Julie McDonald Commentary: How WSU Football Coach Nick Rolovich ‘Couged It’

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Under a hot summer sun in August, my stepdaughter and I discussed which dates would work best for us to watch a Washington State University Cougar home football game.

My daughter plays clarinet in the Cougar Marching Band, so I go to the games to support the band and occasionally watch the players on the field. Although my husband and I have attended several games in recent years, Amanda Reeder hadn’t been to Pullman since 1990.

We settled on Oct. 23, which was Saturday’s non-conference game against BYU, but early last week, Amanda called to say, “We’ve been couged.”

For those who don’t know, “couged” refers to WSU’s football team squandering its chances for victory.

WSU fired head coach Nick Rolovich and four assistant coaches only days before the first and only football game we attended this season. WSU administrators terminated their employment after they failed to comply with Gov. Jay Inslee’s Oct. 18 vaccine mandate, which affected all state employees. Rolovich reportedly sought a religious exemption as a “devout Catholic,” but it was denied.

Although I’m not a fan of mandates, I do know that WSU required its students to provide proof of vaccination this year unless they received an exemption. Nearly 100 percent of the band students are vaccinated. Rolovich had months to comply, but instead opted to stand against the mandate.

I’m sure many anti-vaxxers in Lewis County consider him a hero, but as the mother of a university student, I’d prefer to see the staff and students she interacts with on a daily basis protected as much as possible against the coronavirus during a pandemic.

Also, as a Catholic Baptist — I was Catholic longer than Rolovich has been alive — I often check to see what the pope says about controversial issues of the day. In August, Pope Francis launched an appeal asking people to obtain COVID-19 vaccinations and calling it “an act of love.”

“Getting vaccinated is a simple yet profound way to care for one another, especially the most vulnerable,” the pope said.

I kind of figure wearing masks and obtaining vaccinations represents the action behind the song lyrics, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

The pope praised the work done by scientists and researchers who produced the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines and added his voice to appeals by bishops throughout North and South America who have urged the faithful to obtain the vaccination in hopes of saving lives and ending the pandemic.

I did wonder why the state mandate didn’t let employees show proof of negative COVID-19 tests in lieu of vaccination, which is an allowance offered to people attending large gatherings such as the Cougar football game. Those attending Saturday had to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within the previous 72 hours.

However, perhaps allowing potentially contagious state employees to interact with the public posed too much liability risk.

Of course, it didn’t take long — only 36 hours — for Rolovich to sue WSU for wrongful termination, calling his firing “unjust and unlawful,” despite the fact that a state-funded university was ordered to comply with a state mandate issued by the state’s duly elected governor. Rovich wants his contract’s remaining $3.6 million in base pay through the summer of 2025.

I hope the university stands strong and refuses to give one more penny to the overpaid coach who couldn’t lead his team players and other students by example.

Speaking of which, why was Rolovich the highest paid employee in Washington with a $3.2 million annual salary? What kind of responsibility does he have?

In stark contrast, our highly vilified governor earns $187,353 a year. His decisions, as we’ve seen during the past 18 months, affect the health and livelihoods of 7.6 million people.

University officials probably worried that the decision to fire Rolovich might cut financial donations. However, WSU Athletic Director Pat Chun noted that last week WSU raised more than $3.5 million toward its $25 million privately funded indoor practice facility. That was among the best fundraising weeks in Cougar Athletic Fund history, according to cougcenter.com. A 1993 WSU alumnus, Darren Alger, and his wife, Jamie, provided a “transformational gift.”

In his lawsuit, Rolovich’s attorney Brian Fahling contended that AD Chun discriminated against the head coach who “has been derided, demonized, and ultimately fired from his job, merely for being devout in his Catholic faith.”

Funny though, the accusations are more akin to a fumble as sports columnist Jon Wilner with the Bay Area News Group pointed out that Chun himself is Catholic — and one who apparently received a COVID-19 vaccination as he still has a job. Chun, who attended Catholic school for 12 years, and his wife are raising their children in the Catholic faith, according to Wilner, who said Rolovich and Fahling “crafted the statement not in the attorney’s Kenmore, Washington, offices but, rather, in a theater of the absurd.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Wilner also said, “In our view, the Cougars (4-4/3-2 Pac-12) have a better chance to win the Pac-12 championship than Rolovich has to win the lawsuit.”

I hope he’s right.

At Saturday’s game, under partly cloudy skies, the Cougar football team played respectably but lost 21-19 against BYU, which was ranked 21st in the nation.

They didn’t win, but they didn’t coug it either — unlike their former head coach.

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Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.

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