PULLMAN — The Washington State Cougars officially introduced new head football coach Nick Rolovich Thursday afternoon at a press conference in Pullman.
While you Coug fans might not be entirely familiar with the Palouse’s new football czar, I am.
As a budding sports reporter for Ka Leo, the student newspaper at the University of Hawaii, I got to work with Rolo during his first year with Hawaii. Pat Chun couldn’t have picked a better successor to Mike Leach.
At Hawaii, Rolovich took over a program essentially in a free-fall with a fanbase that had soured beyond its curdling point following four brutal years – which saw just 11 wins – under Norm Chow. The community, typically robust and football-crazed, simply stopped showing up to games. More people attended prep football on Friday night than the next day at Aloha Stadium.
All of that changed when Rolo, a former record-setting quarterback under June Jones and assistant for the Warriors from 2003-04 and 2008-11, took over.
Rolovich resurrected Hawaii and reinvigorated the fanbase.
He was young, and still is at 40, had a long history with the program and walked with a certain cache that seemed to permeate throughout UH. The players just loved to be around the guy. Rolo’s ultimate goal was to re-establish a winning culture, but first, he wanted to create a brotherhood amongst the guys.
That first year, Rolo was everywhere. He attended various volleyball, basketball and baseball games with players, organized Pokemon Go events on campus, and got the players out to the local Costco to hand out schedules and help load groceries.
He got pros like Michael Bennett to come to spring practice and give tips to defenders and arranged elaborate scholarship reveals for walk-on players – one guy had to dance on stage in front of his team and thousands of people at a WWE event to earn his.
One off-day during spring ball, Rolo walked into the team meeting room with an army helmet, a black streak across his face and a super soaker and declared war against the players. Chaos ensued as players and coaches waged an epic water balloon war.
All the fun that had been shackled in by Chow, was suddenly released with Rolo. The sun started to shine a little brighter, the surf picked up and even the mai tais tasted sweeter. Football was back in Hawaii.
Recruiting top talent to the islands has always been an issue, but in his first season at UH Rolo won more games (7) than Chow did during the previous three seasons and capped the year with a with at the Hawaii Bowl.
In his final two seasons, Rolovich led the Rainbow Warriors to 18 wins, a second Hawaii Bowl and their first appearance in the Mountain West Championship since joining the conference in 2012.
Rolo made good on his promise to rebuild the program and left it in a good place before departing for Eastern Washington.
In his first talk with the team on Tuesday Rolo’s message was similar to the one he had given four years prior at UH.
“I’m honored to coach you guys. I’m standing in front of the room of the best athletes I’ve ever had the ability to coach, and that excites me,” Rolovich said. “I would like to earn your trust. I consider myself a Coug now, but I do not consider myself in your family. I’d like to earn that right.”
“This is what you guys have built. This is what you guys will continue to build. I’m your coach, I want to get your family,” he added.
Chun, who introduced Rolovich to the team, reminded players that neither he nor Rolovich planned on taking a step back or rebuilding.
“There’s way too much heart, effort, talent in this room,” Chun said. “In my opinion, he fits us like a glove. He’s like us. He’s got a chip on his shoulder. He’s smart. He’s great at what he does, got little sway to him, and he wants to be here.”
So congratulations Coug fans. Rolo might not be as entertaining as Leach was at the podium, but you got yourselves one helluva football coach.