BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 12/02/2016

Thiel: Petersen’s big task: Managing at the top

Washington’s football coaches Don James and Rick Neuheisel reached heights Chris Petersen aspires to Friday night. But can he avoid the pitfalls after success that ushered them out?

Chris Petersen has done remarkably well to get the Huskies to 11-1. Now he has a tougher job to do. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress

This story also appeared on Crosscut.

SANTA CLARA, CA. – The toughest part of coach Chris Petersen’s task is not devising a plan for his fourth-ranked Washington Huskies to beat eighth-ranked Colorado in the Pac-12 Conference championship starting at  6 p.m. Friday at Levi’s Stadium.Nor will it be figuring out how to bring asunder the colossus of No. 1 Alabama, the likely foe should the Huskies succeed Friday and advance for the first time to the College Football Playoffs Dec. 31 in Atlanta.

The heaviest lift for Petersen will be managing success. In big-time college sports, being the best can bring the worst.

The pressurized, often ruthless world of giant football programs is where corners are made to be cut, bad behaviors are indulged and money is rigorously denied student performers while lavished upon their overlords and institutions. Banana republics with good health care.

The perils that follow success with UW football have a sordid history. The most recent coaches who reached pinnacles similar to Petersen’s aspiration, Don James in 1993 and  Rick Neuheisel in 2000, were subsequently engulfed in NCAA scandal and controversy that cost them their jobs and the university much credibility and many dollars.

Those who have been around Petersen in his three years at Montlake say that he is as fussy about rules as he is with pass routes. He is said to be honest and direct in his recruiting practices, and willing to reprimand and dismiss top players for conduct violations.

And because he shuns public oratory and self-aggrandizement, he is highly unlikely to talk his way out of the job.

His counterpart at Washington State, Mike Leach, nicknamed him “The Bishop,” a tag that even makes Petersen smile.

“He’s just a real clean-cut looking guy; he has a stately air,” Leach told reporters before the Apple Cup. “There’s several other guys in our conference of Mormon background, and we agree if there’s a bishop in the conference, it would be him.”

If Petersen is The Bishop, James (a record of 178–76–3 from 1975 to 1992, three-time national coach of the year) would have been The Pope. The two share many characteristics, including success. But the virtues didn’t prevent the unscrupulous under James’ charge from doing deeds that broke NCAA rules on amateurism. Even if the rules-breaking seemed petty to some, it was only because those observers are not steeped in the traditional plantation mentality of the NCAA.

After three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances,  James resigned in protest 12 days before the start of the 1993 season rather than accept sanctions resulting from Pac-10, NCAA and newspaper investigations into recruiting practices. To their dying days, James’ defenders will say he was a victim of jealous rivals, or a Pac-10 vendetta, or a university president who feared him, or punishments that didn’t fit the misdeeds. But there’s no dispute that the resignation and sanctions knocked back the program for years.

Seven years later, light seemed to have penetrated the Dawg darkness when they returned to the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2001 under Neuheisel, the glib, hip, singer-songwriter who connected with recruits in a fresh way. But by 2002, Neuheisel had been fired for his participation in, and subsequent lying about, basketball-tourney betting pools disallowed by NCAA rules.

That didn’t stop Neuheisel from suing over wrongful termination – and winning. Turned out the UW didn’t follow its own rules and the NCAA didn’t even know its own rules. The blunderings cost the UW and NCAA a $4.7 million settlement that was reached mid-trial.

But that messiness paled compared to the disclosure years later of the misdeeds done by players on the 2000 team and covered up by coaches with help from Seattle police and the prosecutor’s office.

Neuheisel was long gone when the Seattle Times in 2007 published a five-part series by reporters Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry that detailed the crimes (and lack of) punishment. In 2010, the stories came out in a book: Scoreboard Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime and Complicity.

The book focuses on five players, including former Seahawks No. 1 draft pick Jerramy Stevens, whose litany of chances given and liberties taken could be its own true-crime pulp saga.

None of this history, of course, belongs to Petersen, who, like Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, preaches to his players to live in the moment instead of lamenting the past or fearing the future. Good tactic for an athlete, not so good for a community twice scorched by reckless college football lust.

The history does belong to the University of Washington, which hopes fervently that it has finally made the right choice of a coach who can navigate the perils.

Petersen this week blurted something that may tell more than he intended about that sort of thing.

He was talking Monday about a friend, Mark Helfrich, the head coach at Oregon, where the two were once assistant coaches together. Petersen was hopeful that administrators would support a coach who had the misfortune to go 4-8 this season, which lowered his four-year record to 37-16.

