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Chris Petersen's Offseason Top Priorities

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After a completely underwhelming first season at Washington, Chris Petersen has a long list of things to get done this offseason.

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We are a solid two weeks and change since the debacle that was the Cactus Bowl has come and gone.  Despite the passing of a fair amount of time, and the distraction that is the Seattle Seahawks, I have not been able to shake the bitter taste that I have lingering in my mouth from the putrid final course of the Washington Football season.

That was some bad football.

But that game - and that season - is over now.  The Huskies reamaining players and the staff have to turn the page and begin the process of rebuilding for the future.

Make no mistake:  this is now a very young team and it is in clear rebuild mode now.  With serious personnel questions lingering at every single position grouping on the team, Petersen and Co will have their hands full in dealing with their rather long program to-do list.  That list will feature a wide range of priorities and activities such as closing out this vital recruiting class, initiating their physical training program, assimilating the early-admission student-athletes, and refining a playbook that was too vanilla on defense and too ... whatever ... on offense.  On top of that, they have the small task of figuring out a depth chart from a quagmire of competition that will be conducted throughout the roster.

Many of you already know that in my day job I run a large medical device business.  In this role, I've learned that is very difficult for any executive to focus on more than a couple of things at the same time if he or she plans on doing them well.  The essence of managing a large enterprise - like a collegiate football program - is to set the agenda and then delegate responsibilities to the next line of leadership.  This allows the executive to focus his attention on what is most relevant for him and to ensure that there is no ambiguity on expectations for the performance of the next level.

Chris Petersen is the CEO of Husky Football.  Assuming that he has already set the offseason agenda for his staff to follow, I propose that Petersen has four priorities that he should focus his attention on between now and the start of fall camp next August.

1. Define the Identity of this Program and a Vision for the Future

The most frustrating aspect of 2014 to the typical fan was the complete lack of identity established by Chris Petersen with his football team.  That isn't to say that Petersen doesn't have a vision for what kind of identity he wants to establish.  But Average Joe Fan has no idea what that is supposed to be.

That's a problem.

Every enterprise will establish its long-term vision and strategy upon the foundation of whatever it is and does well.  McDonald's doesn't offer table service and sell $200 bottles of Cabernet because that kind of tactic doesn't flow from what they are.  Oregon doesn't trot out three tight ends and a full back at the goal line because that isn't what they have recruited and trained to do.

How you decide to make your journey starts with a definition of who you are or, in the case of Washington, who you will become.  Sure, we have gotten all the cliche stuff.  Petersen said in his opening press conference that we are going to be "physical, fast, strong and smart" among other things.  That's a quote.  That's not an identity.

Beyond the quotes, we've gotten a few tag lines.  "Built for Life" and the recent celebrations around the excellent classroom performance of the team are now being held up as visions for the program.

However, whatever we've seen on the field doesn't seem to jibe with whatever cliches have been tossed out in coaches interviews.  On some days, this team is stout and aggressive on defense.  On others, it is "bend don't break" and finesse.  On some days, we are a power running team.  On others, we are a perimeter oriented offense.  On some days, we are "Two-way U".  On others, we simply can't decide if we prefer to have talents like John Ross and Shaq Thompson on offense or defense.

Frankly, the 2014 team was a schizophrenic mess.  Perhaps that had to with Petersen trying to force a lot of upperclassmen square pegs into round holes.  I just don't know.  Whatever the issue was, it needs to get fixed.

Petersen needs to set an identity and define a clear vision for the program.  But that's not enough.  He can't just keep it to himself.  He's got to align his coaches, his administrators, his boosters, his players, his recruits and ... YES .. his fans to the same.  Everybody has a stake in what he is doing and how he is doing it.  Assessing our progress along the path requires us to know where that path is going.  Getting everybody aligned has to be order of business number one this offseason.

2. Rip the Band-Aid Off and Get Busy With the Rebuild

I'll credit Petersen for never specifically using the term "rebuild" when he took over the program a year ago.  In hindsight, he gave us many, many hints that he was actually engaging in a complete tear down.  However, those of us with visions of 10 wins and an upset in Eugene were never going to acknowledge those hints.

What hints you ask?  How about:

  • Separating his starting QB from the program for about eight months
  • Watching his best receiver take his talents to Ole Miss
  • Overhauling the recruiting class that Sark had begun to assemble
  • Not retaining any high-level coaches from the previous regime (despite the opportunity to do so)
  • Completely re-doing the strength and conditioning program (including facility)
  • The moving of pieces on the offensive line
  • The changing of Hau'oli Kikaha's role
  • A sundry of other roster changes and personnel moves (hello, Marcus Peters)

To his credit, Petersen pleaded on several occasions for "patience".  He warned us.  But most Husky fans didn't pay attention.

