BY Art Thiel 02:30PM 12/03/2019

Thiel: Even Petersen’s dream job ‘out of whack’

“It’s one of those jobs that is extremely heavy on the balance of your life,” said Chris Petersen. He knew change was pending when he wasn’t excited about the Rose Bowl.

Chris Petersen will wrap up his Huskies career after a bowl game, then hand over the job to Jimmy Lake, with the approval of UW athletics director Jen Cohen. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

Setting aside the matter of lush compensation, coaching big-time college football is the worst job in major sports. Among all jobs, it’s a step shy of shoveling asphalt daily in a Georgia summer.

In fact, Chris Petersen is setting aside millions of dollars because coaching football is such a brutal experience. Even at his dream job at the University of Washington, where football in a big metropolitan area means, to his delight, “four million people don’t even know football exists.”

With a public candor unusual for him, Petersen explained Tuesday how he came to shock sports locally and nationally with his decision to walk away from his highly successful tenure as Huskies coach, despite all the money, prestige and glamor of operating a big-time program at a high level.

It was eating him alive.

As it likely will his successor, Jimmy Lake.

As it will with more coaches with each passing year.

Cultural and industry pressures are at cross-purposes: Demanding a fundamentally corrupt enterprise make more money to support more programs and buildings, at the same time demanding reform. It has not gone well, nor will it go well, particularly for the guys in charge, especially if they risk choosing to play by the rules.

“It’s one of those jobs that is extremely heavy on the balance of your life,” Petersen said as Lake and his boss, athletics director Jen Cohen, sat nearby at a press conference at Husky Stadium. “There are a million definitions of success, and it’s all for individuals to come up with their own. One of mine is to control the balance of your life.

“You cannot do that in this job. There is no balance. It’s out of whack. It’s crazy.”

The increasing demand to satisfy all the constituencies that lust for college football and men’s basketball is doomed to fail everyone.

“We’re one of (the staffs) that ask coaches to not sleep in the office, which a lot of (other programs) do,” he said. “It’s just non-stop. When you go on vacation, you have a hundred-plus teenagers . . .

“I love those guys, but it is the dumbest crew in America.”

He laughed when said it, as did many onlookers. But wow, was there a truth there that could take weeks to unpack, or what?

Everyone who was a male teenager, or knows someone who is/was, knows exactly what Petersen means, without demeaning anyone’s IQ. Every one of the 25 or so recruits brought in annually, along with 75 or so holdovers, is packing all sorts of fears hidden behind false bravado, and wrapped in some combustible combination of impoverishment, missing fathers, pregnant girlfriends, quibbling siblings, dominating matriarchs and the dread of being canceled on social media.

Then they are asked to take their raging hormones and do two conflicting tasks: Study hard and play football hard, in front of 70,000 often boozy strangers. Failure risks scorn, loss of scholarship and helping damage a multi-million-dollar business supporting 20 other non-revenue sports full of students you’ve begun to know and like.

Every single one of those puzzled players looks to the head coach, the guy they most trusted to bring them to an alien place, for help. Sometimes it’s at 4 a.m. on a Sunday, when the plane bumps them awake in Seattle after bringing the team home from an 8 p.m. kickoff in Tucson.

“There’s always stuff going on that you gotta help them solve,” Petersen said. “It’s just hard to ever get away from that.

“Then there’s recruiting, and parents, and media, and academics. It’s all awesome, great stuff. But after awhile it can load you up. It can become counterproductive, not being as passionate, energized and positive in terms of attacking your day.

“When it gets like that, you need to go do something different.”

So, at 55, Petersen is unloading. He’ll coach through the Huskies bowl game, then remain on campus in some nebulous job titled, “leadership advisor.” He didn’t answer the question of whether he’ll coach again, but the business of college football is going to get more complicated, not less.

“There’s a lot of things that have evolved in college football for the better,” he said. “There are things that are better for the student-athlete, which is awesome. There’s things that are interesting to see how we work through those things coming our way.”

That’s a polite reference to the California state legislature’s new law mandating that colleges not punish athletes who earn money for the commercial use of their names and likenesses. Although it won’t take effect until 2023, recruiting can start to feel the potential fallout soon.

It appears to mark the long-overdue end of amateurism as the NCAA knows it. It could prompt a more formalized acceptance of professionalism, something Petersen and his peers dread, although the specific topic wasn’t brought up Tuesday.

