It is telling that Chris Petersen, universally regarded as a Hall of Famer, believes that his decision to step down as the University of Washington’s football coach actually will elevate the program.
At the root of Petersen’s shocking resignation, announced Monday, were two interrelated epiphanies on his part. One was that he had lost an essential passion for the job, exemplified by the joylessness he felt during the Rose Bowl last season.
“You work your whole life to get there,” he mused during a news conference Tuesday. “And I didn’t really appreciate the week. I didn’t appreciate the game like I need to, as a kid growing up looking at that game. And I think that was one of the things that really hit me loud and clear.”
The other was his firm belief that Jimmy Lake was uniquely qualified to succeed him. In Lake, he sees someone who will uphold the same values, and the mentorship of young men, that Petersen felt was the essence of coaching. And someone who is well-versed in the X’s and O’s and can couple it with the passion and zeal that had waned from Petersen.
“If I thought that this was going to set us back and not move this forward, I would’ve never done this at this time,” Petersen said. “Like, I wouldn’t do that to this program. I know that I could stay here and fight and we would get this thing back to where everybody’s excited and comfortable with.
“But I have no doubt this is the better thing for these kids, this program and this fan base, for Jimmy to go and inject his vision and his energy into this.”
To see Petersen on Tuesday was to see a man on the way to being unburdened from the accumulated stress of nearly four decades as a football player and coach – even more, if you count his youthful years watching 16-millimeter film with his father, a coach himself.
Petersen was more expansive, emotional and revealing in his half-hour on the podium than we had seen him during most of his six-year tenure as Husky coach.
Petersen said he delayed talking about his family until the end of the news conference because he knew he would cry – and instantly did so as he lauded his wife. He forthrightly delineated the toll that coaching can take, giving an open window into the basis of his decision.
“It’s one of those jobs that is extremely heavy on the balance of your life,” he said.
Controlling that balance and maximizing the quality of one’s life is the definition of success, he added – “and you cannot do that in this job. There is no balance, you know? It’s out of whack. It’s crazy.”
To me, that’s all you need to know about why Petersen, at age 55, will be the ex-coach of the Huskies after their bowl game. You can talk about his frustration with recruiting, the transfer portal, paying players, et al, but it boils down to balance, and quality of life. Maybe that’s just a fancy way of saying Petersen was burned out.
“My whole plan is to get rested, to get recharged, and to get redirected,” he said. “The one thing I know is that I’m not ready to do nothing. I’ve just got to figure out where all this energy and this passion and inspiration goes … and I don’t want it to be on the football field.”
Petersen’s new role as an athletic department “leadership adviser” remains vague and unformatted for the time being, probably intentionally so. Perhaps it will merely be a temporary respite, a sabbatical of sorts, before he returns to the sideline, reinvigorated.
But somehow I don’t think so. In listening to Petersen describe the possibilities of his new life, you could see the gleam in his eye and the passion in his voice.
“Change is inevitable, but growth is optional,” he said, quoting a maxim he uses on his players.
Petersen is clearly in growth mode that will expand his horizons beyond the gridiron. He talked about what areas he wants to focus on.
“I’m passionate about excellence,” he said. “I love being around people that do their job at a high, high level. That’s inspiring to me. I’m passionate about team-building. I’m passionate about leadership, I’m passionate about culture.
“There’s not a lot of people that have it really figured out on how to build a team, and how to build leaders. I’m still learning and figuring that out with all the things I’ve been through. And I’m really excited to go and learn more and then pass that information on to different people that I think want it and can help with.”
That’s a realm that’s teeming with exciting potential for the Husky athletic department if Petersen can find a way to harness that curiosity and knowledge. There’s always a possibility that Petersen will be a mere figurehead who recedes into irrelevance, but I’d be surprised it that is the outcome. Someone as driven, competitive and focused as Petersen doesn’t just turn it off. More likely is that he redirects it into new realms that rekindle the enthusiasm he had lost. Whether it will eventually take him away from Montlake is another unanswered question.
“Jen (Cohen, the UW athletic director) and I will figure out exactly how I can help whoever we’re around here,” Petersen said. “There’s so many things that I’m opinionated about and passionate about that aren’t always right, but I’ve got strong opinions on. Now I can’t wait to tell everybody. We’ll just see how that goes.”
In recent years, Petersen admitted, the pressure and strain grew to the point that “some of the excitement and positivity and optimism can kind of be pushed away.”
He cited a quote he heard last fall from “an Eastern philosopher” (a Google search revealed it to be Confucius, the Heisman Trophy winner of Eastern philosophers). The words resonated deeply:
A man has two lives to live, and the second one begins when he realizes he only has one.
“That thing has been ringing in my ears loud and clear,” Petersen said.
And now Petersen will dive headlong into his new life.