After a dramatic transition year in 2014, the game plan to success for the Huskies is coming to fruition in a big way.
During a phone conversation last week, Jeff Choate promised his old boss he wouldn’t give away any of his secrets.
But Choate will tell you this: If anyone can find a way to beat Alabama, it’s Chris Petersen.
“I’ve seen it done,” Choate said.
For eight seasons, Choate worked as an assistant coach on Petersen’s staffs, first at Boise State, then the past two seasons at Washington.
Choate just completed his first season as the head coach at Montana State. The Bobcats went 4-7, which meant they missed the FCS playoffs, which he joked gives him ample time to answer reporters’ questions about how Petersen got the Huskies into the College Football Playoff just three years after leaving Boise State.
Before fielding questions, Choate called Petersen to make sure it was OK with the Huskies’ head coach. Go ahead, Petersen said, with one catch: Don’t divulge any details from our big-game playbook.
“I take a lot of pride in being part of what’s built there, and I take a lot of pride in the success they’re having, but I don’t take credit for it,” said Choate, UW’s defensive-line coach and special-teams coordinator from 2014-15. “That’s Chris Petersen’s vision, and it’s coming to fruition.”
So how does Petersen prepare the No. 4 Huskies (12-1) for No. 1 Alabama (13-0) in their Dec. 31 national semifinal in Atlanta? Again, Choate is careful not to reveal any particulars, but he did rattle off some of Boise State’s biggest big-game victories during his time on the staff there: Georgia (2011), Virginia Tech (2010), Oregon (2008 and ’09) and, most famously, Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl 10 years ago.
“The blueprint has been established,” Choate said, “and Chris knows it. He will have them ready to go.”
A meeting to remember
Three years ago, Petersen wasn’t Washington’s first choice to succeed Steve Sarkisian as head coach. Former UW defensive back Jim Mora was No. 1 on the list, but he opted to remain at UCLA with a six-year contract extension.
Petersen wasn’t even on UW’s radar until his agent called Scott Woodward, UW’s athletic director at the time, to express the coach’s interest. Jennifer Cohen, then UW’s senior associate athletic director, then called an old UW ally in Boise, Skip Hall, to learn more about Petersen.
Hall, a former assistant coach under Don James at UW and later the head coach at Boise State, had grown close with Petersen and his family, and Hall gave Cohen a glowing personal recommendation of Petersen. Two days later, Woodward and Cohen boarded a chartered jet at Boeing Field and flew to Boise for a sit-down with Petersen at a Hampton Inn.
“You never know until you meet people, right?” said Cohen, now in her first year as UW’s athletic director. “For him, too, (it was) to make sure it was the right move. It was a mutual deal. We had done a lot of legwork the two days leading up to that visit, and felt pretty confident that we were going to be meeting our next football coach. But in this business, it’s crazy. You never know.”
At the end of that 90-minute meeting, Petersen and Woodward signed a memorandum of understanding. The next morning, on Friday, Dec. 6, 2013, the Huskies announced Petersen as the program’s new coach.
“I could see his approach and how it would really work,” Cohen said. “When I think back at that moment, that’s what hit us then. But you don’t get that much time with each other, and I think he’s really blown me away (since then) with just the depth and the substance to him in general. Those are things you just don’t know when you’re in an hour-and-a-half meeting with someone.”
TIMELINE: A look back at Chris Petersen’s reign as UW coach »
An opening of hearts
Players huddled into the Huskies’ team meeting room one early January day in 2014, a couple weeks after a victory over Brigham Young in the Fight Hunger Bowl. It was there that Petersen presented to the players his philosophy and his expectations.
“From the start, he was very transparent about the way he was going to go about doing things,” said Evan Hudson, a senior defensive lineman on the 2014 team. “It was basically: Get with it or you’re not going to be here long.”
Psalm Wooching, a senior starting linebacker this season, sensed a sudden shift in the tone of the program in that initial meeting.
“The first thing he said to us was, ‘Guys, I’m going to treat you as if you’re my own sons,’ ” Wooching recalled recently. “And I feel like that right away opened his heart, opened our hearts and just connected us together as a great team to come. …
“It’s amazing to have someone who thinks school and life after football is worth something, you know? I’m not saying Coach Sark wasn’t about that, but it wasn’t preached as much as Coach Pete (does). For Coach Pete, football is Plan B. Plan A is life. Football can only be for so long. He’s preparing us for something bigger.”
Not everyone was buying Petersen’s “Built for Life” philosophy at first.
