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The End of the Pete Kwiatkowski Era

What does this farewell to a Dawg great mean for the team’s future?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Rose Bowl - Washington v Ohio State Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Uncertainty and instability have defined the last year in the world and in UW sports. From Chris Petersen’s shocking departure in December, 2019, almost nothing that has happened in the last 14 months has gone according to plan. Even with uncertainty at an all-time high, Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski seemed to be the rock of stability, the connective tissue across generations of head coaches. Even that stability was upended this week when Coach K accepted the Defensive Coordinator job at Texas under new coach Steve Sarkisian.

There are countless stats and anecdotes that support Kwiatkowski’s resume as one of the best defensive coordinators in the sport. In his seven years as the Husky DC, he has had the #1 defense in the Pac-12 five times. In his 11 years as a DC (at UW or Boise St.), he has had defenses ranked in the top-15 nationally eight times. Even in an offense-first era in college football, his defenses have an active steak of 75 straight games without giving up more than 35 points. He is not known as a top-end recruiter, but he has still sent 10 defensive players to the NFL in the first two rounds of the draft during his UW tenure. Kwiatkowski will always be a tier below Jim Lambright on the all-time UW Coordinator list because the latter won a national title, but Coach K has the advantage in plenty of other areas.

Part of Coach K’s legacy to date is his teams’ overall success. He was defensive coach on two undefeated Boise St. teams that won the Fiesta Bowl, including the famous win over Oklahoma. He was a foundational building block of the Husky coaching staff that won the Pac-12 twice in three years and went to three straight New Year’s Day Bowl Games. While the UW offense vacillated between elite and ordinary during Chris Petersen’s run, Kwiatkowski’s defenses were steadily, consistently great. The question was never whether the Huskies would slow down the opponent, it was whether the offense would score enough to keep up. Chris Petersen led an offense that was great at times and he deserves loads of credit for the team’s organization and chemistry through his years. At the same time, Petersen is an offensive mind and the team’s most predictable strength was its defense; Kwiatkowski deserves credit for that.

If there’s one game that defines Kwiatkowski’s tenure, it’s the 2018 Pac-12 Championship Game. Pac-12 South Champs Utah came in having won seven in a row with a much improved offense. The Huskies annihilated them. The Utes scored three points on 188 total yards and threw three interceptions. The only touchdown of the game was Byron Murphy’s interception return, and the Dawgs won 10-3. A football game in 2018 ended with a final score of 10-3. The one-sided Apple Cup rivalry was similarly emblematic of Kwiatkowski’s success. In a tenure that mostly overlapped with Mike Leach’s Washington State tenure that rewrote that Cougar offensive record book, the Dawgs went 6-0 and never gave up more than 17 points to WSU.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 Pac-12 Championship Game - Washington v Utah Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Kwiatkowski’s dominance over Leach was part of a larger standard of success against spread and Air Raid offenses. Coach K’s defense is versatile, but definitely designed with spread offenses in mind. He almost always keeps at least five defensive backs on the field with two traditional down linemen. He gets the tactics right, too. His defensive backs know their assignments and tackle well. His rush ends seal the edge and don’t let runners get to the corner. There are drawbacks to his approach; UW has notably struggled against Stanford’s bigger fronts that hunt mismatches against smaller defenses. Still, he built a defense that specializes in stopping the vast majority of offenses. Luckily for him and his new fans, he brings that specialty defense to a team whose arch rival runs a derivation of Leach’s offense.

Kwiatkowski didn’t take the Texas job just to neutralize Lincoln Riley and Oklahoma, but with a day to think it over, the reasons to take the job have become clearer. The biggest reason, of course, is money. Early rumors suggest that Kwiatkowski would be guaranteed $6 million at Texas, likely over a three-year contract. UW already stretched its budget to pay him $1 million last year, so doubling his salary with added job security is not a bad route to take for an experienced coach who reportedly has little interested in a head coaching position.

The money means more than just Kwiatkowski’s salary. If you’re a believer in college football’s financial determinism- and on-field results show a pretty strong correlation between revenue and program success-, then you probably recognize that Texas has been a sleeping giant over the last decade. Oklahoma has surged past the Longhorns despite having far less revenue and an inferior in-state talent base. In fact, Texas has the highest annual revenue in the country at $156 million according to the Department of Education’s most recent reports (UW is 15th at $84 million). Alabama and Clemson have dominated the sport because they found great coaches, held onto them, and paid enough to hire the assistants they wanted. Texas can do the last two if they can find their Nick Saban or Dabo Swinney. Will Sarkisian be that guy? It’s hard to blame Kwiatkowski for doubling his salary to find out.

Vrbo Citrus Bowl - Michigan v Alabama Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Meanwhile, UW faces a series of existential questions in its search for a replacement. Will Jimmy Lake look in-house for a replacement to preserve continuity, or cast a wider net outside the program? Lake famously treated NFL experience as a prerequisite for his Offensive Coordinator, will he do the same on the defensive side? The odds of finding someone better at defensive X’s and O’s are slim, so will Lake try to find a more dynamic recruiter who can make up some of the tactical gap with an elevated skill level? What role will Lake, as a defensive specialist, play in leading the defense going forward?

For me, the disappointment of Kwiatkowski’s departure has less to do with the relative strength of his eventual replacement and more to do with the programmatic transition it represents. When Petersen shockingly stepped aside, we could see continuity in Lake, a ready-made head coach in waiting. When Lake dismissed Bush Hamdan to bring in his own Offensive Coordinator, it felt like good disruption since the offense had languished behind the defense leading up to that change. Kwiatkowski’s departure does not have the same silver lining. He was the connective tissue to Petersen and the best days of Husky football in the last quarter-century. Maybe Lake will reach new heights in his own era, but Kwiatkowski’s departure definitely places us squarely in the Lake Era and outside any echo of the Petersen Era. That’s the kind of instability that scares me as a fan.