As Matt Mitchell was growing up, his grandpa tried to indoctrinate him in two things. One was being a Republican, and one was being a WSU Cougar football fan.
Only one of them took, and you can probably figure out which one by Mitchell's shirt in the photo accompanying this story.
You might know the 35-year-old Mitchell through his life as a singer-songwriter, playing throughout the Inland Northwest with his bands Trego and the Matt Mitchell Music Co. On fall Saturdays when his gig schedule doesn't conflict with kickoff, you'll find him either visiting Martin Stadium in Pullman or in his Spokane backyard, an extension cord connecting his TV for Coug viewing in the great outdoors. "If I'm not at the game, that's my preferred method," Mitchell says.
Besides his grandpa, many members of Mitchell's family went to school at WSU, including his great-grandpa, grandma and brother, Rob. He and Rob spent countless Saturdays with their grandpa cheering on the Cougs. If they weren't in Pullman meeting grandpa's friends at the Coug, they were at his house being inundated with all things Cougar football.
"It really became this manifestation of our relationship to grandpa," Mitchell says. "I didn't go to WSU ... but I'd argue that my connection to my grandpa has a stronger emotional connection than, you know, being a frat boy and having a bunch of foggy nights."
As Mitchell grew into adulthood, his Cougar fandom grew with him. WSU football days always start off with a quick memorial to the man who got him into football.
"I start by texting my brother a quote from my grandpa on every game day," Mitchell says. "He would say, 'It's a great, big, Cougar football afternoon!'"
Aside from a few noteworthy years here and there when the Cougs made the Rose Bowl, much of Mitchell's life before Mike Leach became WSU's coach was spent rooting for a team that struggled. But that didn't discourage him in the least.
"I'd much rather root for the underdog," Mitchell says. "When you're expected to win, it's mostly disappointment, right? For a lot of those years, it was, 'Can we get a bowl game?' Maybe a lot of three-win seasons. That was really rough. But you build a lot of character and learn a lot of life lessons being disappointed in life."
There hasn't been much disappointment since Leach took over the Cougs in 2012, save for the team's seemingly annual drubbing in the Apple Cup against UW. Mitchell certainly appreciates the winning, acknowledging that "Mike Leach is a genius in his own way," but the pirate-obsessed coach's allegiance to the current president is troubling for Mitchell as both a political progressive and Coug fan.
"My grandpa made me a Cougar fan, but the Republican indoctrination didn't take," Mitchell says. "My biggest conflict with Cougar football is Leach's Trump support."
That said, Mitchell's Coug love precedes Leach and will remain whenever the coach moves on down the line. And Mitchell has a life full of fond Cougar memories that politics can't spoil, from sneaking into the team's locker room with his brother to a "National Lampoon's horrible vacation type thing" at the 2002 Rose Bowl. Just last year, transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew gave Mitchell and his Coug fans a historic high in wins (11) and more memories that will last a lifetime. And Mitchell is confident he might be in store for more good things in 2019.
"I feel way more confident of the foundation [than in the past]," Mitchell says. "The defense is going to be good. I think the offense is going to be good. Mike Leach has improved every year, essentially. It's impressive what he does."
Mitchell's grandpa would no doubt agree. ♦
The Big Story: By any measure, 2018 was a success. The Cougs found a genuine folk hero in their battle for the quarterback position in Gardner Minshew, won a school record 11 games and the Alamo Bowl and finished ranked No. 10 in the nation. Even so, another Apple Cup loss stung, and now coach Mike Leach must find a new signal-caller to lead his loaded offense and strong defense. If the Cougs can find a new version of Minshew's magic — with Anthony Gordon, who's been named the Week 1 starter or perhaps in former EWU quarterback Gage Gubrud — it could be another memorable season.
The Big Game: That would be the Apple Cup against UW in Seattle, and not just because of the natural rivalry. Once again, that game could decide the Pac-12 North division, and winning a meaningful Apple Cup remains a must-do on Leach's resume.
- Aug. 31 vs. New Mexico St.
- Sept. 7 vs. Northern Colorado
- Sept. 13 at Houston
- Sept. 21 vs. UCLA
- Sept. 28 at Utah
- Oct. 12 at Arizona St.
- Oct. 19 vs. Colorado
- Oct. 26 at Oregon
- Nov. 9 at Cal
- Nov. 16 vs. Stanford
- Nov. 23 vs. Oregon St.
- Nov. 29 at Washington