Nick Rolovich sat in the office of his football coach, June Jones, during his senior season at Hawaii and told him this:
“I am going to have your job someday.”
Indeed, 15 years later, it was Rolovich’s office. He was tasked with the responsibility of reviving Hawaii’s program.
He did just that, making a name for himself and his program with his unique style, from bringing Elvis Presley and Britney Spears impersonators to media days in Las Vegas to dressing up like a clown at Hawaii’s spring game.
Because there is much focus on Rolovich’s style, it’s easy to overlook the substance. He is used to success, even when the odds were stacked against him — he became a starting Division I quarterback after going unrecruited in high school and made good on his bold proclamation to Jones.
Thriving as an underdog certainly plays well in Pullman, and Rolovich has nailed the first impression:
- The Apple Cup: He takes it very seriously.
- Recruiting in Western Washington: He already has been to this side of the state several times. “It’s where the people are,” he said.
- Connecting with Cougar Nation: He invited Cougar fans in the Seattle area to meet him at local bars, then picked up the tab.
- Stepping up in the Pullman community amid the coronavirus: He began helping local restaurants, buying 20 meals a night that he gave away.
“He has fit like a glove, with how he has been accepted and the way he goes about his business,” said legendary WSU quarterback Jack Thompson, now a prominent booster for the program.
Fun is an adjective commonly used to describe Rolovich, but he is also resolute, resilient and accustomed to winning. Not only did he become the starting quarterback for Hawaii, he outshined a Heisman Trophy winner in an all-star bowl game.
In four years, Rolovich turned around the Hawaii program by bringing back the run-and-shoot offense that was so successful when he was playing there. But Rolovich started to worry he was getting complacent. So he finds himself in Pullman, antsy to get on the field but understanding that what is happening in the world is more important than football.
Spring football practices have been postponed because of coronavirus concerns, and might soon be canceled. There is no doubt spring practices are more important for a first-year coach. But Rolovich said that won’t be used as an excuse, and had this message for his team:
“When this thing clears, let’s attack it like savages and we’ll handle anything that comes our way. As long as we do it together, I think we’ll be fine.”
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An unlikely star
Rolovich starred in football and baseball at Marin Catholic High School in the Bay Area, but when he didn’t attract interest from four-year colleges, he decided to play for City College of San Francisco.
Even there, he was only kind of wanted. He was asked to grayshirt and delay enrollment until after the season.
It worked out for him and for the program. He became a two-year star, leading the team to a national championship. Finally, Division I colleges took notice. He landed in Hawaii, earning the starting job as a junior. But he was benched midseason for Timmy Chang, who would become one of the all-time leading passers in NCAA history.
Rolovich seemed destined to be a backup as a senior during the 2001 season and started to prepare for the next phase of his life, signing up to take a firefighter test. But then Chang got hurt against Nevada, and Rolovich’s life changed forever.
“I’m a fireman (if Chang doesn’t get injured),” Rolovich said.
Rolovich was scheduled to take the test in California the day after the game at Nevada, planning to join a long line of family members who have been firefighters, including his father.
When Chang got hurt, Rolovich skipped the test and returned to Hawaii with the team. He was once again the starting quarterback and never took the firefighting test.
“He learned a lot and grew up that first year,” Jones said. “Then when he got his chance again, he wasn’t going to give it up.”
He certainly wasn’t. Over the next nine games, Rolovich threw for 3,361 yards and 34 touchdowns while the team was 8-1 in that span. His best game was the regular-season finale against rival Brigham Young, undefeated (12-0) and ranked ninth in the country.
Rolovich completed 29 of 52 passes for 543 yards and eight touchdowns in Hawaii’s 72-40 upset win.
“It wasn’t the touchdown passes, it was the way we won and what that did for the state,” Rolovich said. “The feeling that people in Hawaii had after that game — that was the prize.”
The next month, Rolovich led the South to a 45-28 victory in the Hula Bowl, throwing three first-half touchdown passes. He outplayed quarterback Eric Crouch, the Heisman winner from Nebraska, and was co-MVP. In the second half, the Maui crowd started chanting “Rolo, Rolo,” urging the coaches to put him back in.
“That was a magical experience for me,” Rolovich said.
So was becoming Hawaii’s coach in 2016, after four years as an assistant there and four at Nevada, including six years as offensive coordinator, making good on his vow to Jones more than a decade earlier.
“I saw what June Jones did for our senior class,” Rolovich said. “I thought that was very special and not just for the senior class. I saw what the success did for the island, for the state, for their pride. That was something I wanted to do.”
Jones doesn’t remember Rolovich’s vow to coach Hawaii, but he’s not surprised that Rolovich became a coach.
“I thought he was a leader and a winner and one of those special quarterbacks,” Jones said. “Usually those guys don’t ever want to leave the game. That’s what happened to him. He did a great job at Hawaii, he did a good job at Nevada and he’s got a real opportunity now at WSU.”
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Having some fun
Rolovich took over a Hawaii program coming off five consecutive losing seasons, with a record of 19-46 in that span.
