The Palouse is a majestic place, but rarely a lure in and of itself for impressionable and ultra-talented high-school athletes.
The two most successful Washington State football coaches of the past 30 years, Mike Price and Mike Leach, both found a way to conquer that issue. They did so with dynamic X’s and O’s, certainly, but also through the force of their (radically different) personalities.
In Nick Rolovich, Leach’s newly hired replacement, WSU athletic director Pat Chun appears to have unearthed someone with the potential to stand out from the crowd. And that, as much as his expertise in the run-and-shoot offense, gives him a shot to succeed.
In many ways, it won’t be easy to follow Leach, who in addition to being a savant in developing his Air Raid offense was as quirky as they came. While his tangent-ridden soliloquies about a diverse range of topics often served his purpose of avoiding tough football questions, they also amused the masses.
In addition, they helped create a cult following, of sorts, that directed much-needed attention on the Cougar program. It would have been mere diversion if Leach hadn’t amplified that spotlight with a stretch of (mostly) successful seasons. In combination, it led to a bountiful period of WSU football prowess that made it much easier for the fan base to ignore, or accept, some boorish aspects of Leach’s regime.
In Price’s case, he came into the job in 1989 hellbent to put WSU on the map. Some of his early antics were detailed in “The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists,” by Art Thiel, Mike Gastineau and Steve Rudman:
“Before Washington State’s football game against Arizona State, the Cougars coach showed up on the sidelines looking like a daffy version of the ASU mascot, Sparky The Devil. Clad in pink tights and a cape and sporting horns, Price brandished a pitchfork as he urged the Cougars to beat the Sun Devils.
“Later that year, in preparation for a game against USC, Price hired an actor to portray the USC Trojan and gallop onto the WSU practice field astride a white horse. As his team watched, Price whipped out a starter’s pistol loaded with blanks and blazed away at the interloper, who slumped in the saddle and rode away “mortally” wounded.
“Before a game against the Oregon Ducks, Price disguised himself as a duck hunter. He wore a hunting outfit and waders and stalked the sidelines carrying a shotgun and a bagful of dead ducks.”
Price disavowed those type of publicity stunts later in his WSU tenure, but it set the tone for a 14-year stay in Pullman that included three 10-win seasons and two Rose Bowl appearances – the Cougars’ only two trips to Pasadena, Calif., in the past 89 years.
And now here comes Rolovich, who upon beginning his four-year stint at the University of Hawaii told reporters, “I have out-of-the-box thoughts – spontaneous. I try to be creative.”
At least initially, that should play well as Rolovich tries to escape Leach’s large and daunting shadow. From researching his career, it appears the 40-year-old Rolovich leans more to the early Price methods of drawing attention to the program, and keeping things loose and fun.
“I’m a little off, and I’m a little crazy,” Rolovich, a Bay Area native, once told the San Francisco Chronicle. “But that’s the way I think I do it best. You can’t be anybody else. I have to be myself.”
That helps explain the guy who once showed up to Hawaii’s spring game wearing a clown costume, who was known for dressing up as a turkey on Thanksgiving, and who brought Elvis and Britney Spears impersonators, as well as a fortune teller, with him to the Mountain West Media Days in Las Vegas.
Rolovich once enlivened what was to have been a day off in the spring by summoning the players to the practice field for a water-balloon and water-gun fight. According to the Chronicle, Rolovich himself arrived in an Army helmet, black paint smeared across his face and a Super Soaker resting on his shoulders.
Rolovich likes to tell spooky stories to the players on Halloween, and he loves to surprise players with elaborate ruses that end with the presentation of a scholarship. That’s not to mention the dance-offs in the middle of practice, or the Big Man punt-return contests, or the Pokemon Go hunts with players and fans.
“He’s an oddball,” running back Fred Holly III told the Marin Independent Journal. “He keeps everybody laughing and makes it a good environment, and he keeps everybody positive and motivated.”
Rolovich’s three team rules at Hawaii were to be on time, be respectful and be good to each other. He would walk around campus picking up litter, and urged the team to keep the locker room tidy. Rolovich abhors the wasting of food. According to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, he and his graduate assistants would take the leftovers from the team’s training table to give to the homeless.
And during offseason conditioning, the team was divided into groups for a competition based on academic performance, community service and supporting campus activities. That included passing out schedule cards outside Costco stores.
You get the picture. If Rolovich can pass on that same sense of fun, adventure and spontaneity, and create the buzz that Pullman is the place to be, it should help lure players. But as always, that must be accompanied by success, as occurred in Hawaii. Inheriting a floundering Rainbow program, he turned it around to go 18-11 his last two years with a high-flying offense, though the Hawaii defense was no great shakes.
By many accounts, the turnaround came when Rolovich dumped his staid, balanced offense and went to the run and shoot, which was in his blood from his days quarterbacking for Hawaii. That, in turn, came after a visit to Key West, Fla., in January 2018 to solicit advice from none other than Mike Leach. It was Leach who urged Rolovich to be his own man.
According to a story in The Athletic, Leach told Rolovich, “Having success in anything really doesn’t involve a lot of worrying about what somebody might think, otherwise all you are is everybody else.” Leach also told Rolovich he should “ignore what people say and try to score the best way you can.”
Rolovich said the advice was liberating, and Hawaii’s offense soared with an attack that trailed only WSU in the quantity of passes. Now he’ll take those tenets, and carefree tendencies, to Pullman. One of Rolovich’s favorite sayings is borrowed from Mark Twain: “The two best days are when you’re born and when you realize what you’re born for.”
If Rolovich truly has that figured out, he might be the next coach to stand out on the Palouse.