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Analysis: Nick Rolovich’s firing by Washington State has consequences, and not just for him

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 20, 2021

Former Washington State Cougars head coach Nick Rolovich makes his case to an official about the lack of a penalty call during the first half of college football game on Oct. 9 at Martin Stadium in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Former Washington State Cougars head coach Nick Rolovich makes his case to an official about the lack of a penalty call during the first half of college football game on Oct. 9 at Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Nick Rolovich may have jeopardized his future as a college football coach by refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, a decision that led to his firing Monday by Washington State for flouting Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate for state employees.

Four other assistants also opted against taking the vaccine and met the same fate as their boss Monday, muddling the future of a program that was beginning to establish momentum on the field with three consecutive Pac-12 wins.

At the moment, it’s difficult to measure the full collateral damage of Rolovich’s decision.

Rolovich is a casualty of that decision, but he isn’t the only one.

The Cougars will begin to reassemble the pieces as WSU prepares for a 12:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday against BYU. Even if they can rattle off their fourth win in as many weeks, something that would place them on the cusp of bowl eligibility, Rolovich’s termination will have short- and long-term repercussions on many people.

“It’s a tough day for Washington State football,” AD Pat Chun said Monday. “Nobody wants to be here. I have a lot of empathy for the young men in that locker room, but those upperclassmen have been through a lot in my time here. Two teammate deaths, a pandemic, three coaching changes. This is a lot and it’s a tough day for everybody here.”

We examine the trickle-down effect of Rolovich’s decision and who’s impacted by the termination of WSU’s 33rd football coach.

Nick Rolovich

For the sake of this exercise, we’ll assume Rolovich is looking to pursue other coaching opportunities, if not immediately, at some point within the next year. Whether he committed “career suicide,” as some have posited, is yet to be seen. No matter, potential employers will have to consider that Rolovich made a conscious decision to put his future at risk by refusing the vaccine, regardless of their own stance on vaccinations.

That’s one major obstacle Rolovich will have to overcome as he maps out his future in the profession. It’s not the only one, though.

Rolovich is embroiled in a lawsuit with former WSU wide receiver Kassidy Woods, who claimed the coach violated his First Amendment rights last summer when Woods alleged he was removed from the team for participating in a player-driven Pac-12 movement known as #WeAreUnited. The assertions made by Woods in the lawsuit would almost certainly come up in a job interview and add another layer of complexity to hiring Rolovich.

After struggling for four weeks, Rolovich’s Cougars began to find their footing at California and brought that momentum home to Pullman, where they beat Oregon State and Stanford. But while Rolovich’s resume looks stronger than it did on Sept. 25, when the Cougars dropped to 1-3 with a 24-13 loss to Utah, it’s unlikely he’s achieved enough that would prompt potential suitors to overlook what’s transpired away from the field. He leaves WSU with a record of 5-6 and is 33-33 in six years as an FBS head coach.

Rolovich spent 18 years chipping away – as a high school assistant, college student assistant, junior college position coach, college position coach, college offensive coordinator and Mountain West head coach – to earn the coveted Power Five conference head coaching job he accepted last January. He won’t be in the running for another one of those soon, and there’s no guarantee Rolovich will be considered by the next tier, the Group of Five.

Jake Dickert

Just like Rolovich, Jake Dickert is someone who’s spent his career climbing the proverbial coaching ladder with visions of becoming a head coach someday. He just didn’t see it happening like this.

While Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense turned a corner during WSU’s three-game win streak, Dickert’s opportunistic defense is equally responsible for the team’s 4-3 record. The Cougars aren’t among the league leaders when it comes to total defense, but they’ve developed a knack for creating momentum-changing turnovers, and they’ve gotten outstanding play from their edge rushers, who’ve played a big role with 14 sacks.

During a Zoom call Tuesday, Dickert indicated he won’t abandon his duties as defensive coordinator. But it’s fair to wonder how he’ll perform in that role while juggling new responsibilities as interim head coach. Dickert said, “I’m a firm believer that adversity is life’s biggest teacher,” and if he’s able to overcome the adversity that Monday’s news brought, there could be a bigger reward in store for the young coordinator.

“The reality is, yes, (Dickert) is going to be a candidate for the job,” Chun told John Canzano on “The Bald Faced Truth” radio show Tuesday. “When I talked to Jake, he has the luxury of really getting a real-time evaluation on what he can do as a coach, and ultimately we’re always going to make the decision of what’s best for our student-athletes and what’s best for Washington State short-term and long-term.”

The scenario for Dickert if he’s not deemed to be a candidate after his five-game audition? WSU’s promising D-coordinator – who makes an annual salary of $563,750, according to USA Today – could be job-hunting in January when the Cougars bring in new staff.

