He walks around the field inside Husky Stadium with a red air horn holstered on his right hip and a black whistle dangling from his neck, and yet one could watch a two-plus-hour Washington football practice and be forgiven for not noticing Chris Petersen.
The air horn has, in five spring practices, remained mostly muted, perhaps a symbolic reminder that Petersen isn’t the type to blow hot air.
And yet, in his first three months as the Huskies’ coach, and in these first two weeks of spring practices, Petersen has set a tone understood loud and clear.
“He’s not messing around,” UW junior receiver Jaydon Mickens said.
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That was evident when Petersen told the team in a Feb. 5 meeting that he was suspending quarterback Cyler Miles and receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow indefinitely, an announcement that came less than 72 hours after both allegedly assaulted Seahawks fans in a post-Super Bowl incident.
Last week, Petersen announced a two-week suspension of a third projected starter for 2014, senior linebacker John Timu, whose misdemeanor infraction of vehicle prowling occurred while Petersen was still the coach at Boise State last fall.
“There’s definitely a lot more accountability,” senior offensive lineman Ben Riva said. “If you mess up you’re going to hear about it, you’re going to know about it and you’re going to pay for it. You’re definitely held to a much higher standard.”
Not once since he was introduced at UW on Dec. 9 has Petersen publicly talked about championships or Rose Bowls. No, that new buzzword around Montlake Boulevard — accountability — isn’t chic, but it’s a fundamental characteristic of the new coach’s philosophy.
Skip Hall, an assistant coach on Don James’ staff from 1975-86 before becoming the head coach at Boise State, watched a UW practice earlier this week from the Husky Stadium sideline, then chatted with Petersen afterward. A Boise resident, Hall attended the same church as Petersen, and they had grown close there.
“Integrity, unity and accountability,” Hall said after practice, listing off the pillars of Petersen’s philosophy. “Those have been missing around here for a while.”
The expectations for the players, as Riva described, are “be on time, be early, take care of school, pick up your stuff — same thing Mom and Dad got on you about.”
Under former coach Steve Sarkisian, players who fell out of line on daily tasks — showing up late for a team meeting, for example — were subject to a “Hard Lessons” period after practice, which usually meant running punitive sprints or stairs. That’s common around college football.
Under the new regime, coaches themselves — not academic advisers or support staffers — are doing daily checkups in classrooms. And players who miss a class or study hall session are subject to “Commitment Time,” a four-hour academic study session with a coach beginning at 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
“You could ditch class before, and then ditch a little tutoring,” Mickens said, “but now (they’re) on it. (Petersen) makes you want to be successful — you’ve got to be successful, otherwise you might not be here.”
Mickens, after UW’s first practice last week, described the new staff as being “all business.” The typical practice in these first two weeks involves mostly quiet teaching periods, where players are drilled on the basics of footwork, blocking, tackling and so on, with the music off. In team periods, the music cranks up, but with more variety than was customary during a typical night-at-the-club practice under Sarkisian. (Yes, Hootie and the Blowfish was on the playlist Thursday, which had to be a first.)
In some areas, “Everything has been turned upside down,” defensive secondary coach Jimmy Lake said.
An adjustment period was to be expected for players and coaches alike, and the transition has been about as smooth as they could’ve hoped.
“I’ve been doing this for a while,” Lake said, “and I think guys want to be disciplined. They want to work hard. They don’t want to walk out of a practice feeling like they didn’t get anything done. So if it felt like an amusement park and fun and games out here and no one broke a sweat, that day might feel good, but they’re not going to feel good the next day — and they’re not going to feel good when they go 7-7 or 8-4.
“So I think right now it’s a little bit harder for them (the players), but in the end they’re going to get the rewards.”
The Huskies wrap up the first half of spring practices Saturday morning, and Petersen said he’s enjoying the challenge.
“I love it. It’s great,” he said. “We’ve been running around, it seems like chasing our tail for a couple months here now, and finally we get to get out there and do what we like to do. …
“It’s also energizing. You just know you have to get everyone on the same page, and it can be energizing and frustrating all in the same breath. But that’s why we came here — to do something different, to do something new. There’s some really good kids here, really good players, and we’re excited to be around them.”
It’s not all business all the time for the new staff.
Strength and conditioning coach Tim Socha is responsible for an off-the-wall, offense-vs.-defense competition each practice. One day it was a sumo-wrestling-style standoff; another was a 3-on-3 tug-of-war; on Thursday, players reverted back to T-ball, spinning around a bat 10 times before racing 50 yards in a team relay. Players on both sides get as juiced up for those competitions as any fall game day.
Earlier this week, Petersen clearly enjoyed himself during a drill in which Lake was tossing a 4-foot-tall tackling pad at the feet of defensive backs, as if to simulate an offensive lineman’s chop block. The defensive backs’ task was to run toward the coach and knock the pad away from their feet.
Petersen eagerly jumped in, grabbed a pad and started tossing it at the defenders. After a couple throws, Petersen successfully knocked one defender to the ground. “Boom!” Petersen yelled, celebrating with an emphatic fist pump as if he’d just body-slammed The Undertaker in a WWE showdown.
It was the rare moment when Petersen made his presence heard to observers across the field.
All around, though, his tone had already been established.
Adam Jude: 206-464-2364
On Twitter: @a_jude