HONOLULU — The Chris Petersen era begins in what seems like an anti-Petersen place. If the serious, detail-oriented new Washington football coach had it his way, he probably would’ve chosen to make his debut almost anywhere but Hawaii, a vacation getaway full of potential distractions.
The laid-back island vibe could rob a football team of its edge. And though he has that disarming smile, Peterson is all about keeping an edge. He is a coaching purist, from his joy of process to his stern discipline to his insistence on precise fundamentals.
He’s not in paradise to have a good time. He’s also not focused on proving himself in a single game. He wants to make a program, not a fleeting first impression, and in Petersen’s strict view of the world, he can’t overplay one game, even though he’ll never have another first game as the Huskies coach.
“No bigger than any other year,” Petersen said of his UW debut. “They are all big. Like I told you guys way back when I first started coaching in front of 300 fans, I had the same exact feelings. It doesn’t change. You’re competitive. You want to do your best for your guys. It doesn’t matter what stage you’re on, where you’re at. My focus never changes on that.”
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That’s fine for Petersen. But for everyone else, there is a greater significance.
Now, after eight months of small talk, you get to meet the real Chris Petersen.
Prepare to be impressed.
He owns Saturdays. He tolerates the rest of the week, at least when it comes to publicity.
From Sunday through Friday, he’s a rigid coach with a high standard for preparation. On Saturdays, he has as much fun as any coach in America.
During the week, he’s the strife of the party. On Saturday, he and his team are the life of the party.
That’s the way it worked at Boise State. That’s how it’s eventually going to work at Washington.
It will take time for the Huskies to apply all of Petersen’s teachings. It will take time before the Huskies are the efficient machine that the Broncos were during Petersen’s eight-year tenure. The 92-12 record at Boise State speaks for itself, but all that winning was the result of having teams that made every little thing a big deal.
Petersen’s Huskies won’t dominate the Pac-12 the way Petersen’s Broncos dominated the Mountain West Conference. He doesn’t figure to go 92-12 over the next eight years. But he should produce a team that is consistently near the top of the conference. He should produce a team that collects its fair share of glory.
Steve Sarkisian started the process and led the Huskies to four straight bowl appearances before bolting to USC. Now Petersen is set up to finish the job. Soon, the Huskies should enter most seasons with a realistic chance to compete for the conference title. If Petersen does what he’s expected to do, there will be no more settling for third place in the Pac-12 North division.
Here’s the biggest difference that will help the program move closer to greatness: Starting Saturday against Hawaii, you will see significant strides made toward having a dependable team that gets the most of its talent every week.
As much as Sarkisian did to resurrect the Huskies, his teams were erratic. They were consistently among the most penalized in the nation, and for as explosive as Sark’s teams could be, negative plays limited their effectiveness. Petersen’s teams play much smarter – fewer penalties, fewer sacks, fewer mental errors.
Sarkisian’s teams looked unprepared in too many road games, and it resulted in shocking blowout losses to opponents seemingly on the Huskies’ level. Petersen’s teams play well on the road, even in difficult venues. And only four of Petersen’s 12 career losses have been by double-digit margins. Two of those defeats were to the Huskies, including a 38-6 blowout at Husky Stadium last season that represents the worst loss in Petersen’s career.
The Petersen formula: Focused recruiting that pulls in the right players for his system, attention to detail, offensive innovation, physical football, disciplined approach and quality preparation.
It all adds up to fun on Saturdays. It’s not just about the trick plays that Petersen is known to call. It’s the fact that, when a Petersen team truly gets it, the coach feels comfortable doing anything at any time against any opponent because he’s certain his players will execute.
You may think you’re already impressed with Petersen because of his pragmatic approach and innate coaching talent. But you have yet to see the best of him, not even close.
Just wait until you see him Saturday.
On Saturdays, Petersen comes out of his shell.