When Jimmy Lake was hired as Washington’s football coach in December to replace Chris Petersen, athletic director Jen Cohen referred to him as “the right guy at the right time.”
No one has disputed the first part of that statement. But the “right time” abruptly devolved into the most tumultuous time imaginable to become a first-time head coach.
Of all the challenges Lake could have expected in the daunting task of replacing a coaching legend such as Petersen, “global pandemic” wasn’t on the list.
But here Lake is, brimming with energy, eager to hurtle himself into such pressing matters as a looming quarterback decision, the integration of offensive coordinator John Donovan and other new coaches, and the never-ending recruiting battles — yet unable to do anything more than nibble at the edges.
Lake isn’t whining about it, mind you. That’s not his style. In his portion of the Pac-12’s ongoing media webinars this week, Lake was upbeat and optimistic Tuesday about preparation for a season that remains in limbo.
Lake pointed out that at least he’s not walking in completely cold, having served so long on Petersen’s staff as secondary coach and defensive coordinator. Colorado’s Karl Dorrell, who joined Lake and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham on the call, has previous head-coaching experience but pointed out he has had precious little time to develop relationships with his players.
“It’s definitely a challenge, but thankfully I’ve been here going on seven years now,” Lake said. “Especially on the defensive side of the ball, these guys have heard my voice over and over and over. I know on the offensive side, they’ve also heard me in a different fashion. All our players, I was in the recruiting process with almost every single one of them. They know me, they know my personality. I feel in that regard, there’s a lot of positives there.
“But definitely, going through spring football practice would have been a huge deal for our program and for me as a new head football coach. I am fortunate — I have been around a lot of great head coaches, including Chris Petersen, who I think is the best college football coach I’ve ever been around. I also had some NFL experience with some really great head coaches. So I’ll be able to lean on those experiences. I’m just champing at the bit to get these guys back here.”
Instead, Husky players are dispersed around the country doing their sheltering at home. Spring practice was canceled, recruiting is curtailed, and any sort of in-person workouts or meetings are not allowed. Coaches are limited to eight hours of Zoom meetings with players per week.
In a way, it’s the ultimate test for a first-time head coach. If Lake can navigate these turbulent waters, it bodes well for his tenure at Washington. If and when the Huskies are cleared for practice to prepare for the season, Lake’s first order of business will be to determine a quarterback from holdovers Jacob Sirmon and Dylan Morris and freshman Ethan Garbers, an early spring enrollee.
It won’t be easy, especially under these circumstances. Donovan at least was able to spend time with Sirmon and Morris from January through March, beginning the process of teaching the tenets of his offense, before contact was halted. Since then, all instruction has been via Zoom meetings.
“Coach Donovan hasn’t seen one of these guys throw live,” Lake pointed out. “It will definitely be a challenge, but we all have challenges right now. What I’m excited about now is all three guys … I think they’re all talented, I think they’re all hungry, I think they’re all competitive, young athletes. I know they’re excited to learn the offense and get out there and compete.
“Like I tell the whole team: I’m an equal-opportunity employer. Whoever shows they know the scheme and they can get out there and practice and make plays, they are going to be the ones that get the opportunity to do it on game day. I think all three of those guys are going to create a really good competition in that room.”
Whittingham has achieved considerable success at Utah since replacing Urban Meyer in 2005, including a berth in the Pac-12 title game last year. He was asked what advice he’d give to new coaches Lake and Dorrell.
“I’m not sure either one of them need any of my advice,” he replied. “When Urban was here, we obviously had great success. You want to put your own stamp on the program, but don’t be afraid to hang on to what’s working already. There are a lot of good things going on in both programs. Chris Petersen, I think was one of the best coaches in the country. So there’s a lot that’s right. Hang on to that stuff. Don’t change just for the sake of change.”
I’m eager to find out exactly what does change in the Lake regime, and what stays the same. And to view it in real time on the gridiron, rather than just theoretical discussions from a podium or Zoom call.
But for now, Lake is living the typical shelter-at-home existence. He marveled about how he’s never had more of a chance to watch his kids rise out of bed for more days in a row than he’s doing now. In the frenetic existence of a college football coach, extended family time is usually limited to July, but his is going on two months now.
But as rewarding as that has been, Lake’s itch to put his stamp on the Husky program is growing. And he senses his players have the same restlessness.
“They can’t wait to get back into regular meetings with human beings surrounding them, and going out and doing a walk-through and doing a practice,” Lake said. “Right now it’s building the fire in these guys. They’re going to have a lot of energy when we get back and rolling.”
And so will their new coach, who hopes to be the right man at the craziest time imaginable.