On Dec. 3, 2019, Chris Petersen stood at a podium in a purple shirt and tie and unintentionally set the expectation.
Less than 24 hours earlier, the University of Washington announced that Petersen – its 55-year-old head football coach – would stunningly step down after six successful seasons and 54 wins. At the time, his career winning percentage of .793 ranked second among active coaches with at least five years of FBS experience. He reached 100 career wins faster than all but four coaches in major college history, doing so in just 117 games.
In an event space on the west side of Husky Stadium, Petersen stood in front of reporters, staff, alumni, boosters and a host of clicking cameras and explained why this was the right time for a change – both personally, and for the program at large.
“I think the foundation is really good and really solid,” he said. “But you can feel, it just needs a little new direction and a boost of energy. (The program) doesn’t need to be blown up, but it does need to be tweaked and changed.”
That “boost of energy” sat in a black suit, a white shirt and a purple tie 10 feet to his left.
The Jimmy Lake Era at Washington was underway.
But before he left the podium – and handed off his headset – Petersen offered a prediction as well.
“I have no doubt that this program is going to continue to grow. It’s going to take the next step, and we’ll be back to winning Pac-12 championships,” he said, before pausing and realizing what he’d done. “Sorry, Jimmy. That’s (on) these guys (pointing to media members) to put that pressure on you. I didn’t mean to do that. But I do believe that.”
Whether he meant to or not, Petersen established an expectation.
And in the 22 months since, Lake has repeatedly, enthusiastically reinforced it.
“We should be contending for the Pac-12 championship every single year,” Lake said on Aug. 24, when asked what fans should expect from his program on an annual basis. “Every single year, we should be contending for the Pac-12 championship and going to a big bowl game. That’s fair. That is fair. Anything less than that is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable. We should be challenging late in November for the Pac-12 championship and positioning ourselves for a big bowl game.”
Under those parameters, a 2-3 start is unacceptable. A 27-24 loss at Oregon State is unacceptable. A prime-time mauling at Michigan – featuring 343 Wolverine rushing yards – is unacceptable. An offense producing 17 points in its first two games is unacceptable. A season-opening home loss to FCS Montana is (absolutely) unacceptable.
A 2022 signing class that currently comprises just 10 verbal commits (with four de-commits) and ranks 53rd nationally and eighth in the Pac-12 – on pace for its lowest class ranking since 2009, when the Huskies fired coach Tyrone Willingham following a winless season – is both unacceptable and unsustainable (even if Lake refuses to acknowledge recruiting rankings).
Granted, there have been numerous unforeseen obstacles – like a global pandemic and an arguably illegitimate four-game season. There have been injuries and absences involving key players (including Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Cade Otton, Richard Newton, Ryan Bowman, Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan, Terrell Bynum, Brendan Radley-Hiles and Ja’Lynn Polk) as well. There has been adversity that Petersen, on that podium, could have never predicted.
But while the Huskies have seven games to flip the script, this doesn’t look like a program primed to win a Pac-12 title anytime soon.
So, considering the expectation, is this where Lake expected to be after 22 months?
“I think any coach taking over doesn’t go into it saying, ‘Hey, you know, I want to go .500 here.’ We want to win all of our games,” Lake said Monday, as his 2-3 Huskies headed into a bye week. “This is competition. We’re going against other teams that are trying to win as well. I love competing. Our team loves competing. Our staff loves competing. And we wish we could win every single game that we’ve been in. That’s the goal every single week.”
But adversity aside, fight aside, excuses aside, Lake is making $3.1 million in 2021 to win. Offensive coordinator John Donovan is making $875,000 to (score and) win. Defensive coordinator Bob Gregory is making $800,000 to (stop the run and) win.
This is a results business, and they’re paid to overcome obstacles. They’re paid to contend every single year – Lake’s words – for Pac-12 titles. They’re paid to reach the expectation.
And if they don’t, difficult decisions may need to be made.
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