Nick Rolovich came to Washington State as a fun-loving coach, known nationally for his off-the-wall antics and an ability to win.
Less than two years and 11 games later, Rolovich is apparently gone, and will be known nationally as the football coach who lost his job for refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Rolovich had applied for a religious exemption to the mandate that all state employees be vaccinated by Oct. 18, but his tenure at WSU reportedly came to end Monday.
According to John Canzano of The Oregonian, Rolovich was terminated for cause along with other unvaccinated WSU assistant coaches. Further details weren't immediately available.
The Cougars were 5-6 during Rolovich's 1 1/2 seasons as WSU's coach.
But Rolovich's tenure has been marked more by his polarizing stance on the vaccines than what happened on the field. His view was in stark contrast to the one held by his bosses, WSU President Kirk Schultz and Athletic Director Patrick Chun, who adhere to the science that the vaccines are a safe and effective way to prevent COVID-19.
"It certainly skews the perception of our message," Schulz told The New York Times last week. "At most universities, people pay attention to what the university president, the football coach, the basketball coach and the athletic director have to say — that's just the reality. People look at them for leadership because they're highly visible and highly compensated. It doesn't help when you have people who are contrary to the direction we're going."
Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday that — up from 68% a couple weeks ago.
Rolovich, the state's highest-paid employee at $3.2 million a year, had the highest profile among the other 10%, who were at risk of losing their jobs by not following the mandate.
Despite the drama surrounding Rolovich's job status, the team has been rolling. Washington State won its third consecutive game Saturday — each as an underdog — with a dramatic 34-31 win over Stanford in which the Cougars scored the go-ahead touchdown with just over a minute left.
The Washington State players gave their coach a Gatorade shower in celebration, obviously aware that it might be his final game at Washington State.
"It means a lot having a coach that, first of all, is a players' coach and truly understands us," slotback Travell Harris told reporters after the game. "He's an outstanding coach. He's a coach we all love to play for."
Now it appears the team will look to continue its momentum without Rolovich.
The perception of Rolovich changed forever when he made an announcement on Twitter on July 21 that he would not be attending Pac-12 media days in person because he would not meet the requirement that participants be vaccinated.
In the statement, Rolovich said in part: "I have elected not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine for reasons which will remain private. ... I will not comment further on my decision."
For the most part, Rolovich was true to his word that he would not comment further. He has declined to answer every question about the topic, even after Gov. Inslee announced Aug. 18 that everyone working in education must be vaccinated as a condition of employment, setting a deadline of Oct. 18.
But June Jones, who had coached Rolovich when he was a quarterback at Hawaii, did talk, revealing to USA Today that Rolovich had applied for a religious exemption to the state mandate.
After Washington State's 31-24 win over Oregon State on Oct. 9 — just hours after the story on what Jones said was published — Rolovich said this:
"I'm not terribly happy with the way it happened. I hope no player that I coach has to wake up and feel the way I felt today. I don't think it was malicious, but that wasn't a great thing to wake up to, to be honest with you."
That was the final thing Rolovich said on the topic until after Saturday night's win over Stanford, when he was asked if he thought he would be able to keep his job.
"I don't think this is in my hands," he said. "I've been settled for a long time on it. I believe it's going to work out the right way. If that's not what (Athletic Director Pat Chun) wants, then I guess I've got to move on. But I like being here, I like being the coach here. I love these kids. I've just got faith in it."
No one could have predicted this apparent ending when Washington State hired Rolovich on Jan. 14, 2020.
The hire drew praise from around the nation. Rolovich, 40 at the time, had turned around a struggling Hawaii program in four years as the head coach at his alma mater.
Hawaii had just finished a 10-5 season in 2019 with a victory in the Hawaii Bowl, and Rolovich was named Mountain West Conference coach of the year.
He brought his run-and-shoot offense to Washington State, along with the reputation for doing some zany things to get his Hawaii program attention and to keep things light for his players.
Rolovich seemed to nail it when it came to first impressions at WSU.
He said winning the Apple Cup was a priority, and he wanted to improve recruiting on the west side of the state.
Rolovich invited Cougar fans in the Seattle area to meet him at local bars, then picked up the tab. And he stepped up in the Pullman community during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, helping local restaurants by buying 20 meals a night that he then gave away.
The coronavirus ended up leading to the cancellation of spring practice in 2020, and the delay of the regular season. The Cougars played just four of seven scheduled games as three were canceled because of COVID-19 issues (two of the issues were WSU's).
The Cougars finished 1-3 last season and this year did not get off to a good start.
WSU was 1-3 after a 24-13 loss to Utah, marking the third time the Cougars had blown a second-half lead in 2021.
Then came the turnaround, starting with a 21-6 win at California that was followed by dramatic home wins over Oregon State and Stanford.
