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Nick Rolovich’s leadership council the first bridge to ‘player-run program’ at Washington State

UPDATED: Sun., Oct. 25, 2020

WSU’s Liam Ryan pauses between reps during a WSU spring practice in April. A member of Rolovich’s newly formed leadership council, Ryan was also voted as a team captain this fall by teammates.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
WSU’s Liam Ryan pauses between reps during a WSU spring practice in April. A member of Rolovich’s newly formed leadership council, Ryan was also voted as a team captain this fall by teammates. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Nick Rolovich wants to foster a player-run program at Washington State.

Now, just for clarification’s sake, that doesn’t mean play-calling autonomy for Max Borghi on third down.

Rolovich won’t be ceding outright control of WSU’s football program to the adolescents on his roster, as riveting as that might be given everything else the sport’s been through in 2020, but player collaboration is critical to the program he’s trying to build.

Next to his potent run-and-shoot offense, a healthy culture was one of the main reasons Rolovich was able to construct such a successful program at Hawaii, leading the Rainbow Warriors to an 18-11 record in 2018 and 2019, and an appearance in the 2019 Mountain West Conference championship game. By viewing the program as their own, players may be more inclined to take care of it, maintain it and leave it in a better place for their successors.

But, manufacturing that type of environment isn’t as simple as willing it into existence. While he was at Hawaii, Rolovich and his assistants assembled a player-run leadership group, called the Football Leadership Council. Just like the run-and-shoot, the council was a hit in Honolulu, so Rolovich is giving it a try on the Palouse.

“It’s just a group that feels like they, not necessarily have some power, but have some influence on the way the program goes,” Rolovich said during a post-practice Zoom interview Wednesday. “… Some years it’s much more needed than others and it’s just hard to say. I hope they take it as an honor.”

The coach expressed interest in recognizing the recently formed council publicly, and on Friday the program’s social media account released a graphic with 17 names and mugshots of players who’d been hand-picked by Rolovich and his assistants.

Regarding age, position and experience, the group is diverse – and don’t think that isn’t by design. It’s comprised of five juniors, five seniors, four sophomores and three freshman. It includes everyone from Borghi, one of the country’s most high-profile running backs, and all-conference linebacker Jahad Woods, to Simon Samarzich, the team’s second-year long snapper, and Chau Smith-Wade, a true freshman cornerback.

The rest of the council: WR Renard Bell, RB Clay Markoff, LT Liam Ryan, CB George Hicks III, WR Travell Harris, RT Abraham Lucas, N Armani Marsh, DT Amir Mujahid, QB Cammon Cooper, Edge Brennan Jackson, LB Travion Brown, WR Joey Hobert and QB Jayden de Laura.

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Explaining the criteria for choosing the council, Rolovich said he included “Guys who coaches thought would be a good – had some influence, but did things the right way.”

Normally, teams fall back on seniors or fourth-year juniors for leadership. The Cougars will certainly do that, recently voting on Borghi, Ryan, Lucas and Woods as their captains, but Rolovich said it’s important to identify leaders within each class, as well.

“I always put two or three freshmen on that, so I like to do it after the freshmen get here and kind of show what they’re all about,” he said. “Also, I think it gives them an opportunity to be surrounded by older leadership. What to do, what not to do. Some of the, maybe, mistakes people have made in the past. Then it gives them a little bit of a voice in their class, too, because we don’t just want the seniors to make every decision.”

So, how does the council operate?

Duties seem to be all-encompassing. On some occasions, it could be as routine as choosing uniform combinations. Other times, might call for a group of seniors to take a freshman under their wing after making a critical error on the field, or a foolish decision away from it.

“Maybe the locker room needs a little bit of a check right now as far as cleanliness,” Rolovich said. “Basically pushing this toward a player-run program is probably the main goal. But (a) sounding board for me and especially for not being around here, not having spring ball.

“Could be anything. Practice times or preparing some of our guys who aren’t maybe used to living in the winter. What kind of guidance can we give them?

“It’s just another group for me to bounce ideas off of and possibly give them a chance to either do something positive with the team or bring the team back down from the clouds.”

As Rolovich alluded to, some years he leans on the council more than others. You can place 2020 under that umbrella. The Cougars don’t necessarily have any internal dilemmas splitting up the locker room, but player accountability in a COVID-19 world is more important than ever.

“I think many of the guys in the leadership council have kind of sewn that message into the team,” Rolovich said. “I think just in general, there’s not as many opportunities. It’s probably complete care for this season after everything they’ve been through, I think there is an element of holding each other accountable.”

Rolovich and members of the leadership council have a constant stream of communication through a group text message chat. It may be used for the coach to gauge the council’s feeling on an idea or for council members to relay a player concern to Rolovich.

“It’s definitely different than anything we did in the past,” Borghi said. “It’s pretty cool because it keeps transparency around the team good. Like, if someone’s feeling some certain way about something, they’ll talk to someone in the leadership council and we’ll be sure to talk with coach Rolo about it. It just kind of keeps the locker room open and keeps everyone on the same page. It’s good, I think it helps build team chemistry and keeps us closer.”

In some instances, it allows players to disseminate information to their teammates – something that would often fall on the lap of the coaching staff.

“Whether it’s what we’re thinking about we’re going to emphasize this week in practice, or hey guys I know it’s the second week of training camp, it’s going to be tough,” Rolovich said. “… Just make sure to keep everybody else dialed in. … Things like that.”

As Rolovich hoped, players who’ve been handpicked for the council have taken their selection as a badge of honor.

“It was a big honor to be chosen to be a part of that group,” Markoff said. “… One of our rules as a group in the Coug leadership council is to let coach Rolo know how the players around us feel, make sure everyone’s voice is being heard and make sure everyone’s on the same page pretty much.”

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