PULLMAN – Jake Dickert provided stability when Washington State’s football program needed it, so WSU returned the favor.
Dickert’s dues-paying path toward his career goal reached its end in Pullman. The 38-year-old landed his first head coaching gig, at last finding a permanent home after more than a decade as a roving assistant.
“I had to move my family eight times in nine years to get to this point,” Dickert said during his introductory news conference Dec. 2. “Those weren’t easy moves. That was us packing our own boxes, loading the U-Haul and driving cross-country.”
Two months ago, his opportunity presented itself in unconventional fashion.
Dickert was selected to lead the Cougars on an interim basis at the conclusion of a long and divisive saga involving former coach Nick Rolovich and four WSU assistants, all of whom lost their jobs because of a state COVID-19 vaccine mandate with which they didn’t comply.
For Dickert, the possible outcomes were limited. It was make-or-break.
If he could somehow keep a fractured team united and mend the program’s image – and log a few wins – he might not need to relocate anytime soon.
But if the Cougars slipped too much, the school’s leadership likely would conduct a coaching search and overhaul the staff for 2022. Dickert would have to move again with his wife and three children.
“I had to put personal struggles to the side … and really be focused on the task at hand,” he said recently. “It was a juggling act. It wasn’t always easy. You could see everything getting to a point and you (knew) that a decision had to be made.”
Fortunately for Dickert and WSU, it turned out to be an easy decision.
Dickert met the challenge, steadying the Cougar ship. And the team rallied, writing one of college football’s best storylines this year.
They rattled off three wins in their final five games and thrashed Washington, handing the Huskies their most lopsided Apple Cup loss . Dickert agreed to a five-year contract a day later, and the Cougars had completely changed the narrative surrounding this season.
Athletic director Pat Chun had been evaluating Dickert while considering a handful of other candidates. But the Cougars’ resilience during a memorable year left him no choice but to stay in house.
“As the interim head coach, we saw leadership emerge,” Chun said Dec. 2. “This group played football with a renewed sense of purpose, a willingness to play for each other, and displayed characteristics of grit, toughness and pride.”
Dickert will make his head coaching debut for real when WSU (7-5) meets Central Michigan in the Sun Bowl on Friday in El Paso.
He spent the month leading up to the game recruiting talent and assembling an impressive group of assistants, who’ll take over after the Cougars’ finale.
Before the new year, Dickert will stick with his current staff, a somewhat makeshift bunch that worked overtime to maintain consistency for its players after the coaching shakeup Oct. 18.
“All I did when I came in was just give a direction, give a spirit, give an energy, and it took off,” Dickert said. “It was a mindset we (the staff) provided, but it was player-driven. It came from inside out, from the captains to the seniors to the rest of the team.
“There was a lot of emotion, a lot of energy, a lot of things in our young people’s minds. … I just think there was a belief in what we could do together. It was the right moment, the right time, the right messaging, the right energy, and doing it all together.”
Dickert promised early in his stint as interim coach that he’d “pour everything” into giving players a positive experience. The players, in turn, never showed traces of quit throughout the back half of the season. The Cougars did not perform like a team that had undergone major coaching turmoil. Some of their most exhilarating moments came late in their season.
“By the time we entered the Apple Cup, we had an inspired team emerge,” Chun said.
In his second season as WSU’s defensive coordinator, Dickert spearheaded a resurgence, built on swarming effort, timely takeaways and inventive pass-rushing schemes. The Cougars’ turnaround on defense made Dickert the clear choice to take over as acting coach.
“With him, if it’s a good day or if it’s a bad day, he’s just going to work. He’s going to outwork everybody,” cornerback Kaleb Ford-Dement said of Dickert. “He’s just a grinder. Everything about him is literally outworking everybody and doing things the right way. … He’s really straightforward, has a strong mindset and knows how to focus on today and get the most out of players.”
Dickert had to familiarize himself with the Cougars’ offensive schematics and personnel. He endeared himself to his new pupils quickly with his free-flowing mantra on offense: “Players over plays.”
With more duties on his shoulders, Dickert didn’t change his style. He’s confident in his approach to coaching, which had been cultivated during a 13-year career consisting of stops at eight schools.
When it comes to schemes, some players call him a perfectionist. He is known to preach the value of cooperation, trust and discipline.
“It was one of those moments in your life when you realize, ‘I’m just going to go be myself,’ ” Dickert said, reflecting on a choice he made when he first took the reins at WSU. “I felt like the way I motivate and the way I challenge, and my energy and what I can bring to the team now was just going to work.
“As I went through the whole (hiring) process, I was very settled in my heart to know that I gave this place and our players and our university everything I have.”
A product of “humble beginnings” in small-town Wisconsin, Dickert worked for sub-FBS programs in isolated locations from 2007-16, then made the jump to college football’s top classification as a defensive assistant under mentor Craig Bohl at Wyoming, where he was employed for three years – a long term of employment compared to his past stops.
Asked about the reward of stability he received from a WSU program in need of a leader, Dickert thought back to “the times of struggle and moving and the U-Hauls – what I had to do to get to this point,” he said.
He calls it a “dream come true” to have locked up a future in Pullman, “a place that I love, that fits me so well, that I believe in.
“I believe in what we can do to rebuild this place and do it right.”
Colton Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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