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Chris Petersen to Step Down; Jimmy Lake Named UW Football Head Coach

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Welcome to the most shocking UW Athletics related headline in a long long time

Washington State v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

In an absolutely out of left field press release, the University of Washington announced this morning that Chris Petersen would be stepping down as the head football coach following the team’s bowl game and that defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake will take his place.

Petersen coached at Washington for 6 seasons and led the Huskies to a College Football Playoff appearance in 2016 and a pair of Pac-12 championships. He has a career record of 146-38 between the years on Montlake and 8 seasons at Boise State. In the press release Petersen says:

“It has been a privilege and a professional dream fulfilled to be part of this world-class institution,” Petersen said. “I will forever be grateful, honored and humbled to have had the opportunity to coach our fine young men on Montlake for these past six seasons. I thank each of them, as well as our coaches and administrative staff for the incredible commitment they’ve made to Husky football during my tenure. The football program and Husky Athletics across the board will continue to prosper – and do it the right way – with Jen Cohen’s leadership and the University administration’s commitment to excellence. I’ll be a Husky for life, but now is the right time for me to step away from my head coaching duties, and recharge.”

A full press conference is scheduled for tomorrow. We’ll obviously have more to come from this shocking news and what it means for the Husky program moving forward.

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Instant Reaction

Now that I’ve had approximately 10 minutes to process the news that Chris Petersen is stepping down, here are my initial thoughts. Coach Pete has always been a strange guy in terms of how he views coaching. He turned down the USC job while at Boise State and Washington was viewed as his perfect situation because it provided the resources to compete for a national championship without the same media spotlight of other cities. Petersen never enjoyed the extra things that a head coach at a major football program has to deal with. There was the expectation that Petersen would leave on his own terms and he wasn’t going to spend another 40 years at Washington.

But obviously this is way way way sooner than any reasonable person could expect. He coached for 8 seasons at Boise State and a betting man would’ve said placed money on Petersen making it at least that long at Washington.

It’s not a stretch to say the program peaked in 2016 with the CFP appearance and took a step down in 2017/18 with New Year’s Bowl appearances before cratering to 7-5 this season. I think a more favorable view to take would be that the program reached the tier below the truly elite in 2016-18 and that a game here or there was largely what ended up being the difference between top-5 and top-15.

Regardless, it’s a chicken and egg situation with the drop-off this season which we may never know or which may leak out over the coming weeks and months. Was this season such a grind that it drove Petersen to lose his will for coaching and need to recharge before he thinks about getting back into the profession? Or did the team suffer because Petersen’s heart wasn’t fully in it anymore?

Whatever the case it had become clear that Jimmy Lake was being groomed to be a head coach at a major D1 program. He reportedly at the very least was a serious candidate for if not offered the Colorado job before it went to Mel Tucker last year and likely could have been the defensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa if he wanted to. Instead, the coaching staff gave him promotion after promotion and raise after raise to keep him around. I’m sure Jen Cohen is thrilled that he didn’t leave before ascending to the top of the Washington job but that it happened at least a couple years or more sooner than she expected.

You would have to think that the odds of changes happening to the staff only increase now that Lake will be the one in the head chair. Pete Kwiatkowski was willing to take a nominal demotion to co-DC in order to keep Lake around. You would think that he’d be willing to resume his roll as the only DC to stay and coach under Lake. But it also wouldn’t be shocking if he felt it too strange to be working directly under a former direct report and so decided to move on.

The expectation was that if any changes were going to be made to the staff that they would come on offense. Lake doesn’t owe Bush Hamdan anything and while they’re members of the same coaching tree there shouldn’t be any loyalty to Hamdan outside of a wish for continuity everywhere else. I’d put the odds higher than they were yesterday that we see a new offensive coordinator next season but I still don’t know that I’d call it the most likely outcome.

We have no idea how Jimmy Lake is going to do as a head coach but you would certainly expect that this move will preserve at least most of Washington’s recruiting class. The Huskies currently have the #16 class in the country per 247 Sports. Every west coast recruiting site will be reaching out to current UW recruits for comment over the next 24-48 hours. Some will say they have to re-think things. Some will say they’re still 100% solid. At least a couple will re-open their recruitments even if they still wind up in purple and gold. Lake’s biggest strength was as a recruiter and other coaches have negatively recruited against UW for years by telling kids that Lake would be leaving. He’s definitely staying now and that should help keep in place the DB class but provide major uncertainty everywhere else.

The effects of today’s announcement will ripple out and be felt for years to come in every phase of Washington football. There are just too many variables up in the air at the moment to say whether or not Washington’s ceiling remains anywhere close to where it was yesterday. Oklahoma transitioned to Lincoln Riley and didn’t skip a beat. Ohio State transitioned to Ryan Day and have if anything gotten better. But both of those programs had greater sustained success over the past decade or two than Washington by far. Perhaps the greatest trait of the Chris Petersen era was consistency both in results and approach to the game. For the time being at least, that’s gone.