Well, Coach Pete, you have our attention now.

Order of business number two, therefore, has to be to simply get on with the business of rebuilding this program in the light of day.  Let's not pretend that this program is undergoing anything less than a complete refurbishment.

What does this mean?  For one thing, it means opening everything up to competition.  There were many rumors that persisted over the course of the season that the best players weren't necessarily playing ahead of incumbents.  Perhaps Petersen was trying to give benefits of doubts to upperclassmen.  Perhaps he didn't want to give the appearance of completely tearing down what Sark built.  Who knows.

Regardless, the charade is over.  The rebuild is on.  Let's rip off the damn band-aid and get on with it.  If there are players that don't fit, let's address it with them and give them the option that all Dawgs deserve. Above all, let's call a spade a spade.  Use the word "rebuild".  Make sure everybody knows what is happening, why it is happening and how it will happen.

Let's get on with it.

3. Confirm the Coaching Staff and Define their Roles

I'm not going to go through position by position and grade out the first seasons of Petersen's staff.  Actually, we already did that.  What I am going to do here is request that Petersen do a better job of defining roles, responsibilities and accountabilities in an above-board way so that everybody who has a stake in the program can better assess what is going well and who is getting the job done.

Many people don't realize it, but Petersen is running what some businesses call a "matrix" organization.  That is to say that he has a next level of leadership that have different and criss-crossing responsibilities that often does not align to a classic hierarchy.  It isn't necessarily a bad thing to have a matrix, but without a clear definition of areas of responsibility to go with performance metrics, underperformance in the org can often be swept under the rug with no single entity having clear responsibility.

The Huskies have two assistant head coaches (Chris Strausser and Bob Gregory).  Neither of them are an offensive or defensive coordinator (Jonathan Smith and Pete Kwiatkowski).  So, the two assistant head coaches sometimes report directly to Chris Petersen and sometimes report directly to one of the two coordinators.  On the flip side, those same coordinators sometimes report directly to Petersen and sometimes are accountable to the assistant head coaches.

Again, this isn't to say that this is a bad thing.  For all I know, Petersen has defined expectations and responsibilities in a crystal clear manner.  The problem is that other stakeholders don't have that crystal clear view.  We may not even be entitled to it.  However, a lack of transparency in this regard has a way of creating ripples in Montlake that, if gone unaddressed, can eventually turn into tsunamis.

Petersen needs to get this staff functioning at a higher level. Defining roles and responsibilities is one thing.  Holding coaches accountable - and not just talking about it - against those roles and responsibilities is a vital step in driving this program forward.

4. Bring the Fans into the Loop and Give Them a Better Fan Experience

As I look around the UW fan base and assess what is happening with the program, I can't help to but to conclude that the divide between program leadership and the fanbase is widening.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, winning cures all of those ills.  And, while that is true, there is something else at play here.

We are only two seasons removed from opening up our palatial new stadium and what do we have?  Angry students, fans complaining about game day experience, empty bleachers and blogs like this one questioning the direction of the program under a first year head coach with the best track record that any incoming UW coach has ever had.

The stakeholders surrounding this program are not aligned.  We aren't marching to the same tune.  In fact, we aren't marching to any tune at all.  This program needs to rekindle its relationship with its fans to both calm the masses and to generate the kind of energy in Husky Stadium that builds and self-sustains over time.

It all starts with Chris Petersen.  If he follows the first three steps of this offseason agenda, and if he chooses to talk openly with all of his stakeholders about these things, then he will be taking a huge step forward in driving the kind of alignment I'm talking about.

Husky fans, boosters and community members want to feel like they are part of the program.  They want to to know that the man captaining the boat has a plan and they want to be able to monitor the progress.  The compulsion we all have to track that progress is a common dynamic in sports. Its the same one that compels certain baseball fans to keep score on their notepad despite the presence of the electronic scoreboard and an app on their iPad.

It is completely Petersen's prerogative to keep all of these stakeholders at arm's length.  I get it.  We (the collective "we") are huge distractions to the programs that coaches run.  Some of us will lead our student athletes into bad situations.  We are overly critical.  We can be irrational (who me?).  I get it.

But, we are also the reason that the program exists.  We buy the tickets, order the cable packages, contribute to the fundraisers and order the jerseys that fund the scholarships, pad the coffers and pay the coaching salaries.  We are better as allies then as adversaries and I think Coach Pete would do well to consider how he can bring us in on his vision for this program and how he plans to get us there.

That would be the kind of leadership in this offseason that all Huskies are looking for.