there will be financial hits from anti-vax donors, or even those more obsessed with the winning streak than sound public policy.

As for football, the Cougars’ recruiting efforts had largely stalled, presumably because of the uncertainty over Rolovich’s fate, if not his stance. With almost half the staff gone and a permanent successor probably two months away at least, ramping back up will be problematic. How far does this set the program back? How many players will bail – later, if not now?

“Sadness, disappointment, anger,” Chun said of his meeting with the team. “What you would expect out of college-aged young people who lost coaches.”

If acting head coach Jake Dickert and whatever staff can be cobbled together can somehow keep air in the tires, the Cougs are two wins from bowl eligibility. But the scars will be long-term, no matter who Rolovich’s successor is.

Speaking of which …

Chun took “full ownership and responsibility for hiring Nick” back in January 2020, well before anyone could have allowed for the possibility of pandemic – and a coach more interested in political football. Rolovich was recommended by an offense that was a cousin of the pass-mostly approach of predecessor Mike Leach, and he got the full stamp of approval of the players, who immediately gushed about his embrace relative to the “dictator,” as one player would put it, that came before.

And then he turned out to be a bigger image liability, which hardly seemed possible. So now there’s another layer to the vetting process.

“It’s reflective of where we’re at as a society today,” Chun said. “There are other factors that will have to be ironed out as we go through a search.”

Like being more than just a players’ coach, but a team player.