SEATTLE – Eastern Washington fans and Spokanites who have no genuine rooting interest in the Pac-12 Conference may soon find themselves pulling for the team located on the shores of Lake Washington.
In a stunning series of events, Jimmy Lake, a Spokane native who attended North Central High School and played defensive back at Eastern Washington before coaching for five years in Cheney, was appointed to the head coaching position at the University of Washington on Monday when Chris Petersen stepped down after six seasons.
“I could not be more excited about taking over as head football coach at the University of Washington,” Lake said in a school release. “I’ve been dreaming of this opportunity for as long as I can remember and I can’t think of a better place to do it than in the world-class city of Seattle and at such a prestigious university with a rich football tradition.”
Petersen will coach UW in the program’s 10th-straight bowl game, which will be announced Sunday, and step into an advisory role for the Huskies while Lake assumes coaching duties, the school announced in a news release late Monday morning.
It’s unclear why Petersen chose to step down, but Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel reported the coach’s decision was not triggered by illness or an ulterior motive. Petersen, Lake and UW Athletic Director Jennifer Cohen will address reporters at a news conference Tuesday morning.
“He is a great friend and a great coach,” said Washington State coach Mike Leach, who’s formed a close relationship with Petersen despite their schools’ intrastate rivalry in the Apple Cup – a game Petersen won all six of his seasons with the Huskies. “I wish him the very best. There is a lot of world out there, outside of football, and I hope he enjoys the chance to see it.”
In the UW release, Petersen said, “I’ll be a Husky for life, but now is the right time for me to step away from my head coaching duties, and recharge.”
Lake becomes a head coach for the first time in his career. The 42-year-old’s football upbringing came in Spokane, where he was a student at North Central from 1992-95, as well as a standout athlete on the football field, basketball court and baseball diamond for the Indians.
“He was one of the nicest guys you’d meet,” said current North Central Athletic Director Dave Hall, whose time as a chemistry/physics teacher and athletics coach overlapped with Lake’s time as a student-athlete. “A good student and just a real good guy.”
While Lake’s time in Spokane doesn’t necessarily resonate with current North Central students, Hall believes his ascent to coaching a prominent Power Five football program that’s been to the College Football Playoff and Rose Bowl within the last three years could be used as a motivational tool for anyone who comes through the high school.
“We try to use these folks on our distinguished alumni wall as examples for these kids,” Hall said. “All these people have taken their work ethic they developed here at NC and gone forward with it. They get honored because of what they did when they were here and what they achieved once they moved on.”
“I don’t know how many kids it resonates with,” Hall added. “But it doesn’t matter what high school you come from, it just shows that dreams do come true.”
Eastern Washington’s Mike Kramer, who was most recently the head coach at Idaho State, didn’t have to go far to recruit the talented defensive back, although he was hardly on the Eagles’ radar until a friend pointed Kramer in Lake’s direction.
“I don’t know why you guys didn’t recruit this kid out of North Central High School, but he’s the best football player on our team,” Kramer recalled of the conversation. “I gave him a name and he goes, ‘No, not that guy. Jimmy Lake.’ … I went home, we were in the middle of (youth) camp … I drug up his number, I laid on the floor of my kitchen in the heat of the day and I talked to Jimmy for an hour because we couldn’t go off-campus for recruiting then. I literally offered him a scholarship and begged him to come to Eastern and he never did disappoint.
“He was always better than what was advertised and I’m sure he’ll do the same thing as the head coach at the University of Washington.”
Lake excelled on the field and away from it during his four seasons at EWU. He became a starting strong safety in Cheney, was voted a team captain and claimed All-Big Sky Honorable Mention honors as a senior. Lake also helped spur one of the top seasons in school history, leading EWU to 12-2 in 1997 and the Division I-AA semifinal game after the Eagles won just nine games combined in the two seasons prior.
“He’s going to speak with authority and he’s not just going to say words to hear his voice speak,” Kramer said. “He’s going to say something that’s pretty intelligent. He combined with a lot of really good players at Eastern to be the kind of player that elevated our entire program to which the program has never receded and Jimmy’s a real big catalyst to all that.”
Lake earned All-Big Sky academic honors at EWU, where he was teammates with current Eagles coach Aaron Best, and while Kramer always detected the player’s desire to coach, he insists Lake could’ve been successful outside of football.
“He’s one of those guys you were like, ‘Why do you want to be a coach? Good god, why don’t you go into banking and make money?’ ” Kramer said.
But Lake immediately went into coaching, serving as a graduate assistant for EWU before coaching defensive backs (DBs) in Cheney from 2000-03.
“He does a great job,” Best said earlier this year, before the Eagles played the Huskies in Seattle. “He’s a coach and student of the game. He overachieved as a player (at EWU) and he’s done the same thing as a coach.”
Lake had six more stops before finally landing in Seattle: Washington DBs (2004), Montana State DBs (2005), Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant DBs (2006-07), Detroit Lions DBs (2008), Tampa Bay Buccaneers DBs (2010-11) and Boise State DBs (2012-13).
He moved to Seattle with Petersen in 2014 and initially served as the UW DBs coach before adding co-defensive coordinator to his title. Lake was elevated to defensive coordinator in 2018.
“I can’t think of someone better than Jimmy to take over this program,” Petersen said in a release. “His energy and ability to relate to our players is unmatched. Jimmy is a great teacher of the game and his track record of developing young men both on and off the field speaks for itself. He is ready to take this step and I have full confidence that he will continue to build on the foundation that has been set here and he will elevate the program to new heights.”
Staff writer Dave Nichols contributed to this report.