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Sports >  UW football

John Blanchette: It would have taken more than a simple jab for former UW coach Jimmy Lake to save his job

UPDATED: Sun., Nov. 14, 2021

John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

Never mind COVID-19.

Can Moderna or Pfizer get to work on a vaccine for arrogance that might save the state’s major college football coaches from themselves?

Oh, wait. Wouldn’t have mattered for Nick Rolovich. Religious convictions, don’t you know?

But maybe it could have rescued his new partner in the unemployment line, Jimmy Lake, who didn’t seem to grasp where confidence in himself stops and I’ve-got-every-answer takes over.

After the charade of a week’s suspension petered out Sunday afternoon, University of Washington athletic director Jen Cohen finalized the inevitable by firing her second-year head football coach – meaning this year’s Apple Cup will be directed by a couple of fill-ins.

Bob Gregory, Lake’s very temporary surrogate, will be the Apple Sub.

For Jake Dickert, who hungers to be Rolovich’s permanent replacement at Washington State, it’s the Application Cup.

And for the ousted duo? Well, Rolovich was hired with both a mandate and a pledge to reverse the failures of his predecessor against Wazzu’s rival, and Lake got the job very much on the strength of the play of the Huskies defense he coordinated – and how foolish it made Mike Leach look year after year.

Now neither one of them will get to be the head coach in even one Apple Cup, last year’s edition having been pancaked by the pandemic.

Thirteen years ago, UW and WSU teams that hadn’t won an FBS game all season met for all the apples, and yet for some reason the current circumstance feels like a more embarrassing nadir.

Bad football happens, but is almost never willful. These coachly undoings were mostly avoidable.

Sadly lost amid Rolovich’s faux religiosity and selfish moralism that led to his dismissal for refusing to adhere to the vaccination mandate for state employees is the fact that he had done well to right a season that was going sideways. Yes, some of his own missteps had led to Wazzu’s 1-3 start.

But the Cougs remain in the bowl hunt on the strength of a recalibration and the players’ responsiveness that produced a three-game win streak – before Rolo lost his game of chicken at the vax deadline.

Lake’s tumble seems like a triumph of paper cuts by comparison.

Indeed, Cohen insisted that in weighing her coach’s fate, “No one factor pushed me in this direction. It was a multitude of things.”

And, really, his swat to the face mask and shove in the back of Husky walk-on Ruperake Fuavai in a sideline dust-up during UW’s loss to Oregon was likely the least of the tipping points, even if it got Lake suspended for Saturday’s Arizona State game. Administrators give a lot of lip time to “student-athlete welfare,” but it still tends to fall well behind booster unrest, flagging attendance, ineffective recruiting, the won-lost record and public relations humiliations on the AD’s make-or-break checklist.

The first of the fall’s humiliations arrived with the season opener, a 13-7 loss to Montana, a 221/2-point underdog from college football’s Double-A leagues, which caused more grousing in Seattle than University Bridge getting stuck in the upright position over the weekend. Five more losses followed, and even the wins could be offensive disasters. UW’s four victims have won a combined nine of 39 games this year.

At the root of UW’s woes was Lake’s choice, upon his 2019 hiring, to take on as his offensive coordinator John Donovan, whose recent resume entries had been a firing from the same job at Penn State and an NFL stop as Jacksonville’s assistant running backs coach. It was a hire greeted by a collective, “What?” even among the industry lodge brothers – and a suggestion that Lake was either too convinced that he couldn’t get it wrong or too insecure to take on a real comer.

The hauteur wasn’t a one-off – he’d publicly mocked Leach’s “predictable” offense for years, but that sort of thing endeared him to the fan base. Not so much his insistence before the Oregon game a week ago that the Ducks weren’t recruiting rivals because, “In our world, we battle more academically prowess (sic) teams.”

Then came the sideline incident and Lake’s flat denial that, “I didn’t strike him. I separated him” – matter that the video showed something very different. Contrition came only after his suspension.

Lake’s competitiveness and personality were engaging hereabouts as a player (at North Central and Eastern Washington) and EWU assistant. But that was far from the glare of the spotlight, and apparently far from an inflated sense of self.

“I recognize that terminating a coach after 13 games is unusual and, quite frankly, it certainly goes against my beliefs as an administrator,” said Cohen, who elevated Lake with no national search when Chris Petersen stepped down in 2019. “However, when I know something is not working or something just isn’t right, I do have an obligation to act.

“His hire is on me, and I own it.”

She and the Huskies also own a $9.9 million buyout, minus whatever can be deducted when Lake lands his next gig, as the dismissal was not “for cause.”

In this case, it was for something that couldn’t be overcome with a shot in the arm.

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