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Rose Bowl Preview: the Legacy of Chris Petersen

Forget about Jake Browning. The real question of legacy falls on the shoulders of Chris Petersen.

Washington v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Have you noticed that there has been a great deal of discussion about the “legacy of Jake Browning” bandied about as we lead up to the 2019 Rose Bowl? It is understandable. Browning has unquestionably become a lightning rod topic among indignant Washington fans who have not come to grips with the fact that his unbelievable 2016 season was probably more of a mirage than an indication of the trajectory of the program.

Still, the results of 2016 count just as much as those in 2017 and 2018 do. As I wrote in my own “legacy of Jake Browning” piece before the Apple Cup, the Rose Bowl represents the third step in a three-step process that will either make or break the four-year starter’s place in Washington lore. He has the stats. He has the wins. A victory in his last game as a Dawg would give him the two things that have eluded this program for a generation: a Rose Bowl championship title and a victory over a true out-of-conference blue blood.

But this narrative about Jake Browning and his legacy, in my frank opinion, is misguided. The real legacy we need to be paying attention to is the one that Chris Petersen is building as the architect of the ascension of the UW program. Back in September I published an analysis documenting the struggles that Chris Petersen’s teams have had against “quality” out-of-conference opponents since he took over the program. The bottom line is that Petersen’s teams have not only failed to win almost all of those contests, they’ve barely been competitive.

The Rose Bowl and the matchup against Ohio State provides a tremendous opportunity for this narrative to be altered, perhaps even thrown out altogether. As such, this game isn’t about Jake Browning and his ability to “win the big one.” It is about Chris Petersen’s.

I know, I know. It seems unfathomable that anyone could challenge Chris Petersen’s legacy given how much he has already done for the program. I don’t disagree. Petersen has taken the turnaround started under Steve Sarkisian and lifted UW to a new level. He’s brought discipline and legitimacy back to Montlake in a way that I doubt many—if any—other coaches could. Husky fans should rightly feel lucky to have him and appreciative of the efforts of both Scott Woodward and Jen Cohen to woo him away from Boise.

But that doesn’t mean that Petersen has accomplished the entire mission. UW hasn’t demonstrated the kind of consistent excellence that Petersen built his reputation upon while at Boise. In addition, the signature wins over out-of-conference opponents that came to define his cunning as an elite Group of Five coach have been entirely absent during his Washington tenure.

A quick perusal of examples in recent history of coaches who took good teams and turned them into national powers tells us that there is still time for Petersen to accomplish this goal...but that the window is closing.

I took a look at the track records of a few coaches who in recent history have taken their teams from “good” to “elite” levels to see if I could detect a pattern that could then be compared to the trajectory of Chris Petersen. Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, and Urban Meyer either are achieving or have achieved what Chris Petersen strives to do with Washington: turn their programs in to multi-year title contenders.

Saban, obviously, is living the ultimate dream. While it is probably fanciful to imagine a West Coast program doing what the kings of the SEC are doing, it is a useful point of comparison. You might recall that Saban was hired by Alabama in 2007 after Rich Rodriguez inexplicably turned down the same job offer from the Tide. Alabama had just suffered three losing seasons out of the previous four and were on the wrong side of NCAA penalties involving free textbooks handed out to student-athletes (which bled over into Saban’s first year).

Alabama would go on to finish 7-6 in their first season under Saban (hmmm, sound familiar?). They opened the 2008 season, however, with a win over #9 Clemson and would go on to finish his second season with a Sugar Bowl appearance (the loss to Utah) and a 12-2 overall record. You probably already know that it was Saban’s third season in which Alabama ran the table on the way to their first championship of his tenure. His big out-of-conference wins that year included an opening weekend win over Virginia Tech and the BCS win over #2 Texas.

Dabo Swinney is the one coach that most knowledgeable Husky fans point to as the blueprint for UW and Chris Petersen to follow. Swinney was hired to replace Tommy Bowden in 2008 after having served as his receivers coach and, in a twist of irony, turning down an offer from Nick Saban to join the ‘Bama staff. Bowden had struggled to get Clemson past the 8- or 9-win plateau over his decade at the helm. Swinney initially struggled as a head coach, going 15-12 over his first two seasons. Year three was a bit of a breakthrough as Clemson won 10 games and made an appearance in the Orange Bowl—a game that turned into a 70-33 blowout loss to West Virginia. But from that point forward, Swinney put the machine in motion. Clemson did not fail to win 10 games or more in any season from then on. They finally reached the throne room of college football royalty in 2013 with their five-point win over Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. It was Swinney’s fifth full season at the helm.

Swinney’s early struggles look a lot like Petersen’s. He had no significant out-of-conference wins in his first few years while suffering some significant losses to teams like #6 TCU, #1 Auburn, South Florida, and the aforementioned West Virginia. But those winds started to shift in his fourth year when Swinney beat two SEC teams in Auburn (week one) and LSU (Music City Bowl). One important thing to note here is that Swinney had never been a head coach before taking the Clemson job and, in fact, had been selling real estate just a few years before being hired as a Clemson assistant.

My third case study—Urban Meyer—has had a much more immediate impact on each of his last two jobs. Originally hired away from Utah following the 2004 season, Meyer went 9-3 in his first year at Florida. In his second, he landed Tim Tebow as a recruit and won his first national championship. He would follow that exact same formula upon taking over at Ohio State in 2012. He led the Buckeyes to a perfect 12-0 record in his first season (which was marred with a pre-existing bowl ban) and then a national championship in the first year of the College Football Playoff. His CFP championship was especially impressive given that he had to guide his team through an upset over Alabama and then a win over Chip Kelly and Oregon.

Obviously, there is no “formula” to take a team from good to elite. The examples above all had their own unique circumstances that surely affected each team’s trajectory. The common thread, however, is that each coach had talent and resources available. Just like Washington.

We are now at the end of year five in the Chris Petersen era. At this point, each of the coaches above had taken over similar situations and had already provided signals that a move towards the elite of college football was going to happen with their programs. Husky fans are still waiting for that signal to come from Washington.

Nevertheless, the Huskies are making their third straight New Year’s Six postseason appearance. That is a remarkable accomplishment and one that should not be discounted. That they’ve done so without posting a win over a ranked out-of-conference opponent in any of those seasons is a qualifying factor that, for some, taints the accomplishment by introducing the argument that the Dawgs have benefited from a weak PAC 12. That line of thinking is certainly pervasive on the national scale and is a significant factor in explaining why the line for the game opened at 5.5 points for UW and has moved all they way up to 7 on several boards. That nation thinks Washington is nothing more than a modest-sized fish in a pool full of guppies.

That is why this Rose Bowl represents such a tremendous opportunity. Chris Petersen has a reputation for thriving under these kinds of circumstances. But can he seize it? The truth is that Petersen has not been able to deliver the kinds of results that would buttress that reputation during his five seasons at UW.

As such, I’d argue that the issue of “legacy” is more an issue for Coach Pete than it is for Jake Browning or any other player among UW’s storied senior class. A win puts him among college football royalty and validates the unique approach that Petersen employs in building a program. A loss would become yet another piece of evidence to suggest that Petersen’s strategy may not be sufficient if the goal is to position UW among the nation’s elite no matter who the quarterback might be.

One thing is certain, the stakes are high. This Rose Bowl is going to either be a legacy-builder or a legacy-killer...for someone.