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NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

It’s about the players

It’s not about a coach.

The adults have been arguing for months now, and I use the term adults here loosely (and before you say it this applies to myself too). Between July and now there’s been a constant drumbeat of media, administration, and coaching staff battles over Nick Rolovich’s vaccination status and compliance with the state mandate. Many have been public, others have been behind closed doors, but throughout what should have been a triumphant return to normal football after a difficult year, a decision Rolovich made caused a massive distraction.

The distraction is not going away now that Rolovich and four other coaches have been fired. If that wasn’t clear before, this morning’s press release from his lawyer announcing an intent to sue the school that singled out athletic director Pat Chun underscored the route Rolovich is going. Faced with the consequences of his actions, Rolovich chose to lash out at his boss and the man who fired him in his first public statement.

It’s worth remembering who is going to continue to bear the brunt of this disaster, though: The players on the team. Their coach picked a fight that had nothing to do with them and that they had no control over, yet they’re suffering the consequences along with him. Nobody signed up for this or the last year and a half as a whole.

In reality, the players have been the real adults. They’ve gone about their business, continued to work hard, and have done their jobs. It’s been extremely impressive and speaks to the leadership in that locker room, especially the upperclassmen.

In crisis and chaos, it’s not uncommon to take an us against the world mentality, bunkering up and really pulling your people close. It’s especially common in a locker room — so much so that it’s a formula coaches use as part of a strategy to win. This team has a clear, strong bond forged over the last year and a half. It rallies hard, and it rallies around its own. It’s a great characteristic.

The players are hurting now, and it’s clear from their public words that they bonded with their coach and shared a real love for him. Their feelings, emotions and words are completely real and valid. They are, unfairly, being hit the hardest in all of this.

It’s why acting head coach Jake Dickert asked fans to rally around the team and the players. For months now, the team has been rallied around its head coach as he felt like the world tightened around him. They acted as a support system, and did it all while winning games. Now the thing they rallied around — whether you believe it’s right or wrong — is suddenly gone. It’s all traumatic.

***

The last few months have been an exercise in compartmentalization. The world is chaos, but at least we can make some neat boxes in our heads, right? In this case, there was the school (that’s WSU as an institution, like a business), the players on the football team, and the head coach.

It was possible to be proud of the school, root for and care about the players, and vehemently disagree with the coach while believing he should no longer be at the school. You can do all these things at once if you choose, and the world will keep spinning.

Even in normal circumstances, we spend too much time focusing on the coaches and not enough on the players. The we here is royal — it’s the media, the fans, the schools themselves ... everyone around the sport. It’s a long-running thing.

Head coaches are the most visible faces of the program, but they’re not what defines it. That’s what the players are for. The players are the important people here and everywhere. They’re why we show up, why we cheer, why we care.

Once again, this team is thrown into a traumatic situation that’s completely out of their control. Their former coach and the school they play for are going to be locked in a nasty, prolonged battle that’s likely to play out in public. Amidst all of this, they have a season to play — a season in which they’re 4-3, on a winning streak, and have a chance at a bowl or more. All of their goals remain within reach.

It doesn’t matter who the head coach is, who’s wearing headsets on the sideline, or who’s doing the game plan. The players are who matter. You don’t cheer for a coach on Saturdays. You cheer for the players wearing your school’s jerseys. The same can be true every other day of the week, too. I’d argue it’s necessary.

The best thing everyone can do right now is let the adults fight it out and support the players. Rally around the team. Show up, appreciate the work they put in, and support them over everything else.

It’s about the players and the school they play for. It’s not about any of us or our feelings.

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