Under different circumstances, it would sound like the premise of a bad romantic comedy. A promising relationship goes horribly wrong so the jilted party finds a new partner, different in every meaningful way. But in this situation, we’re not talking about star-crossed lovers, we’re talking about a football program and successive coaches who are diametrically opposed in philosophy and personality.
When Jimmy Lake took the helm of the Husky football team almost two years ago, most fans were cautiously optimistic. Of course, moving on from someone with Chris Petersen’s resume is inherently fraught, but the theory was that Lake sat under Petersen’s learning tree and could pair his mentor’s cerebral understanding of the game with enhanced passion and energy. As an assistant, Lake had the reputation as an ace recruiter and an elite developer of defensive talent. We all hoped that Lake could maintain the high level of defensive success and pair it with a fresh mindset offensively.
Of course, we’re entirely too aware of how everything went awry. John Donovan, Lake’s signature OC hire, flopped in consistent and highly-visible ways. Rather than developing the high-end talent signed during the latter Petersen years, Lake’s coaching staff saw too many key players stagnate or regress. The vaunted defensive scheme, built to counter spread and Air Raid offenses, bent too far in the other direction and leaked away entire games to power runs. Lake’s recruiting prowess dissipated with alacrity- he put together smaller classes with lower average ratings and missed on numerous key, in-state targets. Perhaps most damaging to his public persona, Lake’s energetic, camera friendly attitude often came off as tone deaf, arrogant, or just embarrassing.
Given how fresh this sour taste is in our collective mouths, it’s natural that UW leadership would swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. Seattle Times Husky beat writer Mike Vorel wrote about “non-negotiables” in the next head coach and included recruiting ability and head coaching experience on the list. Every candidate whose name was even whispered had significant coaching experience. Virtually every candidate who seemed to have serious interest from the staff had an offensive background (with the notable exception of Dave Aranda, who quickly removed himself from consideration). The reported favorites- Aranda, Matt Campbell, and Kalen DeBoer- are straight-forward and by-the-book, sometimes to the point of coming off as boring. Campbell recently made headlines by saying he cared more about continuous improvement than winning the Big 12. It was coach speak turned up to 11, and in the post-Lake era at Washington, it was exactly what UW wanted.
In the end, the Huskies settled on DeBoer, and it would be hard to find anyone more different from Lake. In the most obvious sense, DeBoer is an offensive expert as opposed to Lake’s defensive background. DeBoer has been a head coach or an OC for 21 straight years, including seven as a head coach. He has a track record of measurable success- instant improvement across multiple programs- whereas Lake’s accomplishments were always tempered by a partnership with Pete Kwiatkowski. While Lake’s supposed recruiting expertise did not materialize as hoped, that area is the biggest question mark headed into DeBoer’s tenure. Whereas Lake cut his teeth as an NFL assistant, DeBoer’s initial success came through dominance of the NAIA. Lake’s preferred smash mouth, pro-style offensive scheme always felt a little gimmicky and DeBoer has proven to be adaptable and capable of fitting a game-plan to his team’s strengths and the defense’s weaknesses. In every line item of a coach’s resume, DeBoer’s background is profoundly different from Lake’s.
The differences seem to extend to the men’s personalities and public personas. Lake relished a soundbite (“Run the Damn Ball”) and trash talk. DeBoer’s communication style isn’t boring, but he certainly doesn’t come off like he’s trying to become a viral sensation. In interviews, he relentlessly sticks to the facts while drawing in the listener with a hint of his Dakotan lilt. A sampling of his recent tweets reads as, “Wow!” and “Appreciate all of you so much!” Perhaps the most enduring theme in learning about DeBoer is how much everyone around him likes him. That’s not to say that Lake is fundamentally unlikable or a bad person. Given how things ended and that the wounds are still fresh, it would be easy to pile on. But the fact remains that nobody would ever call Lake understated.
The starkness of the Lake-DeBoer contrast begs the question of whether any of the polarity helped get DeBoer hired. In other words, if Lake had solid but unexceptional tenure and walked away of his own accord, would the school have looked for DeBoer, or did DeBoer’s differences raise his profile? This question hangs with me because hiring someone out of spite would not be an ideal process. There are other, simpler explanations: DeBoer was probably the most appealing coach in the Mountain West Conference. He has connections to Chris Petersen through Jeff Tedford, which would naturally put him on UW’s radar. While he has ascended relatively quickly from FCS coordinator to Power 5 head coach, he has been successful at every step along the way.
In the end, we’re past the point where it matters whether DeBoer’s differences from Lake put him in the UW coaching conversation. He has the job. His past accomplishments indicate that he’ll get the most out of the offense quickly. He’ll likely motivate his players and win more games in the short term. Whether he can become the next great UW head coach and compete for conference titles depends on whether he elevates himself as a recruiter and surrounds himself with the right people. Whether he gets to that point has nothing to do with Jimmy Lake, but how we got to this point has everything to do with Lake, who was the catalyst for UW and DeBoer’s meet cute.