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Coaching Changes Provide New Glimpses Into the Motivations of Washington Head Coach Chris Petersen

The fact that Washington football lost two assistants yesterday sheds new light on the leadership of head coach Chris Petersen.

Chris Petersen the leader came a little more into focus with the events that transpired yesterday.
Chris Petersen the leader came a little more into focus with the events that transpired yesterday.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

In what should've been a light week on news for the Washington Husky Football program, unexpected drama arrived on the shores of Montlake.  Two positions on the Chris Petersen coaching staff became open last night as one coach was relieved of duty and the other accepted a head coaching job at another program.

The two coaches in question, Wide Receivers coach Brent Pease and Defensive Line/Special Teams Coordinator Jeff Choate, occupied different roles and different spots in the hearts of Husky fans.  However, they both share the distinction of having come over with Chris Petersen as part of the first staff he assembled at Washington.

That distinction is what makes this story both interesting and surprising.  It's not so much about the assistants.  It is about Chris Petersen.

Since Petersen was hired away from Boise State, Husky fans have raised several questions about how he might transition.  Would his playing style translate to a more competitive conference?  Does he have the personality to handle a more intense media environment?  Could he relate to boosters at a major program?  Could he recruit elite level athletes?

One by one, Petersen has answered each those questions in the affirmative and shut down the debate amongst the fans.  That is, but for one remaining question:  Would Chris Petersen have the conviction to make staff-level personnel changes in name of raising the program?

That question was a difficult one for fans to align around given the fact that we had no evidence that Petersen's loyalty to a program outweighed his sense of loyalty to a fellow coach.  The fact of the matter is that Petersen had never outright fired an assistant in his history as a head coach.  We do know that he did not offer certain assistants the opportunity to come to Washington with him and there have been some rumors that he has encouraged some assistants to seek other jobs.  But, when it came down to it, Petersen hadn't shown the willingness, or perhaps had not been confronted with the need to make the tough decision of terminating a fellow coach.

The debate was understandable.  Petersen clearly values the human element in all things related to the program.  He rewards hard work - both from players and coaches - with what every CEO should:  loyalty and support.  His program is more about people than it is about football and this fact is what makes his recruiting pitch so compelling to players, their families and to prospective staff members.  Therefore, it isn't surprising that many fans doubted that Petersen could or would make a staff change at all, much less just two years into the evolution of the program.

Yesterday, we learned something new about how Chris Petersen approaches staff development.  In addition to things like "stability", "routine", "commitment" and "the right thing" being important principles in the architecture of the program, we learned that there is another element just as vital:  "embracing of change".

Make no mistake here.  Brent Pease was not let go because he "didn't do his job" as the wide receivers coach.  Petersen himself noted that he has a high-level of professional respect for Coach Pease.  The move to replace his assistant was made, as he said, to initiate change into a situation that wasn't working out as the CEO of the program required it to.  It's not a punitive move as much as it is a proactive one.

This same concept applies to the second coaching move that occurred yesterday.  The move of Jeff Choate to a FCS head coaching job that will pay him less salary than what he makes at UW is also about proactive change.  Clearly, if Petersen had really wished to block Choate's move, he had plenty of cards to play.  The fact that he didn't speaks to both Petersen's willingness to support the success of others even at his own expense and to his willingness to embrace change even when things are going well.

That latter point is a critical one.  Leadership gurus all over the world point to the folly of creative destruction - the natural decline of competitive entities over time - and the importance of leaders to be proactive in installing change in order to stave it off.  The fact that Petersen appears to be letting Choate go without much of a fight is a demonstration of another kind of proactive leadership.

There is no measurement that can be applied to the defensive line or special teams play over the past two years that would lead one to believe Choate hadn't done his job.  On the surface, his departure looks like it will hurt the program.

However, that calculation fails to take into account the strengths that a new addition to the staff could bring to the equation.  A new DL coach could bring in a experience in a new philosophy or new recruiting relationships.  Perhaps this change opens the door for an existing staff member to add to his duties with the Special Teams role and triggers a new level of inspiration and motivation in that area.  Such change can be equally as stimulating as it is concerning.  The fact that Petersen is embracing it is both eye-opening and refreshing.

Husky fans have wondered if Chris Petersen was willing to be as aggressive about staying ahead of the so-called curve as he was when he was the head coach of Boise State.  It is entirely a different thing to experiment with change when things are going well than when things are not, and it was, therefore, a fair question to ask.

Consider that question answered now.  Chris Petersen the person is something that we all have come to know well.  Chris Petersen the leader is a person with whom we are still familiarizing ourselves but one who stepped more boldly into the light yesterday.  We can now see in a way that we could not so clearly before his values as a leader.  He recognizes that program is either growing or it is withering.  To achieve the former, Petersen is reminding us that change - in all forms - must be embraced and encouraged.