It may have inspired a question to Petersen from Mike Leach, the Washington State coach. The two chatted, per usual, during warm-ups for the Apple Cup game Friday at Husky Stadium, the day before Cohen and Lake said they first learned of Petersen’s planned haymaker.

“He comes up and says, ‘Hey, how much longer are you gonna do this?’” Petersen said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this guy’s a mind reader, too.’ I’m like, I hope we’ve got a good plan today because this guy is on us.”

Leach may have been seeking intel on whether his nemesis someday will get out of his head — the 31-13 loss was the Cougars’ seventh loss in a row to UW — or he, too, may be thinking of the same thing that fellow big-name coaches Urban Meyer and Bob Stoops thought when reaching their mid-50s: Get out before the house falls in.

According to Petersen, he began serious consideration of stepping away following the Huskies’ heralded return to the Rose Bowl a year ago. What should have been a milestone moment for a kid who grew up in California, dreaming of being in the game, was something considerably less.

“I had a chance to reflect a couple of months after that, how much I did not appreciate that game like I should have,” he said. “You work all your life to get there, and I didn’t appreciate the week, or the whole game, like I needed to.

“That hit me loud and clear. You start to pay attention to that.”

For as much success as Petersen has had at Washington, he’s never seemed comfortable in the job. In my time pestering him with questions, I reached a conclusion that Petersen’s ideal football experience would be to play all games in the Dempsey indoor training facility, devoid of TV broadcasts, snoopy writers, jock-sniffing boosters, overbearing parents and drunk fans of all kinds. He’d love the chess match with rival coaches and would be happy with a $100,000 salary.

The image came to mind when Petersen quoted from an “Eastern philosopher” that he shyly failed to identify as Confucius:

“We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.”

Counting eight playing years in high school and college, plus 34 years in coaching, it has dawned on Petersen that he feels done with football. It may be disappointing to his players, assistants, administrators and many Huskies fans, but his heart is no longer in it.

“Know when to go, when to stay, and when to change,” he said. “It’s the right time for me personally to make a change.”

He can’t fix what’s wrong with college football. That’s up to the rest of us. But his final major act as a coach may help advance the notion that the “out of whack . . . crazy” system is intolerable for people of goodwill and honesty.

On his first day on the job at Husky Stadium in 2013, Chris Petersen was already working the phones. / Adam Lewis, Sportspress Northwest


YourThoughts

  • rosetta_stoned

    I could see Coach Peterson taking some time off and then going the Frank Solich route. Or an FCS school. Still coaching, but away from the glare.

    • dingle

      Gotta wonder if that might happen. The grind that D1 head football coaches are subjected has to be soul-crushing. Take away the pressure and the glare, and the job might actually be fun.

      • art thiel

        Boosters who throw large coin to snuggle up to college athletic programs creep me out.

    • art thiel

      Reasonable guess. I also wonder about him taking an NFL OC job where he can go Hogwarts on the playbook and not take the HC pressure.

  • WestCoastBias79

    It’s too bad the industry ate the best coach UW has had since Don James, who ironically, was chewed up and spit out for having a program that succumbed to the darker realities CP resisted with apparent anguish. It’s also telling that his predecessor ended up losing his dream job at USC to substance abuse, a coping mechanism that undoubtedly had some roots in the gauntlet of big time college sports. College football has felt unsustainable for a long time, and when the millionaire ‘winners’ in the charade are even getting burned out, the end must be nigh.

    Aside, I think Jimmy Lake will be a great coach. He seems like a good guy, hope he doesn’t get eaten too.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see CP end up coaching high school, or at an FCS school, where he could just coach.

    • 1coolguy

      Jame’s was back-stabbed by the UW president, an ass named Gerberding, who was jealous of the football team’s success on what he called “the lower campus”. Gerberding’s also the guy who fired the UW AD, Mike Lude, who was voted the the NCAA AD of the year, 1 or 2 years before being fired, who turned around the athletic department after the Jim Owen’s years decimated it.
      Remove Gerberding from the UW and James would have been there for years, together with Lude.

      • art thiel

        Everyone still calls it “lower campus” for a very obvious reason.

        Gerberding knew Lude was way out of compliance with Title IX, which risked a loss of federal funds. Lude wasn’t going to change with the times, so he was fired. James felt betrayed, but his coaches broke the rules and he chose to die on that hill by threatening to quit. Gerberding called his bluff.

