SEATTLE – Jimmy Lake took over full command of the Washington football program on Dec. 22, 2019, the day after his predecessor, Chris Petersen, in his last act, coached the Huskies to a dominant win over Boise State in the Vegas Bowl.
“I feel so strongly that this can catapult the program forward,” Petersen said in the cramped interview room at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Hold that thought.
A mere 22 days later, Nick Rolovich was named coach at Washington State to succeed Mike Leach, who was departing for Mississippi State. It was a quirky, charismatic guy from Hawaii taking over for the quirky, charismatic guy from Florida. You can still find online the stock photo from the introductory news conference of athletic director Pat Chun, WSU president Kirk Schulz and Rolovich all grasping a No. 1 Cougars jersey with “Rolovich” on the back. Their faces are awash with smiles.
Hold that thought.
Looking back on the optimism that surrounded both hirings, it is absolutely staggering to think of their collective falls from grace. It was possible, back then, to imagine years of a healthy Apple Cup rivalry between two coaches who seemed to understand exactly what it meant to be in charge of the state’s two leading football programs.
That was less than two years ago. It has all unraveled with shocking speed, of course. It’s possible, if not highly probable, that Lake and Rolovich will never coach an Apple Cup. Not a single one.
Last year’s scheduled meeting was undone by COVID-19. And this year’s, scheduled for Nov. 26, seems destined to be contested by interim coaches on each side.
With the presumed backing of Schulz, Rolovich was summarily fired by Chun on Oct. 18 of this year for his refusal to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in accordance with Gov. Jay Inslee’s statewide mandate. Rolovich’s tenure at WSU lasted 707 days. Rolovich’s request for a religious exemption was not upheld, and all sorts of ugliness has resulted, including an appeal and pending civil suit by Rolovich claiming illegal termination. The Cougars’ defensive coordinator under Rolovich, Jake Dickert, was elevated to acting coach and has a 1-1 record entering Saturday’s showdown against Oregon.
It took 21 more days until Lake joined Rolovich in coaching purgatory, suspended for a week without pay for the sideline incident in which he struck one of his players on the helmet while trying to break up an altercation, and then pushed the player. The Huskies also have gone to their defensive coordinator, Bob Gregory, to serve as interim coach.
Lake is eligible to return after Saturday’s UW game with Arizona State. Yet I have a hard time envisioning Lake coaching another game for the Huskies. The sideline incident, which Lake initially denied despite it being caught by ABC’s cameras, is the culmination of a litany of events that has made his continued employment untenable for the Huskies.
That’s not any easy sentence to write, because I like Lake personally. I don’t think the sideline incident was done with malice or intent – the same conclusion UW reached in its investigation. I genuinely thought he had a great chance to succeed despite the challenge of living up to the high standards set by Petersen.
But Lake has slowly ceded away the goodwill he inherited as the popular, charismatic defensive coordinator responsible for the game plans that thwarted Leach’s Air Raid in Apple Cup after Apple Cup.
Lake has lost the support of many of the constituencies needed to thrive. The fan base began to turn on him after the unfathomable loss to Montana in the season opener, and he has done little to win them back. That includes the subset of donors and influential alumni so important to oiling a successful athletic program.
Lake also didn’t do much to endear himself to another vital constituency – administration – both with the sideline incident and his remark before the Oregon game about how he doesn’t consider Oregon a recruiting competitor. The reason, he said, was that Oregon didn’t have the “academic prowess” of Washington or schools such as Stanford, Notre Dame and USC.
That no doubt didn’t sit well with university president Ana Mari Cauce, who has a close-knit relationship with Oregon president Michael Schill. And athletic director Jen Cohen can’t be pleased at the controversy that surrounds the program. Nor, especially, with the subpar performance on the field by the Huskies under her hand-picked coach. This is a highly touted team that has underperformed all season, if you want to get to the real root of the case against Lake.
It was Cohen who issued the suspension of Lake on Monday. It can also be assumed that Cohen had a strong hand in Lake’s decision Sunday to fire offensive coordinator John Donovan. The misguided hiring of Donovan as Lake’s first important act as coach was in many ways the instigator of much of the underachievement that has followed.
It wouldn’t be surprising if there are behind-the-scenes discussions under way to plot an exit strategy for Lake. One, hopefully that is smoother than the name-calling, litigation-infused departure of Rolovich.
There is no evidence that another constituency – Washington’s players – has turned on him. But Lake would now be in a highly compromised position on the recruiting trail as he tries to entice the next wave of high-school talent to choose Washington. Recruiting already has been a surprising weakness under Lake, but the sideline incident will make it even more difficult to convince kids (and especially their parents) that Washington under Lake is the place for them. And far easier for recruiting rivals to portray Washington as a program in disarray.
Considering how this season disintegrated, there is another realistic fear that many key players already on the team could flood the transfer portal this offseason if changes aren’t made.
The primary change, of course, would be at head coach. And, as was the case just a few weeks ago across the state, it’s coming. Maybe sooner than later.
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