Hawaii Bowl Football

Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich watches during the first half of the team's Hawaii Bowl NCAA college football game against BYU, Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019, in Honolulu. 

Like his famous predecessor as Washington State football coach, Nick Rolovich has spent a lot of time picking the brain of Darrel “Mouse” Davis, who’s considered the foremost developer of the run-and-shoot offense.

That’s hardly the only thing Rolovich has in common with Mike Leach. Their shared influences are one reason the Cougars are expecting a smooth transition from Leach’s Air Raid to Rolovich’s version of the run-and-shoot.

Davis, 87, expressed approval Tuesday when informed WSU had hired Rolovich, who has been head coach at Hawaii the past four years.

“He’s a great young coach and a really good guy,” Davis said by phone from his home in Portland, Ore. “I can’t recommend him more strongly.”

News broke of Wazzu’s choice late Monday, and the school made the hire official Tuesday. Rolovich, 40, will be introduced at a news conference at 2:30 p.m. Thursday at the Rankich Club Room at Martin Stadium in Pullman.

Rolovich learned the pass-heavy principles of the run-and-shoot as a quarterback in 2000-01 for then-Hawaii coach June Jones, who himself had learned it as a quarterback for Davis at Portland State a generation earlier. Later, Rolovich and Davis coached together as assistants at Hawaii.

Although Rolovich hasn’t always emphasized the passing game as insistently as Davis, he re-embraced it midway through his head-coaching tenure at Hawaii — with help from Leach. According to a story a year ago in the Athletic, Rolovich made a pilgrimage to Leach’s bungalow in Key West, Fla.,  during the 2018 offseason, and talked Air Raid football. Leach encouraged him to ignore critics who think a balanced run-pass ratio always is ideal.

Since then, the Warriors have posted their first two winning seasons since 2010, going 10-5 in 2019 while throwing 60 percent of the time and winding up fifth in the country in passing yards.

“We set a goal of bringing the best coach possible to (WSU),” athletic director Pat Chun said in a news release. “Nick Rolovich is a genuine person, a program-builder, an innovator and the exact fit to lead Cougar football.”

Leach, who accepted the head coaching job at Mississippi State this past Thursday, led the Cougars to six bowl appearances in his eight-year tenure, breaking the school’s 10-year bowl drought in his second season, in 2013.

Rolovich mentioned Leach, Chun and WSU President Kirk Schulz in his comments in the news release.

“I’d like to thank President Schulz and Pat Chun for the opportunity and the trust they have put in me to lead these young men,” he said. “Not only on the football field, but we truly believe we are raising tomorrow’s husbands, fathers and community leaders. The excitement is real and it’s honest. Most recently what coach Leach has built gives us a high starting point. I appreciate him as a friend and what he has done to build the program.”

Davis will be watching from afar. Although he was born in the town of Palouse and “as a little kid was 100 percent Cougar,” he spent much of childhood in Oregon and hasn’t been a “dedicated” Cougar fan.

“But I’m rededicating myself now that Nick’s going there,” he said.

The kinship of the run-and-shoot and the Air Raid is indisputable. In co-authoring the Air Raid in the late 1980s, Leach and Hal Mumme conferred at length with Davis and others. Mumme in particular cites Davis and LaVelle Edwards as the two primary influences on his offensive philosophy.

Davis said Rolovich, like virtually every other proponent of the run-and-shoot, has veered from the original conception of the offense and applied his own spin. But he echoes Leach’s oft-repeated observation that spread-passing offenses, with their multiple-receiver sets, fundamentally have changed the game.

“Everyone tweaks their offense,” Davis said. “I don’t care if they’re slug-mouth, 3-and-a-cloud, they even tweak that — which you can’t tweak very well. But you see the difference in the NFL. The change is so significant that people at every level are using four wide receivers, sometimes five. They can call it whatever they want, but I know the roots of it. It’s the best way to play the game if you want to score.”

In the end, he said, subtle personal preferences among the spread-offense enthusiasts are less important than factors like character.

“He’s a good guy,” he said of Rolovich. “You can talk to him about anything. He’s going to be straight-up with you. He’s the right kind of person.”

Dale Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2290.

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