Skipper gets my vote for man of year

<b>JASON HILL? LOVE that guy. Jerome Harrison? Absolutely crucial. Next year's starting quarterback, JoshAlex SwoggerBrink from OhiOregon? Indispensable. (Not that I'm trying to start a QB controversy or anything) But if you ask me, the real MVP of Cougar football these days is assistant coach Kelly Skipper. He's got a great offensive mind, is a marvelous ambassador on the recruiting trail and, perhaps most impressively, has an uncanny knack for sending running backs to the NFL.

If you only follow the Cougs through TV and the occasional newspaper article, odds are you know little of Coach Skip. As WSU's running backs coach, special teams coach and recruiter supreme, he is a man who wears many hats.

Take this past season, for example. Sure, the Cougs came up a field goal shy of another bowl invitation, but Skipper -- from my viewpoint -- had a truly special season.

His top running back, Chris Bruhn, was dinged up for most of the year, but no worries. Enter Harrison, a junior college diamond-in-the-rough found by Skipper and then nurtured along through the summer and early fall. By mid-season, Harrison was a man on the run. He ended up with 900 yards and nine TDs.

On special teams, the 2004 Cougars returned nary a soul who had ever fielded a kickoff or punt in a college game. It's called "coaching a kid up" when that apparent weakness turns into the third-most prolific punt return yardage total in the Pac-10, 18.3 yards per kickoff return and frequent clips of Michael Bumpus on SportsCenter.

Coach Kelly Skipper

On the recruiting trail, Skipper was the main man responsible for landing Bumpus, one of the West Coast's most coveted prospects a year ago.

For me, though, the crown on Skipper's remarkable 2004 achievements happened far from the recruiting trail and the field of play. USC's Pete Carroll came knocking on Coach Skip's door. He wanted him on his staff at Troy -- in a big way, offering up a pile of money as an enticement.

Skipper had deep roots in California. He was a record-setting running back and then an assistant coach at Fresno State before moving on to become running backs coach and offensive coordinator at UCLA.

USC had just won the co-national championship. And the money being talked about was far greater than he'd ever make in Pullman.

You could hardly blame Coach Skip if he jumped at the chance. But you know what? He told Pete that he and his family loved Pullman, loved the WSU coaching staff and loved the players. Thank you very much, but Kelly Skipper was staying put.

To me, that's a guy who knows his priorities, knows his values, and lives by them.

WSU head coach Bill Doba calls Skipper "the complete package -- a creative offensive strategist, a gifted teacher and a marvelous human being."

Ask Robin Pflugrad, WSU's assistant head coach, about Skipper's unprecedented track record in producing running backs who stick in the NFL (13 and counting!) and he'll tell you Skip teaches his guys the nuances of the position and the intricacies of the broader game of football. He'll also tell you that Skip is a consummate promoter, talking up his guys with pro scouts.

Kelly Skipper and future Cougar Shelton Danzy

But more than anything, he says, Skipper's players excel because they respect him and work hard to reach their fullest potential. "Kids love playing for Kelly. They work hard for him and are incredibly loyal to him. He expects a lot, but he's got a fun side -- the combination is very special. For a coach, one of the greatest rewards is having your old players call to say hello. Kelly's phone rings off the hook -- that tells you a lot about him and the relationships he builds."

As a former college and NFL player, and a high school assistant coach for many years, I can tell you proof positive that there's no higher honor.

Bottom line, Kelly Skipper is as good as they come. And he's my pick for 2004 Cougar MVP.


* The last two Super Bowls have feature one-time Skipper pupils – Carolina's DeShaun Foster in 2004 Tampa Bay's Michael Pittman in 2003.

* 2003 Cougar rushing leader Jonathan Smith became the 13th Skipper running back to join the NFL when he was activated late this past season by the Kansas City Chiefs. And from the way Chris Bruhn has impressed scouts this winter, who knows, No. 14 could be on the horizon.

* Kelly's dad Don is the running backs coach for the Carolina Panthers.

* Skip was an All-State running back at Churchill High in Eugene, where his dad coached with the Ducks. From there it was on to Fresno State under Jim Sweeney, where he earned honorable mention All-America honors.

Cougar great Paul Sorensen

About the author: Paul Sorensen was a first-team All-America safety for Jim Walden's Cougars in the early 1980s. He played professionally in the USFL and NFL before becoming a long-time color commentator on Cougar radio broadcasts.

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