UW Huskies fire football coach Jimmy Lake after 13 games

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Washington Huskies football coach Jimmy Lake at the Nov. 6 game against Oregon. Lake was fired Sunday less than two years after he was named head coach. (Jennifer Buchanan / The Seattle Times)

Jimmy Lake was fired Sunday after just 13 games as the University of Washington’s head football coach.

Defensive coordinator Bob Gregory will continue to serve as the program’s interim head coach for the rest of the season, and a national search for the program’s next head coach is underway.

But less than two years ago, none of that seemed possible. Chris Petersen stood at a podium in the Don James Center in Husky Stadium on Dec. 3, 2019, decked out in a purple shirt and tie. The day before, UW announced that Petersen would step down after six seasons as the Huskies’ head coach, and Lake — his defensive coordinator — would serve as his chosen successor. Lake and athletic director Jen Cohen both sat nearby, facing rows of cameras, media members, donors and alums.

On the video board beyond the field at Petersen’s back, three words were displayed in bold, white type — between smiling photos of Petersen on the left, and Lake on the right:

“A NEW REIGN”

“This is interesting. It’s like a combination between a funeral and a wedding … but it’s more of a wedding,” Petersen said with a smile.

Less than two years later, the marriage has ended in divorce.

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“I recognize that terminating a coach after 13 games is unusual, and quite frankly, it certainly goes against my beliefs as an administrator,” Cohen said in a virtual news conference Sunday night. “However, when I know something is not working or something just isn’t right, I do have an obligation to act.

“I hired Coach Lake in 2019 full of confidence and had high expectations and did everything that I could to help him be successful. I’m really disappointed and I’m sad to be here today in his second season. As a director of athletics, his hire is on me, and I own it.”

Suspended UW football coach Jimmy Lake faces allegations he shoved player in 2019

Lake — who arrived in Seattle as Petersen’s defensive backs coach in 2014, before being promoted to co-defensive coordinator (2016-17), then defensive coordinator (2018-19) — went 7-6 in less than two full seasons at the helm. It was his first head coaching position in any capacity.

Lake’s contract runs through the 2024 season. The 44-year-old — who attended North Central High School in Spokane before playing defensive back at Eastern Washington — was scheduled to make $3.2 million in 2022, $3.3 million in 2023 and $3.4 million in 2024. Lake was not fired for cause, and his $9.9 million buyout will be paid in monthly installments, with that number reduced by any compensation Lake earns at another job between now and 2024.

Cohen said Sunday it became clear “a few days ago” that a change needed to be made, and “I just didn’t have confidence in Coach Lake’s ability to continue to lead the program moving forward.” She informed Lake of his termination on Sunday afternoon and called that conversation “professional.”

The decision comes just six days after Lake was suspended for one week without pay for an interaction with UW linebacker Ruperake Fuavai during the 26-16 loss to rival Oregon on Nov. 6. UW’s head coach was shown on national TV attempting to separate Fuavai from a sideline scrum by hitting him in the facemask, then shoving him in the back when he turned to walk away.

Immediately after the Oregon game, when asked if he regretted striking Fuavai, Lake responded: “I separated him. I didn’t strike him. I separated him.”

It’s the last time Lake addressed the media in person as the UW head coach.

On Sunday, when asked why she decided to suspend Lake if his termination was already imminent, Cohen said, “Those are two different decisions. We had an incident. We needed to evaluate it quickly and we needed to take action. We have consequences for behavior like that. The decision to terminate was a completely different decision based on a holistic review.”

Washington athletic director Jen Cohen meets with local media after it was announced that football coach Jimmy Lake was fired on Sunday.

Cohen also guaranteed “that we would have made that same decision [to suspend Lake] if we had more wins under our belt this year.”

Lake’s offensive coordinator, John Donovan, was fired Nov. 7 — less than 24 hours after the loss to Oregon.

Five eyewitnesses allege that Lake forcefully shoved a player during halftime of a game at Arizona in 2019, The Times reported Sunday. When reached by phone on Friday, Lake said in a prepared statement that “I absolutely deny anything improper went on at halftime of the University of Arizona game in 2019.”

UW’s athletic department confirmed Friday that, while investigating the Fuavai incident, “one individual mentioned an alleged incident involving Coach Lake during the 2019 football game at Arizona. This is the first time [the] athletic department administration had been made aware of the alleged 2019 incident and we began to review that allegation; that work is ongoing.”

On the subject of whether that alleged incident impacted Lake’s dismissal, Cohen said, “we were just recently made aware of those allegations. We’re still investigating those allegations.”

Washington went 3-1 and technically won the Pac-12 North in 2020, though its season abruptly ended after a coronavirus outbreak within the program. After being ranked No. 20 nationally in the preseason, the Huskies dropped their 2021 opener at home to FCS Montana and are currently 4-6 — needing to win their final two games to avoid missing the postseason for the first time since 2009.

Of equal or greater concern, UW’s 2021 signing class ranked just sixth in the Pac-12 and 36th in the nation by the 247Sports Composite, while the 2022 class sits eighth in the conference and 54th in the country. A cavalcade of in-state blue-chip recruits — including five-star defensive lineman J.T. Tuimoloau (Ohio State), five-star wide receiver Emeka Egbuka (Ohio State), four-star linebacker Julien Simon (USC) and four-star wide receiver Junior Alexander (Arizona State) — signed elsewhere in the 2021 cycle.

On that subject: Lake made unwelcome waves on Nov. 1, when he said he didn’t consider Oregon a recruiting rival because of the university’s lack of “academic prowess.”

“The schools we go against are way more … have academic prowess — like the University of Washington, Notre Dame, Stanford, USC,” Lake said. “We go with a lot of battles toe-to-toe all the way to the end with those schools. So, I think that’s made up in your [media/recruiting service] world. In our world, we battle more academically prowess teams.”

Lake ascended the coaching ranks as an assistant in Seattle, helping the Huskies lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense and total defense for four consecutive seasons — from 2015 to 2018. He also tutored a parade of defensive backs-turned-NFL draft picks — including Budda Baker, Kevin King, Sidney Jones, Byron Murphy and Taylor Rapp. Under Petersen, UW won a pair of Pac-12 titles and reached the College Football Playoff in 2016.

Before arriving for a second stint in Seattle in 2014, Lake coached defensive backs for Boise State (2012-13), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2010-11, 2006-07), the Detroit Lions (2008), Montana State (2005), UW (2004) and Eastern Washington (1999-2003).

Lake’s firing happens just 25 days after Washington State dismissed Nick Rolovich for declining to receive a coronavirus vaccine. Lake and Rolovich, who were hired barely a month apart, were both fired before they could serve as head coach in an Apple Cup.

Or, to put it another way: both marriages fizzled out after the honeymoon phase.

Mike Vorel: mvorel@seattletimes.com; . Mike Vorel is the UW football beat writer for The Seattle Times.