We don’t yet know Chris Petersen well enough to be certain about his favorite food, let alone his disciplinary habits amid scrutiny. He has been the Washington football coach for four months. He has had time only to cobble together his first recruiting class and direct his first spring practices.
This is still the stand-and-say-your-name phase of the relationship.
Yet Petersen is already forced to answer one of the most difficult, cumbersome questions that any coach will encounter.
How you gonna punish one of your high-profile, misbehaving players?
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Only his first impression — his first meaningful one — is at stake.
And whatever he does, he’s guaranteed either to tick off a portion of the fan base, or lead people to make sweeping generalizations about him based on one conspicuous reaction.
Wide receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow’s angry act is now Petersen’s headache. The legal system has spoken. Stringfellow was sentenced Wednesday to five days on a work crew, fined $693 (which can be paid off with 70 hours of community service) and ordered to attend anger-management counseling after pleading guilty to charges related to altercations he had Feb. 2, the night the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. Quarterback Cyler Miles also was involved in the incidents, but prosecutors didn’t charge him because of insufficient evidence about his role.
Petersen suspended Stringfellow and Miles upon learning of the situation. They have missed the entire spring session. But now the new UW coach is on the clock to advance his punishment from indefinite suspension to final judgment.
As most coaches, Petersen has been vague and focused mostly on developing his available players. It’s unfair to judge his response thus far because this is standard operating procedure. Though he has fended off questions and given few clues about his plans for further discipline, he did provide some insight about two weeks ago.
“There’s no reason to rush anything, and we’re always going to do the right thing,” Petersen said. “I know everyone thinks they have their opinion on what the right thing is, but we’re going to do the right thing by the school, by this program and by the kids as well.
“I’ve said this before: This is such a political job and I’m never going to make decisions because of political reasons to make me look better, because you think, ‘Oh, that’s the right thing.’ Well, that’s not why we’re in this thing; we’re in (it) to do the right thing on all accounts.”
You could interpret that as Petersen leaving the door open to allow misbehaving players back into the program. But if there’s one thing Petersen has sold convincingly since he arrived at Washington, it’s that he is a principled man who will run a classy program and develop young men the right way.
At Boise State, he proved many times that he’ll suspend players, starters even, during the season for misconduct. Discipline — not just obeying the law, but acting with great self-control on and off the field — is a cornerstone of how he builds a program.
Considering his track record, it would be shocking if Petersen didn’t do what he deems right, even if it diminishes the team on paper.
He’s better off investing in the whole rather than any individual, especially in a game with as many moving pieces as football.
If it were my program, Miles, the backup quarterback a year ago and the previous favorite to succeed Keith Price, would be reinstated soon, provided that he has been remorseful and learned from the experience. Stringfellow, who might be the Huskies’ most talented receiver at 6 feet 3 and 225 pounds, would be headed for, at least, a multiple-game suspension. His reinstatement wouldn’t be guaranteed. His status would be determined after evaluating how serious he is about changing.
The early results are promising. Stringfellow said the right things in court, though admittedly he had great incentive to do so. And the words of his attorney, James Burnell, ring true.
“He’s got a lot of potential,” Burnell said Wednesday. “Why don’t you let him have it?”
But it’s the abuse of a female that makes this case so difficult for Stringfellow. Fighting a male Seahawks fan that night was mean-spirited and stupid. Admitting to “intentionally touching” a female victim “in a harmful manner,” however, is another level of despicable. Stringfellow confessed he destroyed the female’s camera, and she also briefly lost consciousness after the altercation. It’s an awful crime that will permanently damage Stringfellow in the court of public opinion.
What about in Petersen’s court? His voice is the next one that matters. And his actions will set the tone for how he’s viewed as a disciplinarian at Washington. Many leaders in sports have a zero-tolerance policy for violence against women, and for those who don’t, there should be significant pressure on them to have one. Where does Petersen stand?
The easiest thing for Petersen would be to get rid of Stringfellow. But what if this is a kid whose life would change for the better with a second chance?
Petersen has vowed to do the right thing. But in the public arena, “right” is highly debatable.
You could say the new coach is in a no-win situation, but the Huskies didn’t hire a man with a .885 career winning percentage to succumb to the difficulty of a decision.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277
On Twitter @JerryBrewer