“I mean, money ruins everything, right? It does,” he told reporters. “With the money comes the expectations. If it’s not right all the time, in a really fast, quick level . . . to have an administration hang in with somebody, who you think is doing it the right way, is impressive and inspiring. That goes against everything else that’s out there.”

A day later, administrators fired Helfrich. And will pay him a buy-out of $11.6 million to not coach the Ducks. So much for hanging in.

The expectations, exposure and revenue that success generates in big time college sports is astounding. There really is no “going against it.” All that can be done is to slow the fire.

That’s Petersen’s challenge, already underway regardless of Friday night’s game outcome: Try to manage his imminent success for as long as he can before it consumes him, as it has his predecessors and friends.

This story also appears on Crosscut.

Washington vs. Colorado

No. 4 Washington (11-1) will face No. 8 Colorado (10-2) at  6 p.m. Friday in Santa Clara, CA., for the Pac-12 championship (FOX). The schools have met 15 times with Washington holding a 9-5-1 lead. The Huskies have won the past six:

Year Site Winner Skinny
1915 Seattle UW 46-0 QB Allan Young, FB Walt Shiel 2 TDs each for UW
1953 Seattle CU 21-20 Only UW highlight: Jim Noe’s 77-yard INT return TD
1957 Seattle T 6-6 Huskies get late TD in Jim Owens’ coaching debut
1959 Boulder UW 21-12 UW’s Chuck Allen recovered onside kick in end zone
1976 Seattle CU 21-7 Buffaloes held Robin Earl, Ron Rowland to 98 yards
1985 Anaheim UW 20-17 Freedom Bowl: J. Jaeger FG won it; C. Chandler MVP
1989 Seattle CU 45-28 Led by Darian Hagan, Buffs rushed for 420 yards
1990 Boulder CU 20-14 Eric Bieniemy powered Buffs with 143 rush yards
1996 San Diego CU 33-21 Holiday Bowl: CU’s Koy Detmer 371 yards, 3 TDs
1999 Seattle UW 31-24 Chris Juergens caught winning TD with 3:17 left
2000 Boulder UW 17-10 Willie Hurst scored go-ahead TD on 2-yard run
2011 Seattle UW 52-24 UW’s Keith Price 21-for-28, 257 yards, 4 TDs
2012 Boulder UW 38-3 Price tied school record with 5 touchdown passes
2013 Seattle UW 59-7 Price passed for 2 TDs and ran for 2 more
2014 Boulder UW 38-23 LB Shaq Thompson 174 rushing yards, 1 TD


  • Jamo57

    “Banana republics with good healthcare”…..”the glib, hip, singer-songwriter”…..

    Thanks for two laugh out loud lines on a pretty sober subject.

    I tend to agree with the forecast on Petersen’s future here. I don’t see him leaving the program for brighter lights and bigger paychecks. If anything shortens his tenure here, it could be burnout or not being able to manage the ethical conflicts that are inherent with big money “amateur” athletics. Here’s hoping he’s able to keep things on as even a keel as possible. Hopefully avoiding the five star prima donnas by staying true to the concept of “OKGs” will help.

    One thought about James and his departure. As with our current politics, the substance of the “scandal” of the time seem almost quaint by comparison to what happens or is tolerated these days.

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  • Diamond Mask

    Your description of college football should be the definitive one. The Penn State Sandusky nightmare a few years ago made that as clear as glass.

    Jerramy Stevens and his wife Hope are peas from the same pod.

    I think Peterson has the right stuff and will still be standing and saying the same things even when the pressures of success begin to blow.

  • 1coolguy

    Having lived through the James years (UW 1976 grad) and seen first hand from the seats what he accomplished, his leaving was antithetical to the way he ran the program and espoused to the players. He quit on the team (how many of us have been in locker rooms where “quit” was a dirty word), which accomplished several things: It was a horrible example to the kids who believed he walked on water and also, he immediately lost his soap box: Imagine what good he would have been able to accomplish had he stayed, rebuilt and years later handed off a then successful program? Instead the program fell into a series of fits and starts that were generally unsuccessful until CP, who in the annals of UW coach hires, history will show will match Lude’s with James.

  • woofer

    If success has not yet tempted Petersen to change his style, it probably won’t going forward. It takes two to tango — coaches that will slip envelopes under the table and players who will accept them. It’s not like recruiters don’t know exactly who the candidates for bribery and academic cheating are going to be. The next Jerramy Stevens will not be some kind of surprise; no savvy coach is ever duped about who these guys are. Both Neuheisel and Sarkisian were glib slimeballs devoid of serious ethical principles who skated as close to the line as they possibly could. Petersen walked away from his USC interview without looking back and quickly got rid of Sarkisian’s leftover prima donnas, many of whom were talented athletes. In other words, he’s already taken the test and passed it.