SEATTLE – In the moments leading up to the Apple Cup last week, the secrets Chris Petersen carried around weren’t limited to game plans and personnel packages.
The University of Washington’s head football coach had decided to step down after six years “two or three days before we played Washington State,” he said. “I knew in my heart it was going to be the right thing to do.”
But, naturally, it was no time to drop a bombshell.
So he had to hide his surprise when WSU coach Mike Leach walked up to him during pregame warmups for their regular midfield chit-chat.
“He comes up and says, ‘Hey, how much longer are you gonna do this?’ ” Petersen recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this guy’s a mind reader, too.’ I’m like, ‘I hope we’ve got a good plan today because this guy is on us.’ ”
But in truth, it took a little pressure off.
“It kind of loosened up the mindset for me,” Petersen said. “As always, we had a great talk. And I loved his talk after the game even more than our talk before the game.”
The Huskies’ 31-13 win over WSU – six straight for a Petersen-coached team over Leach – won’t be Petersen’s last for the Huskies. He’ll remain in charge through whatever bowl game the Huskies are assigned to before defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake takes over as the 29th head coach in UW history.
Petersen’s decision sent a shock wave through college football when the school announced it Monday morning, though it had been building within him for as much as a year.
“One of the things that hit me was after the Rose Bowl a year ago,” Petersen revealed at a news conference Tuesday morning in the Don James Center at Husky Stadium, “and having a chance to reflect a couple of months after that how much I did not appreciate that game like I should have.
“You work all your life to get there and I didn’t appreciate the week or the whole game like I needed to. That hit me loud and clear. You start to pay attention to that.”
People started to pay attention to Husky football again when Petersen arrived after the 2013 season after eight seasons of advancing what Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins had built at Boise State.
Petersen led the Huskies to a pair of Pac-12 championships in his six years on Montlake, a spot in the 2016 College Football Playoff and three straight New Year’s Six bowl appearances. His 54-26 record at UW included 32 wins between 2016 and 2018 – but the strain as the Huskies slipped to 7-5 this season after being ranked 13th in the preseason AP poll was sometimes obvious.
“One of the things I’ve always felt fairly intuitive about is when to go,” he said. “When to go, when to stay and when to change. This is the right time for me personally to make a change.”
He noted that he’d been in coaching for 32 years on top of eight as a player and remembered watching game film with his father, also a coach, “on a 16mm projector. Years and years of football, football, football and I never had a break from it.
“Those years can become very heavy, and 14 years (as a head coach) is a lot. It becomes a lot of frustration, anxiety and stress. Some of the positivity and optimism can be pushed away and that’s never a good way to live your life.”
He even cited Confucius in his valedictory: “Man has two lives to live, and the second one begins when he realizes he only has one.”
With a career record of 146-38, he would not rule out coaching again. But in deciding where to direct his energies he did say, “I don’t want it to be on the football field.” For now, he will assume an advisory role to athletic director Jen Cohen, insisting not much of that advice will be directed toward Lake – and that the football program would be better for his move.
“If I thought this was going to set us back, I would never have done this at this time,” he said. “I would never do that to this program. I have no doubt the better thing for these kids, the program and the fan base is for Jimmy to inject his vision and energy into this.
“(The players) don’t know it now, but I do. It’s going to be the right thing in the long haul.”
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