During a virtual news conference this week, California Bears defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon asked Cal beat reporters if they’d seen the meme that depicts two identical figures in Spiderman costumes meeting on the street and pointing at each other accusingly.
For a fleeting moment, you wondered if he was going to talk about his childhood in Walla Walla, Wash., and perhaps laughingly reveal he’d long viewed himself as the Washington State Cougars’ doppelganger and sworn enemy.
But this is 2020. He was just explaining how coaches during pregame warmups tend to stare at the opposite side of the field, trying to determine which players have been sidelined by coronavirus protocol.
Also thanks to the virus, Sirmon, 43, probably won’t be catching up with childhood friends Saturday when the Bears (1-3, 1-3) face Washington State (1-2, 1-2) in a Pac-12 football game at pandemic-emptied Martin Stadium in Pullman, 100 miles northeast of Walla Walla.
Kickoff time was changed Thursday to 1 p.m., with TV coverage by Fox. The original plan had been 7:30 p.m. on FS1.
Regardless of the time and place, Sirmon will try to reprise his role as a thorn in the Cougars’ side.
Growing up in Walla Walla, he was a younger neighbor of future Cougar legend Drew Bledsoe and eventually succeeded him as the town’s high school quarterback. But four years after Bledsoe became a Washington State quarterback, Sirmon declined an invitation to do the same.
Instead he became a linebacker at Oregon, and years later he explained the decision in a way that crystallizes his approach to football.
“Defense made sense,” he told the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., when he was defensive coordinator at Mississippi State. “Angles made sense and defending and leverage made sense. The quarterback thing was great, but when I watch guys that are great players on offense, they have a different imagination.”
Like his quixotic Spiderman analogy, the quote adds nuance to what might be Cougar Nation’s longtime conception of Sirmon, going back to his successful four-year career at Oregon. For one thing, he became a personal rival of the guy who did succeed Bledsoe as Cougars quarterback, a few years down the road — Ryan Leaf.
During a win against the Ducks in Eugene, Ore., that fueled the Cougars’ march to the 1998 Rose Bowl, Leaf completed a 38-yard pass to a diving Shawn McWashington, then moments later launched into a heated exchange with Sirmon.
“Peter Sirmon, the Ducks’ star linebacker, was particularly peeved at me, saying he expected cheap shots from me,” Leaf wrote in his memoir, “596 Switch” a few years ago. “As a quarterback, I have to say it’s not easy to get in on the dirty side of our business. And that day against the Ducks I don’t recall doing anything outside the rule book. My guess was that Peter may have been carrying a little bitterness around in his back pocket from the year before.
“In that Cougar-Duck game, which we also won, I saw him put a blatant cheap shot on Chris Jackson after a touchdown by Michael Black. As I ran down the field to celebrate the score, I angled toward Sirmon and gave him a drive-by forearm to the back that must have at least sent a few snot bubbles out the other side.”
The passage echoes Leaf’s public comments at the time — and those of Sirmon, who said the WSU quarterback “gets his cheap shots in. That’s what you expect from Leaf. There were a lot of great athletes who can handle themselves well, but he isn’t one of them.”
After a seven-year NFL career with the Tennessee Titans, Sirmon eventually decided to take up coaching, accepting a volunteer position at Central Washington on the NCAA Division II level.
For a long stretch, therefore, he had limited opportunities to insinuate himself into the Cougars’ psyche. But he’s making up for lost time.
First, he spent a couple of seasons on the staff of the Cougs’ rival, Washington, just as the Huskies were becoming experts at stopping the Air Raid offense of then-Cougars coach Mike Leach.
Justin Wilcox was another member of that UW staff, and he’s now the fourth-year head coach at Cal. He used the Husky strategy to hold the Cougars to an average of 14 points per game in three consecutive Cal wins — the past two with Sirmon on board.
Now the two of them will try to duplicate that success against first-year WSU coach Nick Rolovich. The Air Raid and the Rolovich’s run-and-shoot are different enough to make the matchup intriguing.
Meanwhile, Sirmon’s Cougar-thwarting campaign might be expanding. His nephew, Jacob Sirmon, is a sophomore backup quarterback for Washington.
Grummert may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2290.
Around the Pac-12
Rivalry week, minus two.
ARIZONA ST. AT ARIZONA (today)
Tally the points carefully or somebody’ll demand a recount.
STANFORD AT OREGON ST.
Since this was supposed to be a Stanford home game, the Beavers should at least plant a cardboard Condoleeza Rice in the stands.
UTAH AT No. 21 COLORADO
Real possibility: The Buffaloes and USC each finish undefeated. The tiebreaker is the teams’ aggregate number of COVID antibodies.
CALIFORNIA AT WASHINGTON ST.
When Oregon vs. Washington was canceled, these teams jumped into its 1 p.m. time spot. Hopefully, they wiped it down first.
No. 16 USC AT UCLA
If the Bruins win, these schools probably will trade coaches.
— Dale Grummert