On Saturday night, Washington State football players unloaded a bucket of yellow Gatorade on Nick Rolovich’s head. Wide receiver Travell Harris beelined to the coach before jumping on his shoulders. Others embraced Rolovich for what some probably figured could be the last time. In a locker room video shared by WSU’s social media team, a circle of Cougar players surrounded their coach before breaking into a chant of, “Rolo, Rolo, Rolo.”
Rolovich had collected thousands of critics by the end of his tenure at WSU, but Cougar players by and large were still voicing support for the coach in the hours before and after he was terminated by the university Monday for failing to comply with a state COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
The most widely-circulated Instagram post by a WSU player came from standout cornerback Jaylen Watson, who shared an image of his long embrace with Rolovich after the team’s thrilling 34-31 win over Stanford — the coach’s 11th and final game at the helm of the Cougars’ program.
Watson’s Instagram photo was accompanied by a red heart emoji split in half, but the junior-college transfer corner who was one of WSU’s top additions under Rolovich penned a more thought-provoking caption from his Twitter account.
“This man changed my life in so many ways,” Watson wrote. “A real stand up dude that always stands on what he believes in heart was so pure and a true role model to me and my teammates. Was always bigger than a dollar sign which is the only thing you wrap your fingers around.”
Watson also lamented the criticism Rolovich has undergone since announcing in late July he was refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, creating a national story that led to his dismissal approximately three months later.
“Everyone bashes this man day in and day out like he is not human or has feelings,” Watson continued. “Forcing him to have no friends all he had was us and all we had was him love you forever @NickRolovich”
Starting quarterback Jayden de Laura has a unique relationship with Rolovich, who was the first FBS coach to offer the signal-caller a scholarship while Rolovich was still the coach at Hawaii and de Laura was a junior varsity player at Honolulu’s Saint Louis. De Laura, wanting to fulfill dreams of playing Power Five football, signed with Mike Leach and the Cougars over Rolovich and the Rainbow Warriors, but wound up playing for Rolovich anyway when Leach left for Mississippi State.
In a statement initially released by the QB’s lawyer, William Kirk, and then by de Laura on Twitter, the sophomore suggested the decision to terminate Rolovich was met with strong opposition from WSU players.
“Words cannot express our profound sadness and disappointment in the termination of our Coach, Nick Rolovich. Playing for him was a great honor that all of us will cherish forever. He put trust in me and allowed me to grow as a man both on and off the field. For that reason, we strongly disagree with today’s decision,” de Laura said. “But we also understand that Cougar Football has always been bigger than any one person. We are a band of brothers who play and sacrifice for each other, no matter who the head coach is. We have never been about one person or any one name on the back of the jersey. We have been and will always be about the logo and the pride that all of us share in being part of the Cougar family.”
De Laura pleaded for fans to continue supporting WSU’s football program as the Cougars prepare for Saturday’s nonconference game against BYU.
“This is a very difficult time for all of us on the team. Change is always hard,” he said. “What we need now, more than ever, is the loud and passionate support the Cougar faithful can bring to Martin Stadium. So let’s pack the house on Saturday, and show this entire nation the special bond that we all have as WSU Cougars.”
A report from KJR radio host Jason Puckett suggested that WSU players were meeting with athletic director Pat Chun at 5:30 p.m. Monday to discuss Rolovich’s future with the school, but the meeting actually took place sometime between 4-4:30 p.m.
It didn’t sit well with some players that Chun reportedly arrived late to the mandatory meeting held inside the school’s football complex.
Hours after news of Rolovich’s termination broke, WSU kicker Dean Janikowski tweeted “It’s one thing to lose a head coach it’s another thing to have your AD be late to the most important meeting of the year.”
Most players waited a few hours to collect their thoughts before sharing on social media.
In an Instagram story, Liam Ryan shared a photo of the senior left tackle bumping fists with Rolovich, along with the caption, “I stand behind this warrior of GOD forever. Thank you for everything.”
Wide receiver Renard Bell, who’s spent the 2021 season recovering from a torn ACL, shared an Instagram video of his postgame hug with Rolovich. Bell’s caption read, “Nothing but love.”
WSU punter Nick Haberer, a Melbourne, Australia, native who hadn’t played American football before arriving on the Palouse, joined fellow specialist Lucas Dunker Jr. in thanking Rolovich on Twitter.
“Crazy to think that a year ago I was back in Australia not knowing what to do with my life and Coach Rolo took a chance on me,” Haberer wrote. “He was my Coach, my mate and most importantly my mentor and taught me valuable life lessons that will always be with me! Love ya @NickRolovich.”
Wrote Dunker Jr.: “Not only did our team lose coaches. We lost friends, mentors, role models, but most of all family members… thank you @NickRolovich for giving me a chance to perform at the highest level and pursue my dreams #foreverfamily”
Wide receiver Mitchell Quinn, a Hawaii native who played with de Laura at Saint Louis and emerged this past year under Rolovich, conveyed his thoughts with a popular Dr. Seuss quote.
“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”