Rolovich immediately injected fun and wackiness into the program. When he hired an Elvis Presley impersonator to come with him to Mountain West media day, it was because he gave up on the idea to bring a monkey.
“I wanted a monkey, and I feel like a monkey would have been great,” Rolovich said. “But there were a lot of permits and paperwork and that stuff. And I’m not sure if the monkey is on my shoulder, and how does the monkey feel about me? Does he trust in me? … I didn’t really have time to create a bond with a monkey, but that was kind of where it started, the crack in the scrambled eggs.”
It was all part of having fun, just like the water-balloon fights at practice and the big-man punt-return contests. Dressing up like a clown at the spring game and making touchdowns worth 2.5 million points in that game were also fun, and it got Hawaii in the news.
“I think they are good ideas, but we needed people talking about Hawaii football,” Rolovich said. “We needed that. And the humor — I think a lot people in Hawaii have that, a good sense of humor. Now people expect crazy stuff, but it’s effective with the kids. I like picking up their spirits.”
Rolovich’s craziest idea?
“Probably proposing to my wife on St. Patrick’s Day at an Irish bar,” he said of Analea, whom he met while both were attending Hawaii. “She had me at Guinness. She’s a special lady.”
In his last two years at Hawaii, the Rainbow Warriors started making news on the field, going 8-6 and 10-5. The success came after Rolovich changed to the run-and-shoot offense he was familiar with. Before making that change, Rolovich consulted with people he respected, and took a trip to Key West, Florida, to see Leach.
“He showed me around, and we didn’t talk much about much football,” Rolovich said. “But I wanted to get back to an aggressive mindset, and talking to him was very positive for me.”
Despite the success after installing the run-and-shoot, something was gnawing at Rolovich.
“I started to worry that I didn’t have another challenge,” Rolovich said. “I didn’t want to be complacent in Hawaii. I wore slippers and it was a great life and I was happy doing it. But I also didn’t want to disrespect the place I was at by not taking it seriously enough.”
Coming to Washington State provided that challenge and a huge raise, with his $3 million salary being five times more than he was making at Hawaii. But there wasn’t time to celebrate, not with a coaching staff to fill, a recruiting class to finish off and a crash course on what it means to be a Cougar.
“Judgment comes on Saturdays during the football season, but I couldn’t be more happy with how things have gone in this transition,” Thompson said. “For first impression, he’s off the charts.”
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Becoming a Cougar
Rolovich and Pullman seem a great fit.
“I’m having a ton of fun, just because I didn’t realize this place was wired like me so much until I got here,” he said. “People like to do good things and people like to have a good time. This has turned out to be an even better place than I thought for me personally.”
Rolovich and his team had expected to be in the middle of spring practices before they were postponed due to the virus, but you won’t hear him complain.
“I don’t think this is a time where those in football should really open their mouth too much as far as ‘poor me,’ ” he said. “There’s zero part of me for doing football in this situation. We wouldn’t have their full attention.”
There will be a lot to do when it’s time to begin, from installing the run-and-shoot offense to figuring out a depth chart.
“I am excited, but it needs belief,” Rolovich said of installing the run-and-shoot. “That’s the Day One challenge, because there has been offensive success with the Air Raid and Coach Leach, but I’m not trying to be the next Coach Leach. There is going to be some change, and to get 100 percent buy-in to what we are doing, that’s the key.
“There are going to be times when it’s hard, and things aren’t looking good, and ‘Why don’t we just go back to the Air Raid?’ We need to watch that. It’s not that the Air Raid is bad, I just don’t know it.”
Rolovich said he has no idea who will be the starting quarterback but expects junior running back Max Borghi to get more rushing attempts.
“A perfect game would be at least five touchdowns, 500 yards, 350 yards passing and 150 yards rushing — you can say that,” Rolovich said. “You win games getting production out of the running-back position, whether it is screens or runs.”
Rolovich is like Leach in that he will mainly focus on the offense.
“Schematically, I won’t be involved with the defense a whole lot, unless there are some problems, but mentality-wise I will be, and I will almost go overboard so the defense knows,” he said. “I’m very conscious of complimenting good football plays. Good tackles, good leverage, good effort, things like that. I want them to know I care about them, too.”
Caring, like fun, is a word often heard when describing Rolovich.
“He is a very, very genuine, good-hearted, kindhearted and compassionate human being,” WSU athletic director Pat Chun said. “As he has indoctrinated himself into this Washington State community, those characteristics have come out, with his spontaneous decisions he has made as our head football coach, whether it’s gathering people at a bar in Seattle or going restaurant to restaurant every night in supporting local businesses. He really loves building relationships and getting to know people.”
But Rolovich knows his most important task is winning. He hasn’t set number goals and isn’t making any grand predictions, but he is used to winning, even as an underdog.
“I hope the fans see a team that shows they care about each other and plays hard,” he said. “I think that could lead to wins. I would like to win them all, but it’s about getting better every day, and getting better throughout the season. Of course, we would like to win them all, and win the Pac-12 and the Apple Cup and all of that.
“But no (genie) lamp came with this job. You’ve still got to work.”