Assistant coaches

Four other WSU assistants are in a predicament similar to Dickert’s.

Craig Stutzmann (quarterbacks), Mark Weber (offensive line), Ricky Logo (defensive line) and John Richardson (cornerbacks) elected not to take a COVID-19 vaccine.

Brian Smith (offensive coordinator), Andre Allen (wide receivers), Mark Banker (safeties), AJ Cooper (edge rushers) and Kyle Krantz (special teams) all complied with the mandate and will keep their jobs through the 2021 season.

While Rolovich made a salary of $3.2 million, only his coordinators, Dickert and Smith, earned more than $500,000. The salaries of WSU’s assistants, meanwhile, ranged from $284,166 to $320,833. It’s not to say those coaches and their families won’t be able to live comfortably in the short-term, but it’s a financial reality they wouldn’t have prepared for a few months ago.

Rolovich and the assistants who walked out of WSU’s football complex on Monday made a conscious choice to forfeit their salaries.

Six other Cougar football coaches, not to mention more than a dozen analysts, grad assistants, strength coaches and support staff members, may have to suffer the consequences of that decision in two months.

Pat Chun

Chun was less than two minutes into an opening statement Monday before issuing an apology.

“As the director of athletics and steward of this department, I take full ownership and responsibility for hiring Nick in January of 2020 based on all the information we had at the time,” Chun said, “including extensive references and conversations with knowledgeable football experts, we believed we found the perfect fit and a long-term solution for Washington State football.”

When Chun hired Rolovich, the decision was widely endorsed by players, fans and media members. It goes without saying the AD couldn’t have anticipated the global pandemic that arrived months into Rolovich’s tenure, or any of the circumstances that led to his termination.

Chun’s name has emerged in a handful of athletic director searches throughout the year, and many suspect it’s only a matter of time before the man who’s overseen WSU’s athletic department since 2018 leaves for a higher-profile gig. He was linked to Kansas in March and reportedly interviewed at Northwestern a few weeks later.

More than anything, ADs are measured by the outcome of their football hires – Bill Moos’ hire of Mike Leach certainly didn’t hurt when interviewing at Nebraska – and while Chun’s decision to bring Rolovich aboard won’t necessarily dissuade other schools from considering him, it won’t be something he can use as a selling point either.

Current players

Though WSU players offered support for Rolovich through heartfelt messages on social media, they’re the ones burdened most by his choice.

Younger Cougars will have to decide whether they want to stick around under a new regime. Older Cougars – many of whom exercised the option to return for a fifth or six season under COVID-19 rules – face the type of midseason shakeup they hoped to avoid in their final year as college players.

Chun astutely pointed out that most of WSU’s veteran players have gone through heartache at many levels in their time on the Palouse, alluding to the deaths of Tyler Hilinski and Bryce Beekman, a coaching change in 2020, a pandemic that shortened a 12-game season to seven games and then to four games, and now a coaching change in 2021.

“I think this is going to be another challenge for our guys to continue to learn and grow,” Dickert said Tuesday.

The Cougars will lose a batch of older players like Abe Lucas, Liam Ryan, Jahad Woods, Justus Rogers and potentially both Jaylen Watson and Max Borghi.

They could also enter 2022 without some of the underclassmen who’ve helped them reach the four-win plateau in 2021.

The future of starting quarterback Jayden de Laura, a Honolulu native with a run-and-shoot background who had a longstanding relationship with Rolovich, will be monitored closely as the Cougars enter the offseason and others will consider moving on when the season comes to an end.

Those who elect to stay will not only have to learn new offensive/defensive systems but also forge new relationships and prove themselves on the field to a new coaching staff for the second or third time in their careers.

Future players

WSU’s 2022 recruiting class was already the subject of heavy scrutiny before Rolovich’s tenure ended. Now the Cougars will have to add the final pieces without clarity on who’ll replace him in a full-time capacity next season.

The Cougars will be on the hook to fill no fewer than nine scholarships vacated by graduate players who will be out of eligibility after the season ends, and that number should grow by 10 to 15 from fifth-year seniors opting not to take advantage of a sixth year, plus underclassmen who opt to transfer.

The current class sits at nine commitments and ranks 10th in the conference, but nine could easily dwindle to six or seven if players who committed to Rolovich decide to open their recruitment in the coming weeks. Many have also noted the Cougars have picked up just two commitments since June 28, one month before Rolovich tweeted to announce his vaccination status.

The transfer portal will be an essential resource, and while the Cougars usually prefer to get a bulk of their signees in before the early period, WSU’s new staff may have to prioritize the Feb. 2 signing date as Rolovich’s staff did in 2020.

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