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John Blanchette: Hiring more about hope than home runs at Washington State

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 14, 2020

Time was, hiring a new coach began with winning the press conference.

No more.

Perhaps the most interesting development in the yearly coaching carousel was revealed last week by Steven Godfrey of the college football outlet the Banner Society, in the wake of Mississippi State luring Mike Leach away from Washington State, with no extraordinary effort.

Aiding coaching searches at multiple colleges this year, Godfrey confirmed through sources, was a firm that “measured social media reaction to rumored and leaked candidates. Leach scored high/positive.”

Why not? Hollywood has used test audiences as a crutch for decades.

So there you have it.

First you win Twitter. Then you win the presser. And that provides some cover until the new hire can actually win games.

Pat Chun moved so swiftly after Leach beat feet south that Wazzu’s athletic director hardly had time to check his own accounts before settling on Hawaii’s Nick Rolovich as a replacement. Ergo, it’s unlikely he wasted time contracting with some social media mining operation to learn what @JimDaCoug in Renton, Washington, thought. Not that there’s enough in the department’s petty cash drawer to pay one anyway, what with that debt that’s two years away from reaching nine figures.

Instead, Chun relied on his contacts, his judgment and his gut, all indispensable elements in a coaching search that didn’t have a just-gotta-get-this-guy name atop the list.

The guy they did get? There’s a lot to like.

Hefting Rolovich’s résumé will not give anyone a hernia: four years as a head coach at Hawaii, a 28-27 record. But it still contains substance and nuance, parallels and promise – suggestions that the momentum which idled this year can be found again at the place Leach (and all that red ink) rebuilt for success.

There’s the high-powered passing attack – not the Air Raid, but the run-and-shoot, which is a close enough relative to have over for dinner on holidays. Seventeen seasons of college coaching, all spent building recruiting connections on the West Coast – and in the Polynesian community, where Wazzu has seen a drop-off of late. An offbeat manner and a sense of humor, assets for Cougar coaches going back 50 years.

Although when he’s introduced Thursday in Pullman, Rolovich may have to retract the shot he sent into the Twitterverse a year and a half ago: “Hey, WR recruits, one question. Would you rather stalk block in the snow, or catch balls in paradise to #EarthWindFire?”

Oh, well. Leach used to dismiss the dominance of the SEC. Now he cites it as a reason to change jobs. Things change.

And while the weather suggests paradise, Honolulu is every bit the college football outpost Pullman is, with the same requirement of doing more with less.

The ’Bows are the one college team with their own bowl game – and they’d missed qualifying for five straight years before Rolovich took over. He made it three of the past four seasons.

The best Cougars teams have been underdogs with an attitude. Rolovich can play that role.

But in truth, hiring is more about hope than home runs at Wazzu, where caveats about location and resources come to roost in times bad and good. Even Leach, a proven winner in a Power 5 conference at Texas Tech, was available and was attracted at the program’s nadir because of his own baggage, and a reputation for being, uh, hard to coach.

Rolovich looks the part. But making the jump from the Mountain West to a Power 5 school is no sure thing. For every Chris Petersen over the past couple of decades, there’s been a Dan Hawkins. For every Urban Meyer, a Brady Hoke.

Then again, it’s not all about the head coach.

A hard eye will be cast at Rolovich’s staff hires, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, where his Hawaii teams rarely excelled (34.5 points per game) and where the 2019 Cougs were often dreadful. The kids need to be coached up, but an even bigger need is on the recruiting side. The staff churn under Leach coincided with the past two classes being ranked in the 60s – Paul Wulff territory – after once cresting at 42.

If Chun and his boss, Kirk Schulz, truly expect their football program to make the climb to championship games and New Year’s 6 bowls, that’s the first step.

In the meantime, Rolovich’s roots have likely made him enough of a realist to bring some common-sense touches. Not abandoning the state as a recruiting base. Running the ball enough so that those have-to-have-it downs in the red zone aren’t crapshoots. Keeping things fun, without any cranky intractability.

Of course, if he doesn’t win like the last guy, “high/positive” won’t be the score from the social media salt mines.

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