Buchan: College coaching ranks has distinct WW flavor

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WALLA WALLA - Peter Sirmon's decision to return to the Pacific Northwest as a member of the University of Washington football coaching staff is welcome news.

Sirmon, a 1995 Wa-Hi graduate, is a good guy who gives all of us here in Cougar Country a reason to care about the Huskies. He'll be coaching the UW linebackers, a position he knows something about.

Sirmon led the Blue Devils to the final Kingbowl in 1994 where they lost to South Kitsap 15-10. He played quarterback and safety for Wa-Hi, then moved on to the University of Oregon where he was converted to linebacker.

At Oregon, Sirmon was a four-year starter and earned all-Pacific-10 honors as a senior. He was selected by Tennessee in the fourth round of the 2000 NFL draft and quickly moved into the Titans starting lineup where he garnered 349 tackles, five sacks and four pass interceptions over his seven-year career.

Sirmon began his coaching career in Ellensburg in 2008 where he worked under another former Wa-Hi football star, Blaine Bennett, for a single season at Central Washington University. He spent the following year as an assistant coach at his alma mater in Eugene, then two seasons under Derek Dooley - the first year as a graduate assistant and the second year fulltime - at the University of Tennessee.

Justin Wilcox, the Volunteers' defensive coordinator, is making the move with Sirmon to Washington and will take charge of a Huskies defense that was so deplorable in a 67-56 loss to Baylor in the recent Alamo Bowl.

Wilcox and Sirmon were teammates and roommates at Oregon. And while Sirmon was playing in the NFL, Wilcox was working his way up the coaching ladder.

The son of 49ers Hall of Famer Dave Wilcox and the nephew of former Whitman College coach John Wilcox, who still resides in Milton-Freewater, Justin Wilcox was the defensive coordinator at Boise State from 2006 through 2009. The Broncos were 49-4 during those four campaigns.

In two years at Tennessee, Wilcox - with Sirmon's help - transformed the Volunteers into one of the top 30 defensive teams in the nation. But there's still trouble in Knoxville.

Dooley, the son of former University of Georgia coach Vince Dooley, is 11-14 in two seasons at Tennessee and 4-12 in the Southeastern Conference. He's getting heat from unhappy Tennessee alums, and Sirmon and Wilcox aren't the only assistant coaches to jump ship.

Wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett unexpectedly retired at the end of the 2011 season and tight ends coach Erik Russell is headed to Washington State University where he joins new Cougars coach Mike Leach in Pullman.

All of that said, it's easy to understand why Sirmon, his wife Lindsay and their four children couldn't pass up the opportunity to return to their Northwest roots.

Meanwhile, another successful college football coach with Walla Walla roots still has some unfinished business before the 2011 season is put to rest.

Tom Mason and the Southern Methodist University Mustangs will take on the Pittsburgh Panthers Saturday in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala. Mason, a 1975 Wa-Hi grad, is in his fourth season as the Mustangs' defensive coordinator.

An all-Big Nine Conference tight and linebacker during his playing days at Wa-Hi, Mason began his collegiate career at the University of Idaho but quickly transferred to Walla Walla Community College when Gary Knecht left the Vandals to become WWCC's head football coach in 1976.

After finishing up his playing career at the University of Nevada-Reno, Mason returned home and began his coaching career under Knecht in the fall of 1978. And since then, his career path has been long and winding - and usually successful.

Mason coached linebackers at Eastern Washington for four seasons (1981-85) and was the defensive coordinator at Portland State (1986-1992) and at Boise State (1993-1996). He was also the interim head coach at Boise State in 1996.

From there, he moved to Northern Iowa where he was the D-coordinator for a couple of seasons (1997-98), held the same position at Nevada-Reno (1999) and then jumped into the professional ranks. He coached defensive backs for the Scottish Claymores in NFL Europe and wide receivers for the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League in 2000. And in 2001 he was linebackers coach for the Las Vegas Outlaws in the short-lived XFL.

Mason returned to the college ranks in 2001 and coached linebackers at Fresno State for seven seasons.

He then joined the SMU staff in 2008 under June Jones and turned the Mustangs defense around almost immediately. In 2007, the year before Mason's arrival, the Mustangs ranked 116th in the nation in total defense, but by 2010 they had climbed 74 spots and were ranked 40th in the country.

SMU takes a 7-5 record against Pittsburgh (6-6) Saturday morning at 9. The game will be televised by ESPN.

If that isn't proof positive that Walla Walla has become a treasure trove when it comes to turning out high calibre college football coaches, there's this:

Andy Thompson and Brian Lindgren, 1999 high school grads at Wa-Hi and DeSales, respectively, are making their mark on the Northern Arizona University football coaching staff in Flagstaff. Thompson recently finished his third season as the Lumberjacks' defensive coordinator and Lindgren completed his third year as offensive coordinator.

Thompson played college football at the University of Montana as a linebacker and helped the Grizzlies to four Big Sky Conference championships and one NCAA Division I-AA national title. He coached one season at Eastern Oregon University before joining the Northern Arizona staff as a graduate assistant in 2005.

Lindgren quarterbacked the University of Idaho during his collegiate playing days where he passed for 6,451 yards and 44 touchdowns in three seasons as the starter. He broke into coaching at the University of Redlands in 2005 and joined the NAU staff the following year as a graduate assistant.

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