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Reflecting on the Chris Petersen Era at Washington

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Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl - Washington v Boise State Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

My kids and I have a tradition that we partake in during our annual holiday break. Each year we identify a set of movies that we want to binge-watch together and make a point to do it together in between holiday festivities, college bowl games and pie. As they’ve gotten older, the choices have evolved from the Toy Story and the Santa Clause types towards more palatable adult fare such as Die Hard, James Bond and Lord of the Rings. For this season, I was expecting something along the lines of John Wick, Star Wars or Fast and the Furious. Instead, the girls surprised me by selecting a nostalgic choice: Harry Potter.

For the uninitiated, the Harry Potter series is an epic tale where the fate of the protagonist hinges on the allegiance of a particular magical object. Fans of the series will recognize the seminal quote: “The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter”. In a way, the entire story turned on this one twist of fate.

The trajectory of the Washington Husky Football program six years ago turned on a similar twist of fate. At the time, then Athletic Director Scott Woodward was contemplating his candidate list for replacing Steve Sarkisian when he got a call from a man named Ben Speyer. As Andy Staples reports the story, Speyer let Woodward know that his client, Chris Petersen, had decided that it was time for change and that Washington was the right fit for his next job. Without an interview or so much as an inquiry from Woodward, Petersen had targeted UW.

The coach chooses the program, Mr. Woodward.

The rest, of course, is history. A flabbergasted Woodward along with assistant AD Jen Cohen flew out to meet with Petersen and to hammer out a deal that was subsequently announced on December 6th, 2013. Just like that, the winningest coach in college football - at the time he had a 92-12 career record with five conference titles and two Fiesta Bowl wins - was poised to take over a program that had come a long way from a zero win 2008 but was still just 34-29 under Sarkisian.

There can be little doubt that over his six-year tenure Petersen left a lasting mark on the program. He led Washington back to the Rose Bowl after a 19 year absence. He won two conference championships. He navigated his team to a College Football Playoff appearance. He won twice as many games (54) as he lost (26) and put 31 players onto NFL rosters. The numbers don’t lie.

But the stats don’t tell the story (cue Petersen’s “stats are for losers” quote). The real difference that Petersen made and, indeed, the indelible mark that he leaves on the program, is one of culture. Never one to self-promote or overhype himself or his program, Petersen introduced the notions of stability and steadiness into a program that had only known change and chaos since the days of the Don James era. He eschewed many of the silly games of “he said, she said” that play out in the recruiting world and based his program on the principles of self-awareness, preparedness and attention to detail. To prospective recruits, he sold the virtues of the university and the steadiness that comes from the holistic mentoring program that he implemented. And while he enjoyed the fruits of the kinds of talents that a major program like Washington can attract, his “Built for Life” mantra helped to minimize the drama and roster turnover that plagued the regime that preceded his. He gave UW an identity as not only a football program but also as an athletic department. That identity is a brand and it conveys to prospective student athletes, their parents, and alumni everywhere a covenant upon which the program itself can be held to account against.

That isn’t to say that UW achieved it’s maximum potential under Petersen. While it is undeniable that the recruiting efforts yielded superior talent in each recruiting cycle, Petersen’s on-the-field output seemed to not ascend along a similar trajectory. Since the playoff year in 2016, Petersen’s offenses became more streaky while his bend-don’t-break defenses became a lot more bendy. A noticeable lack of competitiveness against ranked, out of conference teams led to an abysmal 2-4 bowl record with no wins against Power 5 opponents. As his tenure progressed, his teams became more known for their abilities in playing down to lower levels of competition than rising up against better teams. Inexplicable losses where his team played far below their normal levels of output (ASU 2017, Cal 2018, Cal 2019, Stanford 2019, Colorado 2019) became the subject of an annual watch list. Unconvincing wins against far lesser opponents were hardly ever offset by surprising bursts of competitiveness against superior or equal opponents. The cynics would argue that the program under Petersen in many ways seemed to mirror that of Boise State under his tenure: feast on the bad teams and hope for a few strokes of luck against the good ones.

There is clearly some truth in that critique. However, it fails to capture both the full context of the program and the moments in time the program was as Petersen built up the foundation. The playoff year of 2016, built on a huge win over Oregon and a bizarre lack of other one-loss teams for UW to be benchmarked against, definitely set expectations for the program against an unrealistic benchmark. At the same time, Petersen’s bias towards playing upperclassmen over youth (no matter the talent gap) and inability to simplify his offensive schemes (remember when Sark simplified his offense down to a half a sheet of paper in the year they implemented the HUNH scheme?) in such a way that his players did not have to keep getting called out for not “focusing on the details” enough likely stunted what could have been an acceleration of development in the program. These are all fair points.

Nevertheless, the big picture remains the same. This program is in a better place today than it was in December 2013. The talent base is clear. The cultural foundation is in place. Even the identity of the play on the field - conservative with the ball, big play prevention, special teams emphasis - is established. The Huskies know what kind of team they want to be and they have a clear line of sight on how to get there.

On top of all of that, there is a continuity in the coaching transition that is easy to see but also easy to disregard. Defensive Coordinator Jimmy Lake takes over a program after a full six years of being indoctrinated in how to run it. Most of the tenured staff that has ran the practices, organized the recruiting, implemented the nutrition and fitness routines and coached the schemes remain in place. Indeed, all 23 of the recruits who signed on this month as part of UW’s highest ranked recruiting class of all time maintained their commitments in spite of the December surprise that was Chris Petersen’s retirement.

Just imagine what things might have been like if the administration wasn’t aligned with an internal succession plan. Even more, imagine what the state of this program might resemble if Chris Petersen hadn’t decided in December 2013 that the time was right to author his next chapter. What was the hiring potential of a program whose seven-win coach had opted to leave on his own accord? Recall that, at the time, Jim Mora declined to be interviewed as he perceived that UCLA was a better situation than his alma mater. The candidates for the UW job were of the Justin Wilcox, Marques Tuiasosopo and Doug Nussmeier variety. Not a knock on any of those guys, but measure where you think the program would be now as opposed to where it finds itself.

The coach does indeed pick the program. And the epic tale continues.