PULLMAN – Tales of how he broke into this profession aside, Eric Russell stops and circles back to the message coach Mike Leach tries to drill into his players each week.
“For us, it can’t be a walk down memory lane or anything,” Russell said after Washington State finished practice on Tuesday. “It’s got to be another faceless opponent.”
But for Russell, it doesn’t seem possible to look at Idaho and feel nothing. The WSU special-teams coordinator is more likely to display his dry humor than he is to crack a smile, but ask him about Idaho, John L. Smith and his first college coaching gig, and the guy lights up.
A native of St. Maries, Idaho, Russell was an all-conference quarterback at Spokane Falls Community College before heading to Idaho to complete his Bachelor’s degree, which he earned in 1991, the same year he served as a graduate assistant for the UI football team.
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Russell said he fell into coaching nearly by accident. As an Idaho student he would coach at St. Maries throughout the week (and on Friday game nights), then drive back to Moscow to work as a spotter in the press box for sports information director Rance Pugmire during Vandals games.
That’s when Russell got the urge to become more involved. He started bugging Smith, the Vandals’ coach, about letting him help out with the team. For “about a year,” Russell said, Smith held him off, warning him of the lack of stability inherent in the profession, telling him it wasn’t something he should pursue.
“All the stuff you don’t care about when you’re young,” Russell said. “Finally, there was an opening, and he brought me on board and let me get involved with the program. And I was pretty proud to be on that sideline with the Vandals and wearing the colors.”
Russell started as a film guy before talking a roommate into handling those duties so he could do something that would get him on the field.
“It was a fun time in my life,” Russell said, “and the first taste of coaching.”