Nick Rolovich sat in his football coach June Jones’ office 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.
Rolovich has now brought his fun to Pullman, hired in January as Washington State’s new football coach, replacing Mike Leach, who went to Mississippi State.
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 — such as becoming a starting Division I quarterback after going unrecruited in high school and making good on his bold proclamation to Junes.
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 has already 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 and resilient, and is accustomed to winning. Not only did he become the starting quarterback for Hawaii, he outshined a Heisman 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, 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.”
Rolovich took over a Hawaii program coming off five straight 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 also 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, who 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, Fla., 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.”
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.”
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, kind-hearted and compassionate human being,” said WSU athletic director Patrick Chun. “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.”