LAS VEGAS – In his first few moments as the no-longer-defensive coordinator and now-official head coach of Washington, Jimmy Lake was looking for people to hug.
Mostly, though, they found him – Husky players, coaches from the Boise State staff, family and friends that had flooded the field at Sam Boyd Stadium after the Huskies’ 38-7 romp Saturday in the Chris Petersen Farewell Extravaganza, also known as the Las Vegas Bowl.
Washington athletic director Jen Cohen gave Lake a particularly heartfelt embrace. But Lake had one particular person with whom he wanted to share the moment. And that person was dripping wet from the post-game ice bath his players had bestowed upon him.
“I’m getting ready to go give Coach Pete a big hug and tell him how much I love him, and respect him,’’ Lake said.
Turns out, he didn’t have to wait long. During the nationally televised trophy celebration, Petersen called Lake up to the podium in a symbolic changing of the guard. The two posed for the traditional photo, each holding a piece of the hardware. Petersen extolled Lake, and Lake reiterated his love for the coach.
“This guy has meant the world to me,’’ Lake said. “He changed my life, and my family’s life.”
And with that, they headed to the locker room, and two vastly different futures. Asked what he expected it to feel like on Sunday morning when he awoke without a football team to fret about for the first time in about, oh, three decades, Petersen gave a contented smile.
“It’s going to be awesome,’’ he said, lingering on the last word. “And the next day after that, too, it’s going to be awesome. Maybe in a month it might not be so awesome, figuring out what to do next. But it’s going to be good for awhile.”
Lake, meanwhile, is going to maintain the frenetic overdrive that has governed his life since Petersen announced the handover three weeks ago. That has meant a whirlwind of recruiting, mulling over the staff changes that will inevitably be coming in the future (maybe the near future), and, oh, yeah, coming up with a defensive game plan to stifle a challenging Boise State offense.
In the latter endeavor, Lake and the Huskies came up aces. They held the Broncos scoreless in the first half, the first time that’s been done in five years. They forced three turnovers (one of them a game-changing interception by the game’s Most Valuable Player, defensive back Elijah Molden) and altogether stifled a team that had rolled to a 12-1 record. That helped put a positive outgoing spin on a Husky season that had been marked by disappointment and under-achievement.
“Those guys played hungry, and they were flying around like we like them,’’ Lake said.
While Petersen will wake up on Sunday with a carefree attitude, Lake laughed dismissively when asked if he would allow himself a solitary day off.
“I will not take any days off here coming up,’’ he said. “But that’s part of the deal. I want to make sure I’m fully prepared and dialed in when these guys come back in the building on Jan. 5.
“I’ll definitely have Christmas morning off,’’ he added. “There’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s exciting and I can’t wait for the challenge.”
While much of the focus in this bowl lead-up was on Petersen, much to his annoyance, for Lake it was a good initiation into the multitasking that will grown multi-fold in necessity now that the buck stops in his office.
Lake criss-crossed the region to reassure potential recruits that Washington was still the place to go, a successful endeavor that resulted in a 100% retention rate from Petersen’s previous commits. And he dialed up the pressure-intensive strategy that had a pair of Boise State quarterbacks on their heels for much of the game.
“For sure, it was a challenge,” Lake said, “but that’s college football. That’s what we have to do. We have to be able to recruit, we have to be able to game plan, and do all those things at once. And I love it.”
In noting the season-long improvement from a defensive unit that lost 10 starters, Lake lauded their growth across the board.
“That’s what we’re all about,’’ he said. “An anchor of our program is going to be constant growth and constant development.”
Of course, Lake is in charge of the whole works now, not just the defense. He faces a looming decision on offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan (to whom Petersen gave all the credit for the trickeration that resulted in a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from running back Richard Newton to Terrell Bynum out of the Wildcat formation).
And he will await the decision of junior quarterback Jacob Eason, who said after the game he’s not yet ready to address the question of whether he’ll skip his senior season to join the NFL. There are others on the Washington roster who no doubt are pondering the same possibility.
But regardless of the personnel he’ll send into next year’s season opener against, gulp, Michigan, Lake has vowed a more aggressive attack from a unit that too often this season was lacking in explosiveness. In that pursuit, he got the blessing of Petersen.
“I think we’ve got some weapons,’’ said the – here it comes for the first time, wait for it – former Husky coach. “I think there’s no doubt. I think we all feel like that. We’ve had more to us.
“They’ll take the next step. He’ll figure out what he needs to do and tweak the offense. There’s a lot of firepower sitting there. It’ll get better.”
For the Huskies, it couldn’t have gotten much better, for one night, than it did on Saturday. The evening ended with fans of both teams chanting Petersen’s name, and the coach thrilled not only that it was over – the spotlight had made him visibly uncomfortable for a fortnight – but that his seniors went out with a triumph.
“I feel so strongly that this can catapult the program forward,’’ Petersen said. “Every time, it seems like when we’ve won a bowl game, good things have happened the next year. It’s just the way you want to end it.”
And in Jimmy Lake’s case, just the way you want to start it.