PULLMAN – Washington State’s football team is rolling, but the Cougars aren’t sure whether they’ll have a head coach come Monday.
For the past few months an unprecedented situation at WSU involving second-year coach Nick Rolovich and the state’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate has overshadowed the Cougars’ on-field performances, and created a politicized fissure between the school’s supporters.
The conclusion to this strange saga, which has been making national headlines, is finally in sight.
The deadline to comply with the mandate is Monday. Washington’s educational workers must be either fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, or be approved for a religious or medical exemption.
Rolovich has put in for a religious exemption.
After the Cougars’ 34-31 win over Stanford on Saturday – the team’s third consecutive victory – he said he was still awaiting an update and would come to work Sunday and go about business as usual.
“I believe it’s going to work out the right way,” he said.
Rolovich’s path to continue coaching in Pullman is far from straightforward.
In accordance with the mandate, he’ll need to prove a “sincerely held” religious belief that prevents him from getting vaccinated in his exemption application, which must be approved by a “blinded” committee – meaning, the committee reviews requests without knowing the names of the applicants.
WSU spokesman Phil Weiler said committees are made up of at least two people, both of whom have “legal experience, experience in case law, experience in civil rights laws, as well as employment laws.”
“These were not arbitrary criteria,” added Weiler, the school’s vice president for marketing and communications. “These are criteria set forth in case law, specifically having to do with religious exemptions. This needed to be both fair for the individual and equitable for everybody.
“That’s why we took great pains to work with the attorney general’s office to make sure the criteria were clear, equitable and legally defensible.”
That’s just step one.
If Rolovich’s exemption gets the green light, then WSU’s human resources department will forward it along to his supervisor – athletic director Pat Chun – who has about two days to decide whether Rolovich can fulfill the duties of his job while keeping the public safe.
That’s step two, and perhaps the biggest hurdle.
Weiler provided a couple of examples.
If an employee who is tentatively approved for an exemption is usually working alone in an office and does not interact with many others, Weiler said, they could probably fulfill their duties safely, and be granted an accommodation.
“On the other hand, let’s say I was a food-service employee,” Weiler said. “I’m a chef in the kitchen. I’m going to be working shoulder-to-shoulder with other chefs preparing food. I’ll later be serving that food to dozens, if not hundreds, of students.
“Given that level of interaction in close quarters, reasonably you could say that individual does not qualify.”
Football coaches regularly work closely alongside assistants and student-athletes. Other specific duties outlined in Rolovich’s contract would be difficult to fulfill if unvaccinated, those including overseeing a youth football program and participating in various promotional and fundraising “events, activities, and/or efforts to foster support for the University’s Athletic Department and/or the Football program.”
Weiler detailed the “standard list” of accommodations.
“They have to wear a mask at all times … limit their interaction with other people to the extent possible, maintain 6 feet of physical distance when they’re interacting with other people,” he said, adding that regular testing may be another requirement down the road.
Weiler said WSU employees were encouraged to make exemption requests by Oct. 4. Because of the volume of requests the committees are sifting through, it’s uncertain whether Rolovich’s will be processed by Monday.
“There could well be employees who don’t know the status of their request by the end of the day Monday,” Weiler said. “(The committees) have been head-down, working pretty feverishly to try and make sure employees aren’t in a state of limbo.
“They’re being reviewed on a first-come, first-serve basis. Some employees may have waited to the point where they’re going to have to go on unpaid leave while they wait to hear the decision.”
As Gov. Jay Inslee’s edict is worded, an employee who has not received word on their exemption request cannot work for the university starting on Tuesday.
In that case, the employee can take leave without pay or vacation time until an exemption is granted.
If an unvaccinated individual’s exemption request is ultimately denied, he or she can elect to receive a vaccine and take a two-week pause from working in order to hit the mark for full vaccination status. Rolovich sidestepped the question when asked if he would consider getting the shot to save his job – if his exemption request is denied, that is.
Rolovich announced July 21 that he wouldn’t be receiving a coronavirus vaccination, and that his reasoning would remain private.
Then Inslee made a proclamation in mid-August. The state’s educational employees had to accept the shot to remain employed. The only way out of it? A religious or medical exemption.
Rolovich dodged the question for months, declining to offer specifics but assuring WSU supporters that he would “follow the mandate.”
Some backed Rolovich for sticking to his guns. Many called his stance selfish and contradictory to his leadership position at WSU, the state’s research institution. Rolovich is the state’s highest-paid employee at $3.2 million a year.
The situation has sparked intense debate and speculation, dividing WSU’s fan base.
“That’s been my biggest disappointment in all of this – whether you agree or disagree with his decision – just how this has evolved,” said Bruce Amundson, a major donor to WSU athletics. “It hurts me to see Cougar fans who are normally very united fighting among themselves, calling each other names.
“I feel for the team. Those are young men that have worked their tails off to represent the university in the best possible light. They’re certainly doing that. To have something overshadow that is disappointing.”
Last week, USA Today reported that Rolovich had applied for a religious exemption. The coach’s mentor, June Jones, broke the silence.
Rolovich was raised in a Catholic household and attended a Catholic high school north of San Francisco. But he has not made public his religious ideologies.
After the Cougs locked up their exciting win over a middling Stanford team, players poured Gatorade over Rolovich’s head – a sporting tradition usually reserved for major victories and season finales.
When asked about the celebration in postgame interviews, WSU players said it didn’t signify anything out of the ordinary.
Over the past couple of weeks, WSU’s players have stood up for their coach during media sessions. Quarterback Jayden de Laura told a sideline reporter Saturday: “Stop hating on Rolo. We love him.” Standout slotback Travell Harris commended Rolovich after the game for being a “players’ coach.”
“He’s a coach we all love to play for,” Harris said.
Senior running back Max Borghi was asked whether Rolovich’s uncertain future was a rallying cry for the team, or if it was difficult to remain focused on a game considering the Cougars might not have a coach in a couple of days.
“I mean, we were just focused on winning this game and doing the best we could,” he said.
Former star Cougars quarterback Ryan Leaf has been outspoken on the subject. From what he’s heard, Rolovich will be out of a job this week.
“It’s inevitable,” Leaf told The Spokesman-Review. “Just the behavior, not only to the media, but I’m sure for people behind the scenes (Chun and school president Kirk Schulz), it’s been uncomfortable.
“It’s unfortunate because I think he’s a heckuva football coach, and I think the guys have responded. They’re playing absolutely great football, but I do believe they’ve won despite him. I believe they’ll keep winning and keep getting better when the distraction is gone.”
Leaf said he and fellow former Cougars quarterbacking great Jack Thompson share the same opinion: Not one single person is more important than the program and university as a whole.
Despite the team’s success, retaining Rolovich is untenable, Leaf indicated, referring to the coach’s lack of transparency from the start and WSU’s PR crisis of recent months.
Leaf sent Chun an apology text about a month ago because he had suggested Rolovich as a coaching candidate during the school’s search after Mike Leach’s departure.
“I wanted it to work,” Leaf said. “I loved the guy. I thought he was a perfect fit. But who could have known to ask, on a coaching questionnaire, that if there’s a worldwide pandemic, will you take a vaccination? No one knew to ask that question.”
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