During the Chris Petersen era at Washington, a typical football practice inside Husky Stadium would end with players running sideline-to-sideline conditioning sprints, 53 yards one way and 53 yards back.
Many tried, but no one succeeded in beating Budda Baker during all those sprints in his three seasons at UW. That, at least, has been Baker’s official stance over the years. Good luck convincing him otherwise.
Baker hates losing. And, boy, did he hate losing to his coach.
Want to know what makes Baker one of the best safeties in the NFL? Yes, it’s his speed, and it’s his instincts, and it’s his work ethic — it’s all that. As much as anything, though, it’s his innate competitive drive — his obsession to win. Folks around the Bellevue High School football team understood that. Folks at UW understood that. And folks around the Arizona Cardinals, who face the Seahawks on Thursday night at CenturyLink Field, have come to understand that, too.
Petersen, the former UW coach, understood that in a unique way. That’s because he ended up on the wrong side of Baker’s obsession.
Petersen, you see, had a quiet reputation at UW as an assassin at the Ping-Pong table. He didn’t flaunt it, and even in a conversation this week he downplayed it. (Because, you know, what 56-year-old brags about something like that?)
But Petersen was a top-flight tennis player growing up in Northern California, and those hand-eye skills obviously translate well in Ping-Pong. And, surely, it was no coincidence that, of all the amenities and activities featured in UW’s recruiting lounge — a pop-a-shot basketball game, a video-game console, a shuffleboard table, a pool table — it was the Ping-Pong table that was situated closest to Petersen’s office on the fourth floor of the Husky Stadium football operations center.
Here’s how it usually worked: Recruits would come to UW for their visits, see the Ping-Pong table next to Petersen’s office and inevitably challenge the coach to a lighthearted match. Petersen would then serve them some humble pie at the table.
Petersen doesn’t remember any details from his first match with Baker — because, you know, why would he? — but he’s pretty sure it was during Baker’s recruiting visit to the UW campus in January 2014, just a few weeks after Petersen took over as the Huskies’ coach. Baker didn’t stand a chance.
“He wasn’t very good,” Petersen recalled with a laugh.
Baker wasn’t deterred. He wanted more, always more.
“Coach Pete, let’s play again,” Baker would say.
“Naw,” Petersen would reply, “I don’t have time.”
Every few weeks, though, Petersen would grant Baker’s request, then beat his star safety at the table in the sort of casual manner of a father playing his elementary-aged son on a 6-foot basketball hoop (shot, rejection; shot, rejection; shot, rejection; thanks for playing, now go to bed).
“I couldn’t beat Coach Pete,” Baker said Wednesday. “He had that spin, that serve, that was getting me every time.”
That went on for more than a year, through Baker’s freshman season in 2014 and into 2015.
Then Baker’s competitiveness kicked into overdrive. Petersen, of course, took notice because it felt like every time he stepped out of his office, Baker was there, practicing at the table, obsessing and waiting, waiting and obsessing.
“What he started doing was, he would come early for his position meetings, and he would get someone to play him,” Petersen said. “And he was up there all the time.”
In a normal setting, Baker is as laid-back as they come. His around-the-house heart rate is probably slower than a sloth’s on a Sunday. But give him a chance to compete in something, anything, and watch out. Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury recently described Baker’s on-the-field personality flip as his “savage switch.”
Petersen awakened that savage, and then saw that switch happen in 2015 at the Ping-Pong table.
“All of a sudden, in typical Budda fashion, he got way better,” Petersen said. “And then he beat me one time, and it was like, ‘Wait, what?‘ ”
Baker revealed the strategy he employed to finally topple Petersen.
“Coach Pete is one of those guys that, plays Ping-Pong like it’s tennis,” Baker said. “He’s literally on one side of the board just trying to smack it. So if you can get his old legs to hit the next corner, the opposite corner, he has to run for it. So, you know, that’s what I was trying to do, and that’s what I did.”
Petersen, to be sure, also is as competitive as anyone you’ll find, and he did not take losing well, either.
“I was so irritated about it,” Petersen said. “I mean, I really was. I remember thinking, ‘OK, do I need to start practicing again to make sure Budda is the second-best Ping-Pong player around here again?
“But I just chuckle because that is Budda,” added Petersen, who stepped down as the Huskies’ coach last December and is now in a leadership position at UW’s Foster School of Business. “He’s so focused and so disciplined, and if it’s important to him he’s going to get really good at it, and he’s going to do it the right way. And he won’t talk about it. He’ll just go about his business and make it happen.”
Baker’s obsession with beating Petersen coincided with his, and the Huskies’, rise on the football field. Baker, in helping UW win the Pac-12 championship and advance to its first College Football Playoff, was an All-American in 2016. The Cardinals made him their second-round draft pick in 2017, and two months ago they made him the NFL’s highest-paid safety.
On Thursday night, Baker and the Cardinals (6-3) play the Seahawks (6-3) with first place on the line in the NFC West. He said he’s excited to come home, and he was happy to recount his triumph over his former coach.
“I’m always gonna remember that,” Baker said. “I don’t think he ever beat me again after that.”
That, at least, is his official stance. Good luck convincing him otherwise.