Chris Petersen stepping down as UW’s head football coach

Defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake will take over after the Huskies’ bowl game.

  • Monday, December 2, 2019 5:53pm
  • Sports

By Mike Vorel

The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — On Dec. 9, 2013, Chris Petersen stepped to a podium inside Husky Stadium. Outside, a video board mounted above the stadium’s west entrance read, “Welcome to THE PETERSEN ERA.” Three days after being hired as the Washington Huskies’ football coach, the 49-year-old from Yuba City, California, addressed a room stuffed with reporters and supporters.

He smiled, introduced his wife, and then quickly answered a question.

“People keep asking me, ‘Why now? You’ve been at Boise for so long.’” Petersen said. “Two things that keep coming to mind are timing and fit. It was just time. I think every place kind of has a shelf life. Sometimes that’s very short. Sometimes it’s very long, and sometimes it’s in between. It was just time.”

Exactly one week shy of six years later, it’s time. Again.

Petersen will step down following UW’s upcoming bowl game, the program stunningly announced Monday. Husky defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake has been named the program’s new coach by athletic director Jen Cohen. Petersen will transition into an advisory role for UW’s athletic department.

“It has been a privilege and a professional dream fulfilled to be part of this world-class institution,” said Petersen, UW’s sixth-year coach, in a statement. “I will forever be grateful, honored and humbled to have had the opportunity to coach our fine young men on Montlake for these past six seasons. I thank each of them, as well as our coaches and administrative staff for the incredible commitment they’ve made to Husky football during my tenure.

“The football program and Husky Athletics across the board will continue to prosper — and do it the right way — with Jen Cohen’s leadership and the University administration’s commitment to excellence. I’ll be a Husky for life, but now is the right time for me to step away from my head coaching duties, and recharge.”

It’s worth noting that the word “retire” was not used anywhere in Monday’s statement. The move was not caused by an illness or ulterior motive, according to a report by Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel. A UW spokesperson confirmed to The Seattle Times that, because Petersen has agreed to remain with the program, he will not owe the university a monetary buyout at the time of his resignation.

Petersen, Lake and Cohen will meet the media in a news conference Tuesday morning at Husky Stadium.

“I didn’t see it coming at all,” former UW starting quarterback Jake Browning told The Times in a phone interview Monday. “I think everybody was caught off guard by it.”

The 55-year-old Petersen compiled a career record of 146-38 during his eight seasons at Boise State and six years at Washington, included a 54-26 mark on Montlake. His career winning percentage of .793 ranks 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 117 games.

“Chris has been transformational for not only our football program, but our entire athletic department,” Cohen said in the statement. “It has been such a privilege to watch how he has been so committed to the development of our young men, not just on the field, but more importantly off. I can’t thank him enough for his service and leadership, and I look forward to having him stay on staff in a leadership advisory role, so he can continue to impact individuals across our department and the entire campus.”

In his six seasons on campus, Petersen led the Huskies to two Pac-12 championships (2016, 2018), three consecutive New Years Six bowl games and a College Football Playoff appearance in 2016. They won 39 games from 2015-18 — the most for a four-year stretch in program history. A win in the to-be-determined bowl game would be UW’s 40th from 2016-19, another program record.

He delivered unprecedented results, and he did so without compromising his core beliefs.

“Doing this job that I do and getting to see shortcuts that others take and the amount of rampant cheating in college football … to have a guy that I have full confidence that doesn’t play in that gray area and really is willing to live in the black and white, even if it’s costly to some of the recruiting battles, it’s very, very commendable and something worthy to be very, very proud of,” FOX analyst and former UW quarterback Brock Huard said. “But I do think that eventually — and I don’t mind this being on the record — that takes a toll. If that’s the direction (college football) is going over the long term, I just don’t think he was willing and wanting to play that game.”

Lake, meanwhile, has never served as a head coach on any level. The 42-year-old former Eastern Washington safety was hired to be Petersen’s defensive-backs coach at UW in 2014, and was subsequently promoted to co-defensive coordinator in 2016 and defensive coordinator in 2018. He also served as a defensive-backs coach at UW under Keith Gilbertson in 2004.

Under Lake, UW’s defense led the Pac-12 in total defense and scoring defense in four consecutive seasons, from 2015-18. He received raises and extensions each of the past two offseasons to help ensure that the highly coveted coach — currently the most highly paid assistant in program history — would remain on Montlake.

That’s no longer a concern.

“People have hinted at this in the past: Why wouldn’t Jimmy go be the D-coordinator at Alabama? Why wouldn’t Jimmy want the Colorado job? Why wouldn’t Jimmy want the San Jose State job? Why wouldn’t Jimmy want that next step up the ladder?” Huard said. “I think it was pretty clear that Jimmy knew the wiring and the makeup of his head coach and that this opportunity would be here sooner rather than later. His intuition and his judgment on that was obviously spot-on.

“The fact that Jen Cohen and crew did everything to keep Jimmy aboard over the last few years as he was hotly pursued I think will make this transition that much easier, when you compare it even to the school in southern California and the 10 other vacancies at the FBS level. You’ve got a guy (in Lake) that I do believe is built for this next moment. The foundation has been laid, and I think Jimmy is built to do whatever it takes in the recruiting world, in the publicity world, in the marketing world to take the step from great to elite.”

That may mean making some difficult decisions. On the heels of a disappointing 7-5 regular season, Lake must answer a series of critical offseason questions. Is it time to completely rewire Washington’s offensive philosophy/system? Would that mean replacing offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan? And, given Lake’s promotion, how will UW’s defensive staff be affected? Is it as simple as elevating co-defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski to his former defensive coordinator role?

The answers will come soon enough. But, for the first time in six seasons, they won’t come from Petersen.

“I can’t think of someone better than Jimmy to take over this program,” Petersen said in the statement. “His energy and ability to relate to our players is unmatched. Jimmy is a great teacher of the game and his track record of developing young men both on and off the field speaks for itself. He is ready to take this step and I have full confidence that he will continue to build on the foundation that has been set here and he will elevate the program to new heights.”

A graduate of North Central High School in Spokane, Lake’s coaching career began at Eastern Washington in 1999. He also served in stints at Montana State and with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions before being hired as Petersen’s defensive-backs coach and passing game coordinator in 2012 at Boise State.

After eight seasons under Petersen’s tutelage, Cohen and Co. are betting Lake is ready to take the reins.

Lake is receiving a five-year deal beginning with an annual guaranteed compensation of $3 million, according to the Memorandum of Understanding UW provided to The Times on Monday. The annual compensation is set to increase by $100,000 each year, reaching $3.4 million in 2024.

Lake would owe a $6 million buyout if he terminates the deal without cause on or before Jan. 31, 2022. The buyout amount then drops annually to $3 million, $1.5 million and $500,000 in the three remaining years.

Come Tuesday morning, there will be a new sign on the video board on the west side of Husky Stadium. “THE PETERSEN ERA” is nearly over, and so many questions remain.

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