Editor’s note: UW’s season opener Saturday at Cal has been canceled and declared a no contest after a Cal player tested positive for COVID-19. This story was published prior to the cancellation of the game.
Every football season brings its own brand of mystery. No matter how good — or bad — the team was a year ago, there is new hope, new fears, new story lines — a blank slate waiting to be filled in.
For the Washington Huskies in 2020, you can multiply that intrigue tenfold. And the biggest wild card, dwarfing even the new, as-yet-unknown quarterback who will be leading the offense, is coach Jimmy Lake.
When Lake leads the Huskies onto Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, California, on Saturday night for the long-awaited, excruciatingly delayed season opener, it will have been 341 days since he was named to replace Chris Petersen. It’s been 322 days since the transition became official with Petersen’s coaching swan song in the Las Vegas Bowl, a 38-7 trouncing of Boise State. And it’s been 63 days since the day Lake was supposed to make his head-coaching debut at Husky Stadium on Sept. 5 against Michigan.
We know Lake, of course, as the highly successful defensive coordinator under Petersen who helped mold units that year after year were the class of the Pac-12.
We know him as an ebullient personality who was not afraid to poke the bear, especially if the bear wore Crimson and Gray. Buoyed by one decisive win after another over Washington State under Petersen, Lake gloated about how easy it was to game plan against Mike Leach’s offense and once declared of the Apple Cup, “It’s our favorite game of the year.”
But we don’t know how Lake will be now that he’s sitting in the big chair. It’s a change that has elevated some men to greatness, while others have shriveled under the responsibility, and the pressure.
So far, there are encouraging signs that the Huskies made the right choice — one that was deemed a no-brainer once Petersen decided, to everyone’s great shock, to get out of the pressure-cooker of college football.
Lake had declined numerous overtures over the years to hire him away from Washington, including a full-court press from Nick Saban to lure him to Alabama. Once Petersen stepped down, Lake was the obvious choice to succeed his mentor — who couldn’t have imagined at the time just what shock waves were coming to the world, including the football world he was vacating.
Speaking this week, Lake talked about how excited he is for the Cal game, one of seven on the abbreviated Pac-12 schedule this year.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said.
At times it looked like this day might never come. Spring practice was delayed and then canceled. Recruiting was grounded. Nonconference games were thrown out. At one point the entire Pac-12 season was called off, only to be revived once improved COVID-19 testing methods were obtained.
All that would have been an ordeal for an experienced coach, even more so while happening against the backdrop of social unrest and a contentious presidential election. For a first-time coach it was not just baptism under fire; more like baptism under raging inferno, to an extent rarely seen.
By all appearances, Lake deftly navigated his way through the turmoil. His outlook has remained relentlessly positive, despite the constant uncertainty. All the machinations to make this season happen have merely added to anticipation Lake feels.
“I am just extremely excited for our staff and our players, all the work behind the scenes of going through all these new protocols,” he said. “Getting into the building and getting out of the building. Somebody does test positive, or it’s a false positive. I mean, there’s so many things — cleaning equipment, our medical staff, our strength conditioning staff, our administration, just to allow us to just get back in the building and start working on football again. And then all these new things that our players are having to deal with on a daily basis.
“It’s just been a process. And so I’m just excited for our guys and our staff, to go out there and play football, play this game that they love that they prepare for 12 months, every single year. And just go let it loose on Saturday night.”
We are already getting glimpses of Lake’s style as a head coach, but the true picture will emerge over time. Not surprisingly, he is far more circumspect in his comments as head man than assistant, a change that started last year when Lake was not made available to the media during Apple Cup week.
Much like his predecessor, Lake has zealously guarded injury news and personnel decisions, most notably the four-headed quarterback battle that will remain a mystery until game time. Shortly thereafter, we’ll find out just how much razzle-dazzle Lake and his hand-picked offensive coordinator, John Donovan, have added to an offense that at times was frustratingly staid under Petersen.
For all 20 years of his coaching career, the 43-year-old Lake has labored on the defensive side, but now, of course, he’s the ultimate voice on what coaches like to call “all three phases.” Lake said he’s enjoyed dabbling on offense, an interaction that used to consist of him affectionately trash-talking the Husky quarterbacks about how often his unit was going to intercept them in practices.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s been quite the experience to be able to sit there in both meetings now, and be able to watch both from a different perspective, and be able to give my two cents to our offensive staff of what causes defenses’ issues.
“That’s been fun for me, and then to watch our defense struggle with it in practice. And now I can kind of laugh at it. And I think we all grow as coaches. We’ll continue to grow. One of our anchors around here is constant growth and improvement.”
For Lake, the seeds that were planted nearly a year ago finally will began to reach fruition Saturday.