In his first public remarks as no-longer-just-acting head football coach at Washington State University, Jake Dickert put himself in harm’s way – of a fine.
And won the unconditional love of Cougars everywhere. At least until his first play-calling misstep, anyway.
“I was going to hug Butch on my way in,” he told the huddled maskers at his formal introduction on Thursday, “but I didn’t want to get a 15-yard penalty.”
Man, there’s targeting, and then there’s targeting.
We’ll see if the thin-skinned suits in the Pac-12 offices can take the hit. Then again, maybe they were rational enough to be embarrassed, too, when one of their zebras flagged WSU running back Deon McIntosh for celebrating an Apple Cup touchdown by hugging the school mascot.
But if there is a fine coming, Cougs might crash GoFundMe racing to pass the hat.
This is to say that Dickert won the news conference Thursday in the same fashion he steered Wazzu to victory in last Friday’s Apple Cup – not just convincingly, but to a degree beyond that of any Cougar football coach in memory.
For a guy who apprenticed in college football’s backwaters – including nearly every Dakota ZIP code with a dorm and a dean – WSU’s 34th head coach was impressive in how he owned the moment, toggling between passionate and breezy without straying from the sincere.
And to think Wazzu didn’t even have to pony up the extra $6 million a year LSU is giving Brian Kelly for the fake Southern accent he tried to foist off on fans at a basketball game Thursday night.
Speaking of which, Dickert’s deal is five years at $2.7 million per. Yes, that’s at the south end of the Pac-12 pay scale, and barely parking meter money to what USC needed to poach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma.
But then, not as many parking meters in Pullman.
And what the Cougs got for their $13.5 million is one of their own.
Dickert’s coaching journey began in little Stevens Point, Wisconsin – Tony Bennett country, as WSU athletic director Pat Chun cannily noted by way of drawing a precedent. The stops along the way have been places like Vermillion, Cape Girardeau, Mankato, Brookings and Laramie – “at one point I had to move my family eight times in nine years, and that’s us packing our own boxes, hauling the U-Haul, driving cross country,” Dickert said.
“This fits who we are.”
Now comes the question of whether the first aid he administered during the midseason trauma of his predecessor’s firing – keeping the Cougars bowl bound and winning the Apple Cup – translates to long-term care.
There were some telling nuggets from Thursday’s kumbaya. Dickert won’t be his own defensive coordinator – Nevada’s Brian Ward appears to be on his way to Pullman. He doesn’t seem to be married to the run-and-shoot offense that’s been installed over the past two seasons, nor eager to junk it.
“The philosophy I have is players over plays,” Dickert said. “We’re going to center this around Jayden (de Laura, WSU’s incumbent quarterback) … there’s a certain level of expectation we all have of being an explosive offense, using our speed and athleticism but being unique.”
And speaking of which …
“Moments like last Friday night, when we stormed the field,” he said, “that will become the expectation, not the exception.”
Of course, it took what Chun called even before the season “the most talented team” he’d seen during his WSU tenure to pull that off. A hefty chunk of that team departs, and whether a first-time head coach with no Power Five experience until 2020 can recruit enough talent so his core principles make a difference is a legitimate concern.
Because, really, nobody knows.
You can’t find that out in a job interview – and Chun put Dickert through three. However thin Dickert’s head-coaching resume might be, it turns out the small sample size in a concentrated circumstance was a distinct advantage.
“We had the benefit of watching him every day and watching this football team,” Chun said. “The most important thing in any type of organization is simply leadership, and what he was able to display – and more importantly, what emerged from the team – is really a byproduct of what great culture is. Great culture can withstand anything – and we went through a lot.
“I had the gift of time. This industry is unique on the coaching side. All these searches are accelerated, at breakneck pace. We had the time, and we ended up in the place we needed to be.”
And then in the last week, the landscape of college football shifted yet again with the leaps of Riley and Kelly into piles of money – and Michigan State throwing $95 million at Mel Tucker, who has been a head coach for three seasons, with a 17-14 record.
Can the Cougs and Jake Dickert compete amid the madness? Can they remain relevant?
“College football now is unique in that respect,” Dickert said of the latest surge of moneyball. “My main goal is to re-energize and refocus our program. If we stay the course and keep winning 1-0 and do it daily with our vision and core values, we’re going to have a lot of success.”
If so, Butch may wrap him up in a hug and never let go.