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Commentary: Jimmy Lake’s response to postponed Pac-12 season in first year at helm foretells coaching success at Washington

UPDATED: Mon., Aug. 17, 2020

Jimmy Lake, a graduate of North Central High School and Eastern Washington University, speaks about taking over the University of Washington football head coaching position from Chris Petersen during a news conference on Dec. 3, 2019 in Seattle.  (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)
Jimmy Lake, a graduate of North Central High School and Eastern Washington University, speaks about taking over the University of Washington football head coaching position from Chris Petersen during a news conference on Dec. 3, 2019 in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

So now we won’t find out how Jimmy Lake does as the man in charge of molding the Washington football team until – well, who the heck knows? The ultimate referendum, which occurs 12 times a year, or more, in the fall and winter, is on indefinite hold.

But it could be that Lake is revealing something just as important in these trying times. Lake may be a head coach for the next 30 years and never face a situation as challenging as the one looming right now – which is just the latest chapter in Lake’s tumultuous tenure since getting the job in December.

And it’s all happening before his first game as Chris Petersen’s replacement.

How Lake handles the shutdown of the Pac-12 season, how he nurses his 90 or so players through the huge disappointment of having their season yanked away, how he deals with the growing boldness of college players to speak out, how he coaxes continued vigilance and effort from players without a definitive date for payoff at the end – will have as much, or more, to do with the successful launch of his head coaching career as the Xs and Os.

Lake has to keep his guys motivated when the natural tendency would be to either tune out, let down or move on. He has to convince them that he has their best interests at heart as they navigate the new world of player empowerment. He has to make sure that whenever the moratorium on Pac-12 football is lifted, the Huskies are ready to compete.

Here’s a first-half observation: Lake was portraying the absolutely right tone throughout the tense period leading up to the Aug. 11 announcement by the Pac-12 that all sports are being postponed until at least Jan. 1. And even more tellingly, his response after the news was dropped – which Lake in turn relayed to stunned Husky players after a practice – was close to pitch perfect.

Granted, we’re not seeing what happens behind the scenes, encompassing the vast majority of the time when Lake is with the players during workouts, meetings, virtual gatherings and all the vast network of counseling and mentoring that goes with the job.

But we do see his public face. And we see testimonials such as that by Husky wide receiver Ty Jones, a frontline member of the Pac-12 unity movement, who in a tweet praised Lake (along with the Huskies’ medical, training and strength staff) as being “top of their class” and “exceptional.”

Lake has been unwaveringly, unflinchingly optimistic and positive in the face of every piece of bad news. He might be frustrated in private. Maybe he pounds on his desk and wails, “Why me?” when no one’s around. But Lake evinces none of that, no sense of self-pity, when dealing with one blow after another. His stated focus is always on the next potential breakthrough – in this case, the possibility of “spring” football in the fall in advance of a Pac-12 season in the spring.

If Lake can translate that spirit to his players, who have every reason to be down, that bodes well for his chances of coaching success. Of course, there are myriad other factors, topped by recruiting, that go into that equation. And a resolute attitude may not be enough to combat the realities of the pandemic fallout, which includes potential opt-outs and transfers.

But Lake is confident in the continued motivation of his players in the face of this massive obstacle.

“The motivation is going to be very, very simple,” he said. “We have very competitive guys on our roster who want to be great at football. This is an unbelievable opportunity for them to get bigger, faster, stronger, to learn their techniques inside and out, learn our schemes inside and out. They’re going to be ready to go when we decide to play football again.

“If we get this virus under control, there’s a possibility we have spring football in the fall. How about that? A little spring football in the fall, and maybe if we get this virus under control, we could get the band and maybe some fans out there and watch a little spring football in November.

“What they’re going to learn is how tough they are, and how they’ve been able to battle through adversity, and have their dreams crushed of not being able to play a season in the fall 2020. And we are going to be stronger and more resilient after we come out of this.”

The degree of difficulty was always going to be high for Lake. He’s following a legend in Petersen. He’s working in not just a new offensive coordinator, but a new starting quarterback. He’s learning, at age 43, the nuances of being a first-time head coach.

And now throw “worldwide pandemic” onto that list. It’s certainly enough to knock Lake or any other coach, rookie or otherwise, off course to an extent that they won’t be able to easily recover.

But it’s also a situation for a coach to show his strength, compassion and vision, which could bring rewards down the road. While Pac-12 football has frozen to a halt, the Huskies are hoping that Lake’s handling of the delay will be his first victory.

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