Jimmy Lake’s predecessor, Chris Petersen, was pretty open about the pressures of being a head coach. He recalled being unable to enjoy the Rose Bowl — the game he grew up watching — due to the stress of the job.
The weight of a headset quintuples once you move from an assistant to head coach, and the spotlight — particularly at a Power Five school — can be blinding. Oh, and that’s without losing to an FCS school in your season opener.
It is entirely possible the Huskies rebound from their defeat vs. Montana last Saturday and blossom into a formidable team. You might recall Washington State losing to Eastern Washington of the FCS in its 2016 opener, then starting an eight-game winning streak two weeks later.
Duds happen. Especially when a team’s top four receivers are on the sideline. But when you’re a second-year head coach in the midst of your first full season, such duds can spark anxiety no amount of meditation can undo.
This is Lake’s first real taste of adversity. It’s the first time skeptics of his have obtained hard evidence that question his qualifications.
The coming weeks will shed light on whether he can keep the Huskies hovering near or above expectations. But make no mistake: He’s still the new guy with a whole lot to prove.
Unlike former Washington State coach Mike Leach, Lake is not the type to assign blame when things go awry. Self-accountability was among the main themes in his Monday news conference, where he repeatedly said “it starts with me” when discussing Saturday’s shortcomings.
And, boy, were there shortcomings — from the general inertia of the offense, to the ineffectiveness of the heralded offensive line, to the inability to stop punt returns. So what was his reaction? Anger? Disappointment? Confusion?”
“All of the above No sleep. Did that just happen? Extremely disappointed. Extremely disappointed. It all comes back to myself,” Lake said. “We’re going to get it changed. We should not have played the way we played on Saturday night, and that’s why I feel so bad for our fans, for our supporters.”
That was another theme Monday — Lake apologizing to fans for the poor performance and assuring them the Huskies will get it right. Doing so will require a win vs. Michigan (1-0) in Ann Arbor on Saturday.
It’s a little like getting knocked out by your sparring partner seven days before a title fight, but that’s Washington’s world right now. And given the incessant scrutiny that comes with coaching a Division I football team, Lake might as well have the Hubble pointed at him right now.
Monday, I asked Lake about the pressure — how in all his years of coaching, he’s never really been in a position like this before.
“I’ve been coaching for a long time, and been through some hard times, and so I feel prepared for this,” said Lake, who has been coaching in some capacity since 1999, when he was a graduate assistant at Eastern Washington. “I’ve seen head coaches that I really respect and admire go through really tough, difficult seasons, and how they’ve handled it, and I’ve been able to lean on those. It’s rare that you go through a season and you go 12-0. Those seasons don’t happen very much for anybody and you’re going to go through some adversity, but it’s how are you going to respond from it?”
That we’ll see. Forgive me if this is hyperbolic, but I’m not sure there’s anybody more crucial to a team’s long-term success than a college football coach is to his school. Maybe a standout quarterback in the NFL or a LeBron James-type in the NBA, but there are some coaches who just have it wherever they go.
Nick Saban is one. Urban Meyer another. And though on a smaller scale, Petersen was like that, too. It’s not often that a program’s train keeps moving with the same velocity when its chief engineer steps off.
Lake is as kindhearted a coach that I’ve come across. And he’s a defensive mastermind who prompted former players to call him a genius and schools such as Alabama to recruit him to their staff. But it’s a different universe entirely when you’re the head man in charge.
Washington suffered what might be its most humiliating defeat in program history last Saturday. Every man on that roster is going to look to Lake for guidance. Everyone else — from fans to pundits to potential recruits — is going to look to see what he can do.