SEATTLE — Chris Petersen’s decision to step down Monday as the University of Washington’s football coach was so stunning and seemingly incongruous that my first inclination was to wonder if the school’s press release was a hoax or a hack.
Why in the world would a successful coach such as Petersen, still relatively young at age 55 with highly acclaimed recruiting classes on the way, walk away from one of the best jobs in college football?
Certainly, a disappointing 7-5 season in 2019 has been a blow to everyone in the program, based on the high expectations that Petersen has forged during his six years at Washington. But considering his accomplishments, that blip did not result in any significant pressure being foisted upon Petersen – except perhaps that which was self-imposed.
At this point, it’s all just guesses and speculation until Petersen talks at a news conference Tuesday morning. But to me, the key was in a quote attributed to him in the press release – “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.”
That word, “recharge,” jumped out at me. It was similar to what manager Mike Hargrove said when he abruptly walked away from the Mariners in the midst of an eight-game winning streak in 2007. He was 57.
Petersen was far more successful than Hargrove, but I think we tend to underestimate the toll that coaching – particularly football at this level – can take on a person. It’s an all-consuming occupation with tremendous pressure and unhealthy time commitments.
Petersen is the third big-name college coach under age 60 to resign recently at more or less the top of the profession – following Bob Stoops at Oklahoma after the 2016 season at age 56 and Urban Meyer at Ohio State after the 2018 season at age 54.
It is telling that when Petersen was asked at the time about Stoops’ resignation, he said he could absolutely understand why he did it.
In many ways, Petersen was an accidental coach. The son of a high-school and small-college coach in Northern California, he didn’t get into the profession because he had a burning desire to do so. He got into it because his playing career fizzled and it turned out he was good at it.
Petersen’s dad, Ron Petersen, addressed that topic in an interview with the Seattle Times’ Adam Jude after Chris Petersen was hired to succeed Steve Sarkisian in 2014.
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“He was the typical coach’s kid who gets exposed to all those things, so it was second nature to him,” Ron Petersen said. “(But) he didn’t want to have 18- to 22-year-olds determining his happiness. So he said he was not going to coach.”
When a chance to play quarterback in the Canadian Football League fell through, Petersen returned to his alma mater, UC Davis, to finish his bachelor’s degree in psychology. A coach there, Bob Foster, talked him into coaching the freshman team, and a career was born.
But Petersen always tried to coach in a more humane manner than those in the profession who famously slept in the office and ignored all other aspects of their lives. His outlook was honed by his young son’s battle with pediatric cancer, which imbued him with a strong sense of perspective that there was more to life than wins and losses.
Petersen always insisted that his assistant coaches go home at dark. He wanted them to have balance, too. And he was facing an excruciating decision on the future of an assistant coach he loves and admires in beleaguered Husky offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan – who played quarterback for Petersen at Boise State.
Increasingly, Petersen blanched at the cutthroat world of recruiting, and the byzantine rules surrounding it. He made it clear that he was not looking forward to the advent of players being able to make money for their likeness, name and image, an era that seems inevitable in college sports.
There were many, in fact, who felt Petersen enjoyed teaching his “Built for Life” principles and forging character in young men more than the football aspect and all the hoopla that surrounded it.
This year, in particular, there seemed to be a strained atmosphere around the program, perhaps to be expected in an underachieving year.
Petersen was an excellent recruiter but told people close to him that he never wanted to cut corners or stretch rules to get top recruits. It is to his credit that there was never a hint of impropriety during his reign. As far as could be ascertained, his integrity was genuine and deeply rooted.
It’s also a boon to the Huskies that the hand-off to new coach Jimmy Lake will be so smooth. In retrospect, it seems likely that Lake at least had an inkling he was the heir apparent when he turned down a full-court-press last offseason by Alabama’s Nick Saban to become his defensive coordinator.
Petersen’s legacy at Washington will be a glittering one, having pulled the Huskies back into the upper echelon of the college football hierarchy.
He leaves them well prepared for the future with two blue-chip recruits on the way, quarterback Sam Huard and linebacker Sav’ell Smalls. But there always will be the lingering question of how much more he could have accomplished if he had stayed for, say, another decade.
Maybe that was never in the cards for Chris Petersen. Now his happiness won’t be determined any longer by 18- to 22-year-old kids.