        • wabubba67

          I thought that both the PAC-10’s and NCAA’s investigations concluded that UW coaches had no involvement. A $50,000 private loan to Hobert, free meals for athletes, and no-show jobs for players were the violations….pretty minor by today’s standards. (Chase Young, the OSU DE missed two games for a similar loan.)

    • art thiel

      Good point about Sark. In the industry, there’s a lot of stress-induced physical/mental problems that get covered up. I’m curious whether Petersen’s walk-off may inspire others among his peers.

  • coug73

    You got to know when to turn back. Not all goals need to be attained. Chris Petersen, seems wiser than many college coaches. Good luck, and make it a great life.

    • art thiel

      I think he made it more swiftly knowing the transition would go seamlessly with Lake. He really trusts him.

  • jafabian

    Considering that Coach Leach had his suspicions I wonder if Jen Cohen did as well? Was she blindsided by CP’s announcement or did they have discussions during the season at some point?

    • art thiel

      Cohen is smart enough to keep a hit-by-bus list of quality replacements. Lake topped it well before the announcement. You’ll see him as Hopkins-like in terms of energy and engagement.

  • woofer

    For awhile it has seemed clear that Petersen was experiencing mental stress. It’s to his credit that he managed to deal with it forthrightly. Long term success demands balance. More is always more, until it suddenly becomes less. It’s the modern paradigm. Make America sane again.

    • art thiel

      Let me know where you find this crop of sanity, and whether there’s enough to share.

  • Effzee

    Saw this one coming a mile away. He was totally out of it all year. As I said many times in this forum, it seemed like he was suddenly in over his head.

    We will always love and thank coach Petersen for resurrecting the program and instilling stability and integrity in it.

    Glad he got to go out on his own terms and without a mess or controversy, unlike James, Lambo, Neuheisel, Gilby, Willingham and Sark.

    • art thiel

      Petersen explicitly wanted a controversy-free transition, and so far he’s done it.

      I hardly think he was totally out of it all year, but he had enough mistakes and halting decisions to wonder about his concentration.

      Let’s try to keep Epstein’s name out of the same sentences with Huskies coaches, mm-kay?

  • ll9956

    This is a fine piece of professional journalism. Thanks for the incisive insight, Art. Simply put, you hit the nail on the head.

    I imagine having announced his plans, Chris Petersen is at peace with himself and looking forward to a more relaxed, lower key future.

    • art thiel

      Thanks. I wanted to offer some observations that may not have been apparent for a story that is a large deal beyond Seattle too.

  • DJ

    Thanks Art! I really appreciate your capture of the continuing complex issues with college sports, and now how it’s related to Head Coaches. I’ll be interested to hear what you believe to be a solution.

    Chris Petersen is a special dude, with more than usual integrity and class. Glad to have had him at UW, touched the lives he has, but more happy that he’s being honest with himself and stepping away. It (College Head Coaching) is what we all thought it was, or maybe worse – a complex mess, that no apparent amount of staffing seems to help relieve the burden of the head guy.

    Best of luck to Chris Petersen and THANK YOU COACH!!!

    • art thiel

      I’ve written in the past that big-time college athletics needs to professionalize completely. Create an entertainment division within each university, which will rent its brand, mascot, and season-ticket list to private enterprise teams who will keep all TV/gate revenues beyond a fee sufficient to cover the costs of all non-rev sports/scholarships.

      It would work, but coaches/ADs would take a financial haircut. Too bad.

  • 2nd place is 1st loser

    Organized contact football may cease to exist in the future. With the impact of head trauma now at the forefront for parents to contemplate the health and well being of their kids. Play football and risk serious if not lethal head trauma, and that’s not counting the possible debilitating knee, spine or other injuries that come from playing. It poses the question, why risk it? The future talent pool may diminish to a point where there’s just not enough players to sustain the sport on a competitive level that everyone has grown accustomed to. Unless there is a substantial reduction in the risk of above mentioned injuries, it’s only a matter of time before the game slowly withers away.

