The great Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News said it best: Chris Petersen exited stage left from coaching was vintage Chris Petersen — equally stunning as running the Statue of Liberty for a Fiesta Bowl-winning 2-point conversion, yet meticulously planned and flawlessly executed.
Washington’s announcement Monday that Petersen will step down as the Huskies’ head coach following the upcoming, to-be-determined bowl game, to be replaced by defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake, was surprising, but maybe it shouldn’t have been. Petersen has always known better than most of his peers that there’s more to life than football, and he said Tuesday when he felt his enthusiasm and optimism waning, it was time to hand the reins to someone else.
“To quote an Eastern philosopher,” Petersen said, “we have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.”
Petersen said he started considering retirement at some point this spring, months removed from leading Washington to the Rose Bowl when he realized he didn’t appreciate it he should have, as someone who’s spent the better part of 55 years dreaming of coaching in the Rose Bowl. After not stopping to smell the literal roses in Pasadena, he thought it might be time to stop and sniff the metaphorical ones in the real world.
As for the decision to step down right now, Petersen said that came in the middle of last week, two to three days before Washington’s Apple Cup game with Washington State.
Chris Petersen, knowing in his head the Apple Cup would be his last regular season game, says Mike Leach asked him pre-game, "Hey, how much Ionger are you going to do this?"
"I'm thinking, Oh my God, this guy's a mind reader, too."
— Zach Barnett (@zach_barnett) December 3, 2019
“This worked out better than planned,” he said, “because I don’t know if I had a plan.”
“He did the right thing all the time, despite the demands, the pressure, the noise of the job. He reconnected us to our purpose,” Washington AD Jen Cohen said. “It’s about developing kids and helping them become the best versions of ourselves. When I think about Coach Pete, I think that’s his legacy. He built a championship program with championship values and he changed a lot of lives along the way.”
Petersen was asked the obligatory question — “Are you going to coach again? — and the answer boiled down to, I can’t say for sure, but I hope not. “My whole plan is to get recharged, redirected and rested. I’m not ready to do nothing. I’ve just got to figure out where all this passion, energy and inspiration goes. I don’t want it to be on a football field. I’m excited to see where this takes me,” he said.
In that, Petersen is a lot like one of his own graduating players, only with a couple more million bucks in the bank: he’s going to pursue his passion, and he’s got the rest of his life to chase it.
But Monday’s news, to Petersen, was less about him and more about Washington football and Jimmy Lake.
“If I thought this was going to set us back and not move us forward, I wouldn’t have done that to this program,” he said. “But I have no doubt this is better for those kids. They don’t know it right now, but I do. This is going to be a good thing in the bigger picture.”
Lake has been by Petersen’s side since 2012, dating back to the Boise days, and both have known for a while what they see in each other. In Petersen, Lake sees a mentor and a model to pattern his program after (he just had no idea that program would be Petersen’s). “The pursuit of being a head football coach began when I joined Coach Petersen’s staff at Boise State. I know the recipe, I’ve seen the recipe and I’m going to copy the recipe,” Lake said.
In Lake, Petersen saw a successor. “I’ve never seen (a coach) that’s more prepared that’s never been in the chair,” Petersen said. “There’s no doubt.”
“Jimmy’s a hell of a coach, a hell of a recruiter, and we all saw it. He’s had incredible opportunities to leave this place, and he stayed because he loves being a Husky. I’ve had a chance to observe him, visualize him in this role, and I know he’s the perfect fit,” Cohen said.
Lake said he plans to maintain everything Petersen built off the field, but on the field he mentioned on multiple occasions he wants to build a more competitive, more aggressive team. “I’m a very aggressive, attack mode personality, and that’s where we’re going to take this thing. That is going to be bled into our offense, our special teams, and also in our academics,” Lake said.
Having watched dozens of introductory press conferences over the year in this job, I can’t recall a coach more enthusiastic about grinding through tape to find an Xs and Os advantage than Lake was on Tuesday.
“We will play smart, we will understand situational football, we will try to outfox and outsmart our opponent,” he said. “I am extremely competitive. I have this weird way of always turning everything into a competition and I want that to be what our program is about.”
Petersen is the third future Hall of Fame coach to walk away from the profession in the past two and a half years, and the historical precedent says Washington will indeed get better under Lake than it was in the late years under Petersen. Oklahoma got better after Bob Stoops stepped down and Lincoln Riley took over. Ohio State went 13-1, won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl in Urban Meyer’s last season — ironically, Urban’s last game was the same Rose Bowl that later convinced Petersen it was time to step away — and this year’s team under Ryan Day’s leadership might be the best Buckeye outfit in school history.
So, yes, Washington could very well be back in the Rose Bowl in 2020. But don’t take that from me. Let it be said that the first person to vocalize Pac-12 championship expectations on Jimmy Lake’s Washington was Chris Petersen himself.
“I have no doubt that this program is going to continue to grow,” Petersen said. “It’s going to take the next step and we’ll be back to winning Pac-12 championships.”