Cougfan at 15: The best hoss of them all

THERE WAS A TEMPEST brewing in the offensive line meeting room. As Washington State prepared for the Sun Bowl in 2001, star junior guard Derrick Roche started going at it with his position coach, Bob Connelly. Roche was, after all, a guy who would talk back on occasion. But this time the bar was raised to an entirely new level.

Connelly was in his first year at WSU and his coaching style was dramatically different than his predecessor, mild-mannered John McDonell. In breaking things down that day in the position meeting, Connelly had praised Tyler Hunt, Josh Parrish and other Cougar linemen. But when he got to Roche, the critique was downright scathing.

Keep in mind that Roche was polishing off a first-team All-Pac-10 season -- one that would morph into All-America honors in 2002.

Tenth in a series of feature stories (15 for 15) CF.C is running in the days surrounding its 15th anniversary on August 15.

Roche wasn't just good. For three seasons, this 6-6, 290-pounder from Kent manned the right guard spot with a fight and fury that made him a star among stars. The first half of the decade of the 2000s was a true golden era for Cougar offensive linemen. And Roche was as good as there was.

Three straight seasons he was named WSU's Offensive Lineman of the Year.

When CF.C's co-founders decided the site, as part of its 15th anniversary milestone, should profile the finest offensive lineman of the Cougfan Era, 1998 to present, there was no doubt who that would be.

But back to Connelly, Roche and the Sun Bowl preparations.

"He was more in-your-face than Coach McDonell," Roche recalled with a laugh this week in an interview with Cougfan.com. "So I started yelling back … And one thing just led to another."

The interaction ended with a red-faced Connelly having Roche execute some quality up-downs – right there in the meeting room.

"Mike (Shelford, former WSU center) still brings that up to me every once in a while. Coach Connelly says he doesn't really remember it much," said Roche.


COUGS WENT 20-5 OVER ROCHE'S LAST 2 YEARS.

Roche started 39 games for the Cougs and anchored a line that guided Wazzu to a 20-5 record over his final two seasons. In addition to Hunt, Parrish and Shelford, his line-mates included, among others, such notables as Calvin Armstrong, Sam Lightbody, Joey Hollenbeck, Billy Knotts, Phil Locker and Nick Mihlhauser.

AFTER THE COUGARS' 2003 ROSE BOWL GAME, Roche signed a free agent deal with the Titans but back problems foiled his chances. So he went into coaching, where landing jobs is so often all about your network.

Roche said he "swallowed my pride" and gave Connelly a call, asking for leads. And this is where the miscommunication between player and coach was still plainly -- and painfully -- evident.

Connelly, who was then at Alabama, said he just had a graduate assistant leave. To Roche, it sounded like Connelly was rubbing it in, that it was interesting he had an opening and that Roche was also looking for a job.

"I didn't find out until years later but after he hung up the phone, he turned to a guy in his office and said, ‘I can't believe he just turned that down,'" said Roche.

Today, Roche and Connelly are close friends. "I talk to him at least once a month," Roche says. He's also stayed close to McDonell.

While miscommunication cost Roche an opportunity at Alabama, there were no problems when it came to talking with Mike Price at UTEP. Roche spent three seasons there as a graduate assistant and special teams coordinator before moving to Pennsylvania to serve as the o-line coach at Division II Millersville. In 2010, he became the o-line coach at Idaho State.

He was let go at the end of last season, and is now starting a new career in the real estate field back home in the Seattle area.


FIRST-TEAM ALL-AMERICA PICK BY FOOTBALL COACHES ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA; SECOND-TEAM BY AP, SPORTING NEWS AND OTHERS.

But the door isn't completely shut on coaching.

"When I got into it, I was good at football and thought I'd be good at coaching," said Roche. "But being good at coaching has little to do with football knowledge – it's more about communication and organization. I had a great mentor working with Mike Price, and it's definitely not a profession for everybody. There are times it's 120 hours a week… there are a lot of ups and downs."

NOT COACHING THIS season has brought with it a silver lining for Roche.

"I'm really looking forward to just being a football fan. And I don't know if I'll just watch a play or if I'll find myself breaking it down in my head like a coach, but I'm really looking forward to it," said Roche.

Because of his coaching career, Roche hasn't had much of an opportunity to watch the Cougs over the years. The only time he was really able to do so came in film prep when Idaho State was preparing to play WSU in 2011. But he took notice of WSU's big-name hire before last season.

"I thought WSU hit a home run in hiring Mike Leach," said Roche. "I've met him twice but I doubt he remembers me. I also got to meet their o-line coach, Clay McGuire, this year at a coaching convention. I got to know him a little bit, talk shop. He was a really nice guy and I have nothing but respect for him. He'll get my alma mater up and running."

The toughest Roche ever lined up against…
WHEN IT CAME to Cougar practices, Roche didn't enjoy seeing d-lineman Rob Meier lining up across from him.

"He was just the kind of guy you could trash talk him, hold him, whatever – he never said anything. He planted me so many times in the backfield," laughs Roche. Meier went on to play for a decade in the NFL with Jacksonville.

In the Pac-10, two opponents stand out – one from USC and the other from Oregon State.

"Sean Cody at USC was tough. And Eric Manning at Oregon State was a very good player," said Roche.
ROCHE KNOWS FIRSTHAND WHAT IT takes to build a winner. While the Cougs were still in the glow of their 10-win 1997 Rose Bowl season when Roche arrived on campus in 1998 out of Kentridge High, the bottom was about to fall out. WSU won three games each in '98 and '99.

"One thing I saw at WSU was when you play a lot of young players, you're going to get thumped," said Roche. "But that experience is invaluable, you learn things out there in the games that you can't learn in meetings or practice.

"In 1999, I was 255-pounds lined up against a guy from Hawaii who weighed 360-pounds. I didn't play a lot that game but I learned from it.

The following season, 2000, the young Cougs really started to get their sea legs. They won just four games, but lost three in overtime and another near the end of regulation.

It set the table for what would become the greatest three-year stretch in program history.

"We were a veteran team in 2001 but still had mostly juniors on that Sun Bowl team -- we had become veterans as sophomores and juniors. And veteran teams have the success," said Roche.

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