John McGrath

John McGrath: UW assistant coach Jeff Choate wearing two hats as Huskies prepare for bowl game

Washington defensive line and special teams coach Jeff Choate walks on the field during the first day of spring football practice March 30.
Washington defensive line and special teams coach Jeff Choate walks on the field during the first day of spring football practice March 30. The Associated Press

University of Washington football coach Chris Petersen understands why soon-to-be-former assistant Jeff Choate is unable to give the Huskies his undivided attention these days.

Choate, hired by Montana State on Dec. 4, is busy transitioning into his new job as the Bobcats’ head coach. But he’s also staying busy at his old one — defensive line and special teams coach for a UW team preparing to face Southern Mississippi in the Heart of Texas Bowl.

“Some days are crazy,” Choate said after practice Saturday at Husky Stadium. “I’ll spend maybe 20 minutes on this team, then 20 minutes on my new team, back and forth like that from the moment I’m out the door at 5:45 in the morning until late at night. But it’s OK. I’ve always been pretty good at multitasking.”

Choate has held a variety of titles during his 24-year coaching career, but Montana State will be his first chance to oversee a college team. With a staff to be put together and recruits to be identified, getting settled in at Bozeman was a priority.

So was remaining with UW through the bowl game, and when Petersen asked his friend to stay on board for the month, Choate was happy to oblige.

“We had a conversation about what happens if this happens,” Choate said. “I told him I didn’t know — I can certainly see arguments for both sides. But when I was offered the job and he said, ‘I want you to stay,’ it was easy.

“I have such an affinity for the program and the players here and the coaches I work with, it wasn’t like ‘This guy’s gone, get out of here.’ There are people here who are happy for me and my opportunity. I want to see this thing and finish it with this group of guys.”

Double duty doesn’t always end well — or, for that matter, begin well. Some administrators have taken the “This guy’s gone, get out of here” approach, most notably the late Bo Schembechler at Michigan. When Wolverines men’s basketball coach Bill Frieder announced he had agreed to accept a similar position at Arizona State after the 1989 season, Schembechler bellowed: “A Michigan man will coach Michigan, not an Arizona State man.”

A Michigan man, top assistant Steve Fisher, soon went on to lead the Wolverines to the national championship.

In 2002, former Washington State football coach Mike Price tried to wear two hats before the Rose Bowl. En route to his brief, ill-fated relocation to Alabama, Price stayed in Pullman as a kind of co-coach with his successor, defensive coordinator Bill Doba.

It was an awkward arrangement that appeared to distract the Cougars, who were no match for Oklahoma in a 34-14 defeat.

Choate is leaving Montlake with the full approval of Petersen, whose request for the popular assistant to stick around was steeped in common sense: Petersen needs every edge he can muster against a Southern Mississippi offense that is as explosive as it is balanced.

Definition of explosive: Quarterback Nick Mullens has thrown for 4,145 yards this season.

Definition of balanced: Golden Eagles running backs Jalen Richard and Ito Smith have both rushed for more than 1,000 yards.

“When you throw for 4,000 yards and have two 1,000-yard rushers, it’s not happening just because those guys are doing something all of the sudden,” said Choate. “They’ve got a really good line in front of them.

“It’s an exceptional offense, ranked in the Top 10 in both rushing and passing. They’re the first team to do that since Oklahoma in the early 2000s.”

While Choate has been studying Southern Mississippi, he’s somehow managed to assemble a coaching staff at Montana State. He’ll hold his first meeting with the assistants on Jan. 4, a week after he leaves Seattle.

“The one thing that dawned on me immediately after I took the job,” he said, “is that I can’t have a selfish thought because I’ve got to think about what’s best for the existing players and the staff. I’m the last guy I can think about every day.

“When you’re an assistant coach, you’re taking care of the guys in the room, your family and yourself. You’re asking: ‘What’s best for me?’ You can’t have that mindset if you want to be a really good head coach. You’ve got to think about what’s best for other people.”

Choate has yet to find a place to live in Bozeman — “That’s up to Mr. Choate,” he said with a laugh — but otherwise seems to understand that cheerfulness is the best way to get through a long, dizzying day that pulls him in different directions.

There is the past, which demands loyalty to the head coach he has worked under for eight years. There’s the future, and what he calls “the new adventure” awaiting him at Montana State.

And there is the present, 20 minutes at a time.

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