But that is where Rolovich's tenure at WSU seems to have ended.
2022 NFL mock draft: Way-too-early projections
7. Atlanta (66/1) — Christian Harris, LB, Alabama
Harris had 79 tackles — one behind Dylan Moses for the team lead — 4.5 sacks and an interception as a sophomore. Top needs: RB, Edge, LB
8. N.Y. Giants (66/1) — Drake Jackson, Edge, USC
Jackson can play in space or rush the passer off the edge. In 2019, he was the first true freshman to start a season opener for the Trojans on the defensive line since Everson Griffen in 2007 (and just the second since Tim Ryan in 1986). Top needs: OL, Edge, S
10. Philadelphia (50/1) — Kaiir Elam, CB, Florida
Elam took a step back after an impressive freshman campaign in 2019. He'll be hard to pass on as a 6-foot-2 corner with elite ball skills if he can fine-tune his technique and become a more reliable tackler. Top needs: CB, LB, OL
11. N.Y. Giants from Chicago (50/1) — Zion Nelson, OT, Miami
The 6-foot-5, 315 pound Nelson has developed into one of the premier pass blockers in college football. Top needs: OL, Edge, S
12. Carolina (50/1) — Evan Neal, OL, Alabama
The massive Neal — he's 6-foot-7, 360 pounds — played right guard as a freshman for the Crimson Tide before moving to right tackle in 2020. He'll replace first-round pick Alex Leatherwood at left tackle next season. Top needs: OL, LB, S
14. Arizona (40/1) — Charles Cross, OT, Mississippi State
Cross is a powerful blocker who can do damage at the second level in the run game with premium athleticism and his target-lock awareness. Top-10 is a possibility if he develops as a pass protector. Top needs: OT, Edge, TE
15. Minnesota (40/1) — Josh Jobe, CB, Alabama
Jobe would have been a day two pick had he declared for the 2021 NFL Draft, but he decided to return to Tuscaloosa for a little bit more seasoning. Top needs: CB, S, WR
16. New England (30/1) — Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State
The Mission Hills product shunned millions of dollars to come back for his senior season in Columbus and will likely be a top-three prospect at the position in 2022. Top needs: WR, CB, OL
19. Tennessee (25/1) — Cade Mays, OL, Tennessee
Mays has the talent and size (6-6, 325) to play all five positions on the offensive line. He's likely the most refined blocker in college football. Top needs: WR, LB, OL
20. Dallas (25/1) — Aidan Hutchinson, Edge, Michigan
Hutchinson suffered season-ending ankle surgery in 2020, but he was disruptive as a sophomore in 2019. He produced 4.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, six pass deflections and two forced fumbles. Top needs: Edge, OL, S
21. Cleveland (25/1) — Xavier Thomas, Edge, Clemson
This projection is based on Thomas' special talent, but he has to stay healthy and develop consistency. Top needs: Edge, WR, DT
23. N.Y. Jets from Seattle (22/1) — Rasheed Walker, OT, Penn State
Walker would have heard his name called had he declared for the 2021 NFL Draft, but his current developmental trajectory puts him as one of the first offensive lineman off the board in 2022. Top needs: CB, TE, S
24. Indianapolis (20/1) — Jon Metchie, WR, Alabama
Metchie could be the fifth Alabama wide receiver selected in the first round in three years. He had 916 yards on 55 receptions and six touchdowns in an offense dominated by Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris. He'll be Bryce Young's clear-cut number one target in the fall. Top needs: OT, WR, CB
25. New Orleans (18/1) — Jordan Davis, DT, Georgia
Davis would've likely been the first defensive tackle selected this year had he left school — Christian Barmore was selected by the Patriots in the second round with the 38th overall pick. Top needs: WR, DT, QB
27. Baltimore (12/1) — Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa
Linderbaum was recruited as a defensive lineman, but switched to the offensive line during bowl prep of his freshman season and has never looked back. He heads into the fall as the top center in college football. Top needs: OT, DL, C
28. Buffalo (12/1) — Sevyn Banks, CB, Ohio State
Every starting cornerback for the Buckeyes since 2013 have been drafted — seven in the first round. Banks has the physical traits and skillset to keep the party going. Top needs: CB, LB, WR
30. Tampa Bay (10/1) — George Karlaftis, Edge, Purdue
The pandemic limited Karlaftis to only three games last fall (he still had two sacks), but he was an AP Freshman All-American in 2019 after producing 7.5 sacks with 17 tackles for loss as a true freshman. Top needs: DL, WR, CB
31. Green Bay (9/1) — Perrion Winfrey, DT, Oklahoma
Winfrey's quickness makes him a disruptive force on the interior. He'll be the anchor of a potentially dominant Sooners defense this season. Top needs: LB, WR, DL