In 2006, Chris Petersen was a 41-year-old, first-time head coach. He had just been promoted from the offensive-coordinator role at Boise State, where he had been on staff for five seasons.
Of course, you already know what happened next. Petersen lifted the Broncos to unprecedented heights, compiling a 92-12 record with two Fiesta Bowl titles before arriving in Seattle in 2014.
But that success would not have happened without the right assistant coaches.
“When I think about coach Pete, it’s so much more than just him,” Marty Tadman, a former Boise State defensive back, told The Times last month. “It’s so many little things that he brought with him. Everybody talks about culture, and it’s hard to define. But the coaches he brought with him, his approach to everything, the mundane things all the way to the big things, it was him knowing exactly what our team needed to reach that top.”
Specifically, Boise State needed Bryan Harsin and Justin Wilcox — a pair of 29-year-old, first-time coordinators. Neither guy had held that role on any level; Harsin had coached running backs and wide receivers at Eastern Oregon and tight ends at Boise State, while Wilcox had coached linebackers at California. (Fourteen years later, Harsin is the head coach at Boise State, while Wilcox is the head coach at Cal.)
On paper, these were risky hires.
They were also the right hires.
“The biggest thing I know (that changed the culture) is the coaching staff he brought with him,” Tadman said. “They were all hungry, passionate, early in their careers, dying to make a name for themselves, fresh, different approach, emotional. My defensive coordinator, coach Wilcox, my senior year we won a game in quadruple overtime (69-67 over Nevada). We gave up like 67 points, and he was in the locker room literally in tears talking to us.
“It was that important to those coaches. They were so involved. So that, in itself, was huge.”
In 2020, Jimmy Lake is a 43-year-old, first-time head coach. He has just been promoted from the defensive-coordinator role at Washington, where he has been on staff for six seasons.
The goal, as always, is to lift the Huskies to unprecedented heights. But that success won’t happen without the right assistant coaches.
And, like Petersen in 2006, Lake has made some nontraditional hires. The flashy pick for offensive coordinator would have been Joe Moorhead or Mark Helfrich or Todd Monken or Chip Long, not Jacksonville Jaguars assistant running-backs coach John Donovan. The flashy pick for defensive-backs coach would have been Cal’s Gerald Alexander, not Vanderbilt’s Terrence Brown. The flashy pick for tight-ends coach would have been former UW quarterback and current Cal tight-ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo, not Husky offensive analyst Derham Cato.
On paper, these were risky hires. They might also be the right ones.
The common denominator, it seems, is that Lake hired people with plenty left to prove.
Donovan, 45, spent the last four seasons as an offensive assistant with the Jaguars, after being fired as Penn State’s offensive coordinator in 2015. In five seasons as the offensive coordinator at Vanderbilt (2011-13) and Penn State (2014-15), Donovan’s units never finished better than 82nd nationally in total offense. His Nittany Lions offenses were underwhelming in just about every statistical category. Granted, he inherited significant recruiting sanctions in Happy Valley in 2014. But, the fact remains, Donovan should arrive in Seattle with no shortage of motivation.
The same goes for Brown and Cato as well. Brown, who served as a graduate assistant under Lake at UW from 2015 to 2017, returns to Washington after two seasons as the cornerbacks coach at Vanderbilt. The Compton, Calif., product and Stanford alum has a unique opportunity to build his career on the West Coast, working alongside Will Harris as an assistant defensive-backs coach.
And, as for Cato? The former Dartmouth defensive tackle has been behind the scenes at Washington for the last four seasons, contributing quietly as an offensive analyst. He was Davidson’s offensive coordinator in 2015 but has yet to serve as a full-time assistant coach for an FBS program.
So, suffice to say, Donovan, Brown and Cato should be driven to prove Lake made the right decisions. But, entering an unprecedented in-state recruiting cycle, can they beat national powers (and more established coaches) for four- and five-star prospects? Can Donovan maximize his personnel on a UW offense replacing starters at quarterback, running back, tight end, wide receiver, center, left tackle and right tackle? Can he effectively install an offensive system? Can he get his players to believe?
Can Brown develop a Huskies secondary positively teeming with NFL talent? Can Cato help junior Cade Otton reach another level, and elevate a young tight-ends room noticeably missing departed standout Hunter Bryant?
One way or the other, those questions will be answered soon enough. But a head coach is only as good as his staff — and his culture. In 2006, Petersen empowered young assistant coaches who — to use Tadman’s words — were “dying to make a name for themselves.” In doing so, he transformed Boise State’s program from within.
In 2020, Lake — as well as Donovan, Brown and Cato — have an opportunity to do the same.