    • Effzee

      Truth. Not only that, but we are staring down the barrel of a gender identity revolution whereby it seems like many sexed team sports will eventually dissolve because “fairness.” You’ve seen Starship Troopers, Battlestar Galactica, etc.? All of the fictional future team sports are co-ed. And before anyone says, “Those are the movies, not real life…” where do you think the ideas of tomorrow come from? Science fiction writers dream up the ideas, then tech nerds work on bringing them into reality. The world is changing, rapidly, and there is no going back to what was.

    • art thiel

      I think there will always be a warrior classes of mercenaries to entertain our bloodlust. The question is whether colleges should actively participate in social decay.

      • Ken S.

        Art, you’re always hinting at philosophizing, so when are you going to start that philosophy website? :-)

  • Paul Sherman

    Great article about a complicated subject5. When is enough? I had the same experience in my profession after 25 years, I just lost my love and it was time to move on. Good luck to Petersen. I bet he’ll be smiling a lot more often.

    • art thiel

      It’s often true that many professional high-achievers just wear out. It’s hard to know, and harder to do. Petersen is to be commended for his guts.

      • Husky73

        I hope CP’s transition goes better than mine. After 47 years, I proclaimed no mas two years ago. Whatever I’ve been hoping to find (or find me) has yet to make an appearance. The feelings of uselessness are often overwhelming.

        • art thiel

          It can take awhile, but lots of men have found re-invention later in life. It may require breaking form by taking classes, or trying experiences that you never dreamed would be worthwhile. Keep the radar on.

          • Ken S.

            Agree – I’ve been retired for nearly 17 years. I took up golf in that first year of retirement and I haven’t looked back. Well, there is those larger than now paychecks. But golf keeps me fit, if not entirely sane!Great article, Art. I hope Coach Peterson lands squarely on both feet once he finds new direction in life. Or maybe he’ll take up golf and won’t need those f&ukitall pills to get through the day.Ya know, I was just starting to like the guy!

  • Macfunk

    This is a remarkable column, Art. One which I am passing on to other people. I have always been something of a Chris Peterson agnostic – happy for the success of the University of Washington and the program. But I’ve deified too many very human coaches since the 1960s. Peterson’s candor as he leaves the sidelines seems almost unique, a cry for help, not for the man, but for the institution. I believe his “second life” may be at least as interesting as his first.

    • art thiel

      Thanks. Good observation about the deification of coaches. We guys tend to fawn over powerful sports leaders, maybe as a substitute for a missing/absent father, or whatever. We need to check that feeling at the door.

      I’d really like Petersen to lead toward reform, but I think he may be too invested in the institution, much as he laments it.

  • 1coolguy

    I appreciate this insight to CP – I will say, considering there are literally hundreds of college HC’s who enjoy the job, that possibly CP did not have the high level of staff he needed and as a result was not able to truly delegate, handing off as much as he should have. In business, being everything to everyone will eat you up in a hurry, and a football team is no different.
    If his staff had more of Jimmy Lake’s caliber, I suspect CP’s life would have been much more balanced. I’m guessing Lake presented his plan for the next games D to CP, who would review it and generally agree then sign off. I suspect he was up to his ears with the offense’s game plan.
    We all know an organization’s success is due to hiring the right people, who then carry out the mission. I don’t think CP had that to the degree he needed.

    • art thiel

      Most of this staff got the Huskies to three New Year’s Six bowls, so I don’t think there’s a question of competence beyond Hamdan. And no OC would have changed Petersen’s laments about the system’s biggest problems.

  • paul

    Good stuff. Watching the press conference I wanted someone to ask CP’s wife “what’s the first beach you’re gonna hit?” and Lake’s wife: “you sure you want this”?
    What a life. Best wishes to both coaches.

    • art thiel

      Both good questions. The families were whisked out quickly.

  • bevdog

    Great article Art! Thank you. There are life lessons to be learned from what Coach Chris Petersen did and said. His actions speak to the truth about the need for balance, health and happiness. He is a wise man and I wish him all the best.

    • art thiel

      Thanks. I think Petersen’s words will have impact well beyond football.

  • Ken S.

    It takes all the fun out of watching college football (at least for myself) when you read articles like this. Not saying this didn’t need to be said, Art, so take it in that vein. I see this same look on most of the college football coaches when they are being interviewed, or just spotlighted on camera during a game. I wish Coach Petersen all the best. He gave us some pretty good seasons, much better than most of his predecessors. Personal success shouldn’t come at such a high price, but thats the way it is in the NCAA.