When you're part of the eighth-ranked college football team in the country, there's little question you know how to compete. And when Washington State assistant coaches Robb Akey and Mike Walker start talking about Spokane seniors Jeremey Williams and Erik Coleman, the competition is fierce... to see who can hand out the most compliments.
"You can't say enough positive things about Jeremey Williams or the type of person he is," says Akey, WSU's defensive coordinator. "He's high-class. I would say that about both of those kids. I mean, their character is outstanding."
"Erik Coleman is a quality kid," says Walker, WSU's defensive line coach. "I haven't seen anyone hungrier than Erik... and [Williams] has been one of my favorite players. He's so easy to coach. You only have to tell him once on anything."
It's only natural that Williams would pick things up quickly, since he's a lock to make the Pacific-10 Conference All-Academic team for the fourth straight year. Despite the heavy workload required of major college football players practically year-round, Williams is already attending grad school after earning his communications degree with a 3.5 grade point average.
"The thing my parents always instilled in me is that you have to do everything the same," says Williams, who was an honor student at Ferris High School. "If I compete in the classroom, that's the way I'll play on the field."
Talk about a product of your environment: Williams is the son of Rogers High School Principal Wallace Williams (an offensive tackle at WSU in 1970-71) and Adrian Williams, a multicultural programs coordinator at Spokane Falls Community College. Jeremey's only sibling, older sister Stephanie, is a grad student on scholarship at Maryland.
Williams and Coleman grew up on the South Hill -- they played flag football together in grade school and later played against one another in football and basketball -- but Coleman's upbringing was not as ideal as that of Williams.
Coleman's parents divorced when he was young, and father and son did not speak for years (their relationship has since improved). Coleman and his mother, younger brother and older sister struggled to get by financially, and Coleman's mother has said that a drug problem led her to embezzle $97,000 from work. Cynthia Coleman served six months at Geiger while Coleman was a senior at Lewis and Clark.
"It was difficult," says Coleman, who bubbles with the intensity that Williams hides behind a mellow exterior. "My mom's always been out to do anything for her children. She made a mistake. It was hard to see her in that position."
On the field, free safety Coleman and defensive tackle Williams are two of the best at their respective positions. Both made Pac-10 honorable mention last year for the conference co-champs, and they've played even better this season on a team that may repeat as conference champs and Rose Bowl participants. Next year, pro scouts say, Coleman and Williams might fulfill their childhood dreams of playing in the NFL.
First, however, comes the Apple Cup. The Cougars have lost five straight years to Washington, so Saturday's game in Seattle represents the final chance for the most successful class in WSU football history to knock off the Huskies.
"Winning the Apple Cup this year would make our whole season," Coleman says.
"I've played this game probably a thousand times," Williams says, "whether on the playground with my friends or on video games or in my head."
Adding to Williams' determination to win Saturday is the fact that his father was 0-2 in Apple Cups.
"We've been talking about it," Williams says. "He told me, 'I never beat them.' It'll be in the back of my mind."
Williams has been a lifelong Cougar fan -- "On the playing field, I always wanted to be [ex-Cougar stars] Phillip Bobo or Steve Broussard" -- but even his love for Washington State has never motivated Williams more than his love for his parents.
Williams, a 6-foot-4, 288-pound teddy bear off the field, says his desire to remain near his parents played a major role in his decision to attend WSU. He turned down scholarship offers from more prestigious (at the time, anyway) football schools such as Michigan, USC and even Washington.
"It always was important to me, ever since high school, to come out before kickoff and look up in the stands and see my parents sitting together," Williams says. "Just knowing they've stayed together this long and have always given me a home... I knew I would miss that so much if I went to another school and they could probably see one game a year. Even now, the first thing I do right before kickoff is separate myself and find them up in the stands."
Williams exudes so much class and maturity -- "You'd think he was the president," Akey says -- that it's difficult for some people to envision him scratching and clawing in the trenches against 300-pound opponents. Walker said he has never heard Williams curse.
"You make him mad, you better look out," Walker says. "People don't realize he's got this controlled anger. If you rub him the wrong way..."
"Yeah, he can flip that switch on and off," Akey says. "He's one tough individual, too. He played his freshman year with a broken leg."
True story: Williams played the entire 2000 season with a crack in his left leg. He simply (yawn) waited until the end of the season to have a metal rod inserted in the leg. It's still in there.
Coleman is just a wee bit gutsy himself. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound speedster led the Cougars in tackles last year despite playing with a left shoulder that became dislocated four times. One postseason operation later, he's tied for the team lead in tackles and interceptions, and he was recently named National Defensive Player of the Week.
"I'm too good a competitor -- I couldn't imagine not playing, especially with as good a season as we had," says Coleman, WSU's defensive captain this year. "I just had to tough it out. It was just a lot of pain."
Yeah, "just" a lot of pain. Walker and Akey weren't surprised at Coleman's determination.
"With Erik, there's a burning desire to be right," Akey says. "He spends a lot of time studying the film on the opponent."
"He's got a hunger for the game," Walker says. "I mean, I've never seen anyone hungrier than Erik ... he probably loves the game more than anyone on the team."
Coleman has just two college games left to demonstrate that love. He's proud of the record-breaking progress the Cougars have made since he and Williams arrived, but both players say the 2003 seniors still have some work to do.
"We've accomplished a lot," Coleman says, "but our most important games are ahead."
The 9-2 Washington State Cougars and 5-6 Washington Huskies finish the regular season Saturday at the Apple Cup in Seattle. Fox Sports televises the game nationally at 3:30 pm from Husky Stadium. The Cougars have already qualified for a yet-to-be determined bowl game; the Huskies must win Saturday to have the minimum six victories required for bowl consideration.