Going back a whole year ago, when Washington State head coach Jake Dickert was still in his probationary period, he went to great lengths to instill a small, pivotal change: He wanted the Cougars to be player-led.
Not player-run, Dickert is quick to point out, but player-driven.
Now maybe that’s a distinction that is easier to understand spoken rather than in print, so here is another quote from Dickert to clarify the philosophy.
“I started meeting with captains once a week, started meeting with the quarterbacks. Things that weren’t done before. Getting their input and getting their feedback, and … finding little ways to hear their voice, hear their struggle and empower them to be the glue in the team.”
Handing over ownership to the players was a risky but prudent ploy. WSU’s upperclassmen have dealt with a pandemic-shortened season and a bizarre midseason coach transition. The college football world changed around them, as players transferred in, started making money off their name, image and likeness; and a new offensive regime brought back the old Air Raid scheme.
Buying into the coaches was important for the Cougars. Buying into themselves was pivotal.
On Saturday, as WSU appeared on its way to an 18th bowl game appearance, clinching eligibility with a 28-18 win over visiting Arizona State, it was clear that the transition is complete. WSU (6-4) has its blemishes, to be sure, but Dickert’s program and the players that lead it have a clear sense of who they are, what they are about, and what their role is in building and leading the second-year coach’s program.
In case a bowl game has started to feel like a lesser accomplishment , recall that only eight coaches, including Dickert, have led WSU to one. While WSU has played in seven bowls over the past 10 years, it played in zero the 10 years before that.
To get there, they had to keep down an ASU offense that had scored 30 or more points in four consecutive games. WSU shut out the Sun Devils in the first half. Two weeks ago, I wrote WSU’s offense needed to establish a rushing attack to be effective. On Saturday, Nakia Watson had three rushing touchdowns in the first half.
“It should mean a lot to us, it should mean a lot to our fans,” Dickert said. “There was a time in our program when that wasn’t very easy and our team has been a big part of changing that.”
And it was certainly not guaranteed. Not as recently as two weeks ago, when the calendars turned to November and the Cougars had lost three of their past four games. When injuries had mounted, the offense stagnated and the faithful were grumbling online.
The schedule seemed almost designed to force a midseason slide, but WSU’s ability to respond with a 52-14 road blowout over Stanford was an important reminder that WSU’s upperclassmen have endured more toil than almost any in the sport’s history, and that a few close losses against good teams would not shake their foundation.
“This team really wants to prove who they are. Even though we lost those four games, we were in all those four games,” Dickert told Alex Brink on the postgame radio show.
“We weren’t going to let any story write the story of our season. We had four games left, we’re off to a 2-0 start. … Our guys have no quit in them.”
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