SEATTLE — Washington athletic director Jennifer Cohen is always prepared for a coaching transition. She has to be.
Even though she jokingly chided Chris Petersen on Tuesday for not giving her enough hints that he was ready to step down as UW’s head coach, she already had an idea of what — or rather, who — would come after him. This day had to come eventually, and Cohen had long been thinking about defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake as a successor.
So, when Petersen told her of his plans Saturday, Cohen had Lake on the phone just a few hours later. The process moved quickly, she said, but the decision wasn’t made in haste. She’d been planning for this moment for years.
“I think there’s a lot different ways you can go when you’re hiring a head coach and I think it always starts with the profile and what you’re looking for,” Cohen said during a press conference on Tuesday. “I had an idea of what that profile would look like and what this program was going to need if he left. The amazing news is that Chris left it in such good condition.
“When you have cultures like that, it’s incredible if you can actually find somebody in the program so that you can take the next step. And the person in the program has to have some skills and talents that in many ways are a little bit different to then build off of something and make it even better moving forward. To me, it was just obvious that we had the guy right here in Jimmy Lake.”
Lake had his opportunities to leave UW. A lot of them. He’d been linked to several defensive coordinator and head coaching openings over the years. But he always came back, with Cohen and Petersen doing whatever they could to make sure that happened. Even so, Lake admitted he was sometimes tempted.
“Especially way earlier on when I wasn’t the defensive coordinator and I knew I wanted to call plays,” Lake said. “That’s always been a passion of mine to have that football strategy and try to make it my own. So, there was definitely a few places I was looking at and thinking about.
“But the gravitational pull of me obviously becoming the coordinator here and the city of Seattle and the University of Washington and Chris Petersen and being apart of that culture really made me stay right here. I knew what a great place I was going to have to leave. I knew a lot of coaches would love to be in this situation right here and that really kind of brought me back.”
Lake has been a member of Petersen’s staff since the two were at Boise State in 2012, and Petersen knew early on that Lake had all the necessary qualities to run a program.
“He’s really smart. He’s super competitive, to a fault sometimes,” Petersen said with a grin. “And that’s awesome. You need that guy in there when things aren’t right, putting the gloves on. … That’s awesome. And he’s a really good person. He’s great with people and all those things. … He’s a wonderful teacher and coach. Nobody knows how these things go. You don’t know. But if it was ever stacked up like, ‘OK, this guy needs a chance to roll.’ I’ve never seen one (coach) that’s more prepared and ready that hasn’t actually been in the chair. I mean, there’s no doubt.”
Petersen also knows this: He’s leaving the program in the best possible hands. He wouldn’t have made the decision otherwise, and he said as much on Tuesday. UW’s foundation is strong, he said. It doesn’t need to be ripped apart so someone can start over. What it needs, he said, is “a boost of energy.”
And Petersen believes Lake is just the right person to provide it.
“I told our young players yesterday that I know a lot of them were looking to me in shock and, ‘You just got me to come here,’” Petersen said. “The one thing that I don’t feel bad about is getting those guys to come here because I think this program is second to none, I think this university is second to none and I think that about this community. And then who’s taking this program over, it’s only going to get better. (The players) don’t know it, that it’s going to get better, but I know it and I’m excited to see where this thing goes.”
When Lake stepped to the podium for his opening remarks, he spent a long time praising Petersen. He talked about how he admired Petersen’s Boise State teams from a distance, how he always wanted to find out what the “secret sauce was all about.” It didn’t take long, Lake said, for him to realize that the secret sauce was just Petersen.
Lake said he’d never been around closer football teams than those coached by Petersen. And then he gave a small smile, and seemed to flip a switch.
“And now, here we go,” he said. “I’m the head football coach. For the guys that know me, I am a very aggressive, attack-mode type personality and that’s where we’re going to take this thing.”