Petersen's surprise resignation leaves a void in the coaching world, and uncertainty about the future of the profession
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — A year ago on the Levi's Stadium turf, Washington Huskies players danced, embraced and celebrated carrying roses. Head coach Chris Petersen revealed the week of the 2019 Pac-12 Championship Game that he wasn't in a very celebratory mood after his team clinched the program's first Rose Bowl bid in 18 years.
"You work your whole life to get to there,” Petersen said at his farewell press conference on Dec. 3. "I didn't appreciate the game like I need to, you know, as a kid growing up looking at that game. I think that was one of the things that really hit me loud and clear. So, you know, you start to pay attention to that. Then you go and you put your heart and soul into what you're doing."
Petersen's tenure at Washington produced two Pac-12 championships, three straight 10-plus-win seasons, appearances in the Peach, Fiesta and Rose Bowls, and a College Football Playoff berth. With the exception of the absolute tippy-top of college football — Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State, the only programs to win national championships in the playoff era, plus Oklahoma — no program enjoyed a better stretch in this ultra-competitive era.
Despite the 2019 season's disappointing 7-5 finish, to characterize Petersen's tenure as anything but a success misses the mark. The 2016-through-2018 peak marked an era of prosperity not seen since the Don James days.
In addition to their on-field success, Petersen's career emulates James' in that both ended remarkably early. James was just 60, five years older than Petersen is now, when he retired. However, the original Dogfather stepped away ahead of NCAA-mandated sanctions that James viewed as draconian.
When James left Washington, he left the profession entirely. Petersen made no such declaration, even referring to 2020 and his administrative role at the university as an opportunity to "recharge."
But there's an aura, a feeling of finality, at least in the initial days following his departure.
"He's held in such high regard, not only as a football coach, what he's done with the U-Dub program," said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, "But the kind of human being and person he is. He's had a tremendous, tremendous impact throughout the league. We will miss him."
That sentiment does not end at the Pac-12 offices. It's shared among Petersen's peers, like Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, who found out during his Pac-12 Championship Game press conference.
"All I've got for that is a 'wow.' I would have never thought that," Whittingham said. "Chris Petersen is one of the finest coaches in the country. You've got a handful of people you admire, and Chris Petersen is someone I have that opinion of."
Whittingham and Petersen followed comparable paths, coaching non-power conference teams to national greatness. Whittingham was an assistant on the 2004 Utah team that became the first non-Bowl Championship Series program to crash one of those games. Four years later, he coached the Utes to a historic Sugar Bowl defeat of Alabama that played a critical role in both forming a playoff, and garnering Utah an invitation to the former Pac-10.
Petersen became a universally recognized name around the sport when his 2006 Boise State Broncos beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, on one of the most iconic plays in college football history.
We live in an era when coaches jump for more prominent and lucrative jobs early into their tenures. Petersen could have left Boise State well before accepting the Washington job in December 2013, but he only moved onto a power-conference program when the fit was right. That was something Petersen touted in his farewell press conference.
Petersen leaves Washington football in a much better place than when he inherited it. What's more, the program's future is in good hands with Jimmy Lake.
Lake's quick progression from defensive backs coach, to co-defensive coordinator and now head coach was well-earned through both in-game strategic acumen and tireless recruiting.
Last year ahead of the Rose Bowl, amid brief and ultimately unfounded chatter online that Miami might pursue Lake for the vacancy Mark Richt left just as unexpectedly as Petersen's exit from Washington, linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven said of Lake: "He's a really talented coach and I hope we can keep him at U-Dub for a little bit longer before he goes and gets a head coaching job."
As it turns out, Washington did not have to sacrifice one without the other. And in handing the reins over, Petersen added his own praise for the new Top Dog.
"I have no doubt that this program is going to continue to grow, it's going to take the next step, and we're going to be back to winning Pac-12 championships," Petersen said, adding in his trademark dryly comedic way: "Sorry, Jimmy. Don't mean to put that pressure on you."
While said in jest, there is pressure — not just on Lake to continue the positive growth that began and reached a crescendo under Petersen, but on every coach in Div. I college football. There's particular pressure in the Power 5 conferences, where the proverbial goalposts have been moved to redefine what constitutes success since the introduction of the College Football Playoff.
Two conference championships, as Petersen won, should be a universally lauded accomplishment. That the 2018 Pac-12 crown came without a playoff invite came with dismissal from a certain segment of college football influencers.
One coach stepping away early is hardly indicative of a phenomenon or symbolic of a trend to come. But Petersen's exit comes in a stretch when Bob Stoops left Oklahoma at age 56 and after winning his 10th Big 12 Conference championship; Urban Meyer, who Petersen faced in last season's Rose Bowl Game, walked away from Ohio State at 54.
Just days after Petersen's resignation, his West Coast contemporary, Jeff Tedford, stepped down at Fresno State due to health concerns just a month after his 58th birthday.
The recent rash of winning coaches stepping down at jobs pales in comparison to the bevy of movement across the profession. Increased pressure to win has reduced the timetable for coaches in rebuilding jobs; the once-universal standard of five years has been reduced to two or three. In certain instances, like Willie Taggart at Florida State, it's more like a season-and-change.
There have now been 106 coaching changes since 2015.— Matt Murschel (@osmattmurschel) December 6, 2019
Power 5: 53
Group of 5: 51
Amid the pressure to win, or perhaps because of it, the college football ecosystem has changed. It's hard not to reflect back on Petersen's candid assessment of modern-day recruiting, which he shared with a small collection of reporters in July at Pac-12 media day.
"It's an interesting, evolving, kind of frustrating process," he said. "Everything from the camps, to the spring visits now, is killing our assistant coaches," he said. "They talk about all this quality of life and now? Those two months are so brutal on those guys. You're just going nuts in May, getting everywhere you can. It's just nonstop. You just recruit, 24-7. Then in June, now you've got camps and you're going to have at least one visit weekend. And so where do you fit all this in?
"This is so out of control," he added. "There's not an assistant coach or head coach who probably likes this, but it just is what it is."
But is what it is good for the sport? Losing a coach like Chris Petersen from the game leaves you wondering how the landscape needs shaping in the years to come.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.