As Washington State was in the early stages of its prep work for Tuesday's National Funding Holiday Bowl (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) a couple weeks ago, receiver Gabe Marks got to talking about the San Diego Zoo. It’s generally regarded as one of the best zoos in the world, and as part of the bowl festivities, the team would get to spend some time there on Christmas Day.
Marks was pleased it was part of the itinerary.
“I’ve wanted to go to a zoo for a long time,” Marks said. “I just haven’t gotten around to it lately.”
He was sure the zoo had monkeys, he seemed intrigued by the prospect of seeing giraffes, and of course, there would be lions.
“If they’ve got panda bears, I like pandas too,” Marks said. “Do you see the videos of them on Twitter all the time -- the pandas? They never pop up on your feed? It’s like pandas playing. It pops up on my feed like once a month. They’re, like, rolling down things and falling and stuff. It’s nice.”
Marks, a senior from Venice, California, has more catches (312) than anyone in the history of the Pac-12, but his tenure in Pullman will be defined just as much by what he has said, and how he has said it, as by anything he has accomplished on the field.
Unlike what feels like the majority of college football players, Marks isn’t a follower of the Bill Belichick method when it comes to speaking in public. In fact, there might not be a more entertaining player behind a podium in the country.
As is the case for news conferences with his head coach, Mike Leach, there’s the potential for just about anything to come up when Marks is speaking. It wouldn’t be a waste of an hour to Google his name, click on the videos tab and watch some of his media sessions from this season and beyond.
“I feel like it’s almost equal to my playing at this point, which is cool,” Marks said. “Having a voice is important, especially in trying times. In our country, you can say whatever you want. A lot of people don’t have a good platform where people care about what they’re saying. People want to ask questions. I’m obligated to give them honest answers.”
Not only does he give honest answers, but he also provides plenty of context for how or why he feels the way he does about whatever the topic might be. He tries to not wade too deeply into topics he isn't familiar with, but those seem to be few and far between. Whether politics or iguana documentaries or football, Marks develops strong opinions and enjoys discussing them -- often with Leach.
Leach and Marks are more similar than they are different. They’re both naturally curious and aren’t content to live by the status quo. When he first got to know Leach, Marks said he realized pretty quickly that what you see is what you get. He respected that. They disagree on a lot -- politics, for one -- but even so, Marks says he finds the discussions constructive.
“Some people find it odd when anybody is a little different, like people who don’t say the normal boring stuff,” Marks said. “They give Leach names and try to make him sound like he’s some quirky guy that sits up in a dark room and makes up all these crazy things and stuff like that. He’s pretty cool and interesting.”
They even share a lot of the same mannerisms.
In San Diego, Leach went into detail about a recent discussion in which he and Marks compared rap and country music. Rap, Leach said, is basically “country music for city people.” He seemed genuinely intrigued by finding the similarities between the two genres that, on the surface, seem so different.
“Gabe is a sharp guy with a wide variety of musical tastes, and so we enjoy sharing all the arts and cultures of our generations,” Leach said. “Yeah, it’s exciting conversation.”
There have been times when Washington State’s media relations team encouraged him to shy away from certain topics, but for the most part, everything is fair game.
“I think coming to this school and playing for this program, it’s allowed me to know I don’t have to say everything I’m expected to say,” Marks said. “[Leach] has given me the freedom to express my opinion, be more than just a guy that plays football, but say things if I feel a certain way or if I feel strongly about whatever.”
Those who follow the WSU program or the Pac-12 have been familiar with Marks’ unique personality for a while, but much of the country was introduced to him after the Cougars beat UCLA 27-21 earlier this year. The following week, Marks went in on UCLA after he said the Bruins warmed up on WSU’s side of the field.
“They kind of come off as bad guys when they do things like that,” he said. “I don't know if they do that to everybody, but it's just kinda douchey, you know?”
It certainly wasn’t the classiest way to articulate his thoughts on the Bruins -- he realized that almost immediately -- but Marks didn’t care. He quickly turned to a WSU media relations staffer and asked if that was OK to say.
“I mean, don't cut that,” he said. “Let's be honest: It makes you look like you're trying to be tough because everyone thinks that because you live in Westwood and wear baby blue that you're not tough. It makes you look less tough because you're trying too hard. It's just weird, you know? You don't have to do that."
In a text message to ESPN.com the next day, a Pac-12 assistant coach wrote, “Gabe Marks needs his own talk show.”
It would definitely find an audience.