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The Early Missteps of Chris Petersen

The new Husky coach is four months into his job with most things going well. But not everything.

Let's get this out of the way right now:  this is not a rip-job on Chris Petersen or the new Husky coaching staff.  By all rights, the coach and his staff are off to a great start at Montlake.  However, with a full calendar quarter of this new era under our belts, we are now in a position to begin assessing how things are going as the Huskies transition out of the Sarkisian model and into this new philosophical approach.

There are clearly a number of things going very well.  The hiring of such a highly regarded head coach has given the UW program instant credibility with recruits, parents, boosters, analysts and other stakeholders.  The closing of a strong recruiting class that many thought could not be salvaged due to the state of inertia it was left in is another key accomplishment.  The rallying of existing players, including the reinstatement of a few "suddenly seniors" like Andrew Hudson and DiAndre Campbell, can also be viewed as a surprisingly positive development under the new coaching staff. Finally, the reinstatement of the fan-friendly activities surrounding the "Spring Event" was just the kind of move that Husky fans everywhere were clamoring for.

That is a whole lot of good accomplished in a relatively short period of time for Chris Petersen and Co.  However, I'd argue that not everything has gone exactly to plan.

One of the more interesting challenges that Petersen faced when he arrived at Montlake was to figure out how to adapt his program management methods into a program that has a significantly higher profile than his previous gig.  For all its attributes, it cannot be argued that Boise State existed in a fish bowl style environment where every move was viewed and analyzed by a jury of media members, fans and critics.  In Boise, Petersen had earned the right to manage the program how he wanted without regard to the opinions or misgivings of those around him.  As such, he was afforded the luxury of minimizing external access and conducting things like player discipline in any manner he saw fit.  Petersen was King, Ambassador, Prime Minister and Supreme Arbitrator all rolled up into one.

As he transitions into Seattle, Petersen is finding it a bit harder to do things as he had done them in Boise.  The media demands are more pervasive, expectations by boosters and fans for more access is greater and the scrutiny over the details of how the program is managed is more intense.  Already, we've seen Petersen chafe at questions that involve subjects such as how he recruits, how he manages practice reps, and how he sets agendas for players when they are outside of normal football practice hours.  In most cases, Petersen has fared well as he has navigated these new experiences with a more demanding constituency base.  However, he has made a few missteps that I think warrant closer attention.

The elephant in the room begins with how Petersen has handled player discipline.  To be more precise, the issue at hand is really about how Petersen has chosen to communicate ... or not communicate ... his disciplinary approach.  Unfortunately for everybody, there have already been several challenges to deal with in this regard.  The post Super Bowl fight involving Cyler Miles and Demore'ea Stringfellow, the parking pass incident with John Timu and the expulsion of Patrick Enewally are incidents that we all know about.   Each incident has its own set of unique circumstances, to be sure.  However, from where we all sit, they each have been handled in wildly varying ways.

I wouldn't argue that Petersen has mishandled the actual disciplining of players in any of these matters.  In fact, that would be hard to do given that we don't really have full visibility to all of facts surrounding the individual incidents nor the full terms of recompense that Petersen has levied on the offenders.  It is the opaqueness of these matters that constitute the greatest misstep so far in the Petersen era.  Pac 12 football fans expect a certain level of transparency in how coaches manage discipline for their favorite teams.  Mike Leach is famous for his "three unforgivable sins" philosophy.  Sonny Dykes hasn't done everything right at Cal, but he has applied discipline in a consistent manner that has satisfied a very demanding Golden Bears fanbase.  Even Steve Sarkisian applied standards during his time at UW that gave fans a sense that offenders like Kasen Williams and Austin Seferian-Jenkins were on specific programs to regain full-rights status as players on the team.  It is the coaches who have been the least transparent about their methods, guys like Chip Kelly and Jeff Tedford, who have garnered the most criticism over the last few years regardless of how effective or non-effective the actual discipline really was for their teams.

In Petersen's case, the lack of transparency has been pretty stark.  At face value, the idea that Patrick Enewally can be booted after "one strike" while the futures of guys like Stringfellow and Miles remain open to debate is a curious question.  The full spring suspensions of String and Miles compared to a two-week suspension for Timu is hard to synch up.  The lack of a reinstatement for Miles during the spring practices despite the resolution of his legal situation is an inadequately explained issue.  Recent rumors posted by Dave Mahler suggesting that Miles has actually been getting private tutoring with Jonathon Smith raises new queries in terms of what the term "suspension" really means.

Certainly, Chris Petersen has the right to be as private as he wishes to be when administering discipline to his football club.  It is not hard to understand why he'd want to keep those matters relatively close to the chest.  In fact, it is most likely that his methods are well understood by his coaches and his players - the people who matter the most.  No argument there.  The problem is that this isn't Boise.  Intentionally keeping other stakeholders way out of the loop can create collateral damage that blows back on the players and the university.  Stringfellow recently tweeted an example of such blowback when he posted a picture of a very hostile (perhaps even criminal) note left on his door by, presumably, a fellow student.  Compare and contrast that to how Sarkisian handled the Austin Seferian-Jenkins matter.  While we were not in the loop on whatever the plan was for game suspensions, Sarkisian was very clear from the outset that ASJ would miss the entire spring and that he was being placed on a disciplinary program involving school, community and recompense that had to be completed prior to his reinstatement.  Clear and concise. No questions about his status and no ambiguity that could otherwise lead to bad behavior by misguided fans.

Beyond the player discipline issues, Petersen may have missed a few other opportunities to both set the right tone with his new program and to ensure that the Huskies were in the best position possible to win once the season begins in August.  Time will ultimately tell, but failing to keep a little more coaching staff continuity together when he transitioned in may come back to bite Petersen.  While keeping Jordan Paopao on staff should be complemented, one can't help but to think that more efforts to retain a guy like Tosh Lupoi or even Justin Wilcox may have both eased his transition with the players and helped to reduce the learning curve surrounding the new program.  Similarly, Petersen's tendency towards muted and cliched interactions with the media have served to slightly dampen fan enthusiasm relative to what may have been possible given the initial buzz that accompanied his arrival on campus.

There has yet to be recorded a "perfect" coaching transition in the history of college football.  Chris Petersen is not an exception in this regard.  His first four months on the job have been marked with a lot of great accomplishments and a few issues that could have been handled better.  The good news is that Coach Pete has the remainder of a long offseason to check himself and push for continuous improvement.  And we, undoubtedly, will be watching.