“Honestly, coming in from a completely different culture with the previous coaching staff, that stuff was like, ‘Why are we wasting time on this? Let’s just focus on football,’ ” Hudson said. “But you really get from him that he does care a lot about his players individually. Over time you realize these things are darn important. And you can hear it in his voice when he talks about that stuff.”
As Choate describes it, the culture at UW before Petersen arrived seemed more “transactional.” Petersen wants players’ experiences to be “transformational.”
Career by the numbers
|Coach Chris Petersen has won 12 or more games in six of his 11 college seasons. His career record is 119-25.|
|Year, team||W-L||Highest ranking||Bowl game|
|2006, Boise State||13-0||5||Fiesta Bowl (win)|
|2007, Boise State||10-3||17||Hawaii Bowl (loss)|
|2008, Boise State||12-1||9||Poinsettia Bowl (loss)|
|2009, Boise State||14-0||4||Fiesta Bowl (win)|
|2010, Boise State||12-1||2||Maaco Bowl (win)|
|2011, Boise State||12-1||4||Maaco Bowl (win)|
|2012, Boise State||11-2||18||Las Vegas Bowl (win)|
|2013, Boise State||8-4||19||–|
|2014, Washington||8-6||25||Cactus Bowl (loss)|
|2015, Washington||7-6||–||Heart of Dallas Bowl (win)|
|2016, Washington||12-1||4||College Football Playoff|
The ‘sea-change moment’
Even so, 2014 was a difficult transition year. Petersen dismissed four players and suspended five others at various times. The most telling moment, then and now, was Petersen’s dismissal of star cornerback Marcus Peters in early November.
“Obviously, the sea-change moment in the program was Marcus,” Choate said. “Even though that was not a great deal for the program on the surface, I think it was a great thing for Marcus and for the program in the long run. Drawing that line in the sand and saying, ‘I don’t care how talented you are, we’ve got a certain standard and a way of doing things.’ I thought (Petersen) handled that in an amazing fashion, and that was really important for moving the program forward.”
Earlier this month, Petersen acknowledged that 2014 was “as frustrating as anything a lot of us had been through.” For the senior class that year, Hudson said it was disappointing the Huskies didn’t fare better than their 8-6 record.
“We thought we were on the cusp of something really good (with Sarkisian),” Hudson said. “But a lot of guys understood that change would be better for the long run. Looking back, it was really cool to be a part of that change, especially with how well they’re doing now.”
With all-Americans Hau’oli Kikaha, Danny Shelton and Shaq Thompson on defense, Choate said, “We had the talent to be a 10- or 11-win team. No question.” But he also said decisions were made in 2014 — Peters’ dismissal being the prime example — with the long-term plan in mind.
“I had to do a lot of the same things (this year at Montana State), just saying, ‘Hey, I’m fine sacrificing a win now for the betterment of the program over the next five to seven years,’ ” Choate said. “But that takes a lot of personal integrity and a lot of discipline because of this microwave society that we live in.”
There’s time to have fun
Petersen doesn’t miss much. A favorite anecdote from 2014 is the time Petersen followed the team out of the locker room and picked up a handful of sunflower seeds on his way out. How many major-college head coaches would do that?
For Petersen, no detail is too small.
The “disciplinarian” label fits him well, but he also likes to have fun when he feels it’s appropriate. Outside Petersen’s Husky Stadium office, in UW’s recruiting lounge, is a Ping-Pong table, a pool table and a Pop-a-Shot. Petersen has been known to humble players or recruits in Ping-Pong, especially.
You won’t find pictures on social media, but Petersen loves to dress up. He went to practice around Halloween 2014 dressed as a blind referee, and his version of the Vanilla Ice look is said to be memorable, too.
The Huskies, in the CFP for the first time, are having fun now, and perhaps a year sooner than anyone could have reasonably projected.
“What he does works. You can’t argue that. You can’t dispute that,” said UW cornerback Kevin King, one of about two dozen Sarkisian recruits still on the roster. “We just had to find a way to make it work.”
Petersen last week acknowledged the players from that 2014 team who helped the program get through the rigorous transition year.
“I have a really special place in my heart for those guys because there are a lot of guys that are not here, you know,” he said. “It always works out how it’s supposed to be. Not everybody can do this. And in some ways we take pride in that. If everybody can do this, we don’t have this thing set up right. This thing is for the special and the few.
“And when they do it right, I think you can see what can happen here. So I’m really, really proud of those guys. … Nobody likes change, but change is all about growth, and I think these kids have grown tremendously going through a change and are in a much different mindset to go through hard stuff. Because change can be hard on everybody. But when you do it the right way, there’s a tremendous benefit at the end.”