LAS VEGAS – Chris Petersen was in a rather playful mood Friday, the day before his final game as the University of Washington’s football coach. In fact, it may be his final game as a coach, but Petersen is still sorting out his future, not quite three weeks since his stunning decision to resign.
When it was pointed out that he had just one more media obligation to go – that coming after Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl game against Boise State, his Husky swan song – Petersen quickly shot back, “That puts a smile on my face. Say that again.”
At one point, the two Husky players on the podium were asked for their funniest memories of Petersen.
“I’m not funny,” Petersen firmly interjected – a statement belied by the amusing memories supplied by Nick Harris and Myles Bryant, of the coach doing an impromptu dance at a team meeting, and reacting painfully to the annual imitations of him at the Husky skit night.
Truly, a weight seems to have been lifted from Petersen’s shoulders since his decision to eschew the all-consuming coaching lifestyle that he reiterated Friday was antithetical to a healthy, balanced existence.
The frenetic recruiting junkets the past two weeks by coach-in-waiting Jimmy Lake, who seemingly was in 10 living rooms a night posing for obligatory Instagram selfies? Petersen was blissfully out of the loop, concentrating on what he surely views as a purer endeavor – organizing and conducting the Huskies’ bowl practices. And then, on Saturday night, he’ll hang up the whistle and, at the still-vital age of 55, embrace whatever is next.
“I do look forward to getting more balance in my life and being challenged in other ways with different endeavors down the road,” he said before adding, impishly, “I’m extremely nervous for my wife, for our staff meetings, with us staring at each other.”
But as Petersen prepares for one last stint with the headphones on, and then transitions into his vague new role as a “leadership adviser” in the Husky athletic department, it’s appropriate to ponder his six-year legacy.
Certainly, from a football standpoint, it is vast. You can argue whether Petersen attained “statue in front of the stadium” level. It would have been a no-brainer with a few more seasons on the job, but there is still a strong argument to be made.
Petersen’s predecessor, Steve Sarkisian, inherited the charred remains of Tyrone Willingham’s 0-12 debacle in 2008. Sark had elevated the Huskies to respectability when he stepped down, just as abruptly as Petersen but not nearly as seamlessly, after the 2013 Apple Cup.
Under Petersen, however, the Huskies have soared higher, winning two Pac-12 titles, making an appearance in the College Football Playoff and going to three consecutive New Year’s Six bowls from 2016-18.
That’s approaching Don James territory, without the national title or the breakthrough out-of-conference glamor win. The absence of the latter – with frustrating losses to Alabama, Auburn, Penn State and Ohio State stacked up along the way – may in a perverse way be Petersen’s parting gift to Lake. The new coach, facing the pressure to live up to Petersen’s accolades, at least has a road map for carving his own niche.
But it is the nonfootball aspect of the job, the building of men, in which Petersen by all accounts shined brightest. There are no national rankings in this realm, no wins and losses, just anecdotal evidence and personal testimony that poured forth this week from those he touched. That included the Boise State coach sitting next to him, Bryan Harsin, who was Petersen’s offensive coordinator at Boise and then his successor as coach.
At the news conference after Petersen’s resignation, UW athletic director Jen Cohen said the coach “reconnected us to our purpose. … I think that’s his legacy. That he built a championship program with championship values and he changed a lot of lives along the way.”
Bryant and Harris, both seniors, were asked Friday what aspects of Petersen’s “Built For Life” model they would carry with them when they left the university. Their answers resonated more powerfully than any singular football victory ever could.
From Bryant: “The countless lessons he’s given us and countless little phrases he gives us. I think one thing that’s going to stick with me is: ‘How you do small things is how you do all things.’ So just being that detailed person in life, and seeing how you being detailed will carry over and make everything easier in your life.
“I think that’s something I’ll carry down to my kids and even if, down the road, I want to coach football, I’m going to use some of the lessons he’s given us to help those guys out.
From Harris: “I think one thing that will stick with me is our definition of excellence: ‘Doing common things in uncommon ways.’
“You get caught up in such a schedule and routine, sometimes you feel the need to do things just average, just to get by. Having that saying in the back of my head always makes me think that to be great, you’ve got to do certain things in ways other people aren’t. I try to keep that with me, and I’m going to try to instill that down the road to my kids and whoever’s around me.”
Earlier, Petersen had grappled with the question of what made him proudest from a coaching stint in Seattle that is in its final countdown, purely by his choice.
“Not any one thing,” he began. “I just think we’ve always tried to do it as right as we could.”
I’d say that’s as good an epitaph as any.
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