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.
On Oct. 31, 1984, a 7-year-old boy in a pair of Pop Warner shoulder pads squeezed his afro and arms through the holes in a cardboard box. Said box was previously plastered with a colorful collection of purple, green, black, white and red paper squares. At the Incirlik air base in Adana, Turkey — where his father was stationed and his family lived — the candy selection was underwhelming, but the Halloween costumes didn’t disappoint.
His twin brother, Jayson, was a robot.
Jimmy Lake was a Rubik’s Cube.
UW’s football coach has made a career out of solving puzzles.
“(Former UW coach Chris Petersen) told this to me and his coaching staff, I think it was after my first year at Boise State,” Lake said. “He told us all, ‘When you’re a head coach, you’re a problem-solver. That’s what you are. Every day you’re solving problems.’ So that really stuck with me.
“There’s no question all of us have been solving problems during this pandemic. My job is to problem-solve.”
For two decades, Lake focused solely on solving opposing offenses. He coached defensive backs at Eastern Washington (1999-2003) — his alma mater — as well as UW (2004), Montana State (2005) and Boise State (2012-13). He served as an assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2006-07, 2010-11) and Detroit Lions (2008) in the NFL as well.
In his second stint at Washington, the former Rubik’s Cube has tutored seven DBs (and counting) who translated into NFL draft picks — Marcus Peters, Sidney Jones, Budda Baker, Kevin King, Jordan Miller, Taylor Rapp and Byron Murphy. As defensive-backs coach (2014-15), co-defensive coordinator (2016-17) and defensive coordinator (2018-19), his Dawgs led the Pac-12 in scoring defense and total defense for four consecutive seasons (2015-18). They won a pair of Pac-12 titles and reached the College Football Playoff in 2016 as well.
For six sparkling seasons, Lake solved puzzles and earned promotions. He recruited, and he got results.
But this offseason — his first as the Huskies’ coach — has been unlike any other, both personally and professionally. He’s been confronted with some more perplexing puzzles — a pandemic, a postponed football season and a social-justice movement in an election year.
And, according to UW athletic director Jen Cohen, he has proven to be the right man for an unprecedented moment.
“His ability to pivot and be nimble is stronger than I even anticipated, and I think it’s all directly tied with something that’s not a surprise, which is his mindset,” Cohen said. “He’s naturally positive, optimistic, confident, clear in his abilities and how he’s going to tackle anything that gets thrown his way. And I think because of that nature and that inherent ability to always be really looking at adversity as an opportunity, he’s just been really adaptive.
“This is such a fluid situation that we’re in with the pandemic. It’s a very emotionally charged and volatile time for a lot of our students and staff and community as it relates to issues around social justice and anti-racism. You just look at everything that we’re facing with students and higher education and leadership, and that ability to adapt, to be nimble and to adjust, and I just cannot say enough about how amazing he has been dealing with all of these really complex issues.”
Of course, the 43-year-old Lake — one of five Black head coaches in the Pac-12 and 11 in the Power Five — has provided a unique perspective as well.
“When George Floyd was murdered and I was having conversations with (Lake), I just felt inept at being able to figure out the best way to have those conversations with other coaches and assistant coaches and staff and eventually students,” Cohen said. “He really stepped up and shared his own personal experiences and stuff about his family that I didn’t know, and he did it in front of all of our head coaches and assistant coaches and other staff.
“He’s willing to put himself out there and share on behalf of the department and the greater good, not just the football program. I think that’s a big deal. That’s what we always want from all of our coaches, particularly our football and men’s basketball coach. But you never know how that’s going to play out in your department and your culture.”
Still, Lake was not ready-made for the role. He was molded by a cadre of parents and coaches and mentors and colleagues. His mother, Julie, instilled discipline and strength. He learned from his brothers — Jayson, Cory and Justin — as well as coaches Mike Tomlin, Raheem Morris and Rod Marinelli.
He also learned from the losses — and he watched how a different Husky coach handled it all.
“When I was here back in ’04, how Keith Gilbertson handled that (1-10 season) with class and strength really left an impression on me,” Lake said. “Because that was an extremely tough situation and an extremely tough season. The man never wavered. He was there with us all the way through that whole season, and I have so much respect for him for that.”
But it’s also unfair to classify Lake as purely a product of his previous coaching stops. Because this man’s spark — his insatiable enthusiasm, his uncanny optimism — is innately, uniquely Jimmy. It was there when he wore Pop Warner shoulder pads in a cardboard box. And it’s there now, persistently propelling his program forward.
“It’s interesting, because he brings the same coaching philosophy, the same energy and the same fire that I’m familiar with, with him being my position coach for three years. But now it’s just to a larger audience,” UW senior nickelback Elijah Molden said. “And a lot of the other position groups, at first they were like, ‘Dang, this is coach Lake? He’s serious. I didn’t think he’d be like this.’ That’s when all of the DBs would look around like, ‘Yep. You know something’s about to happen.’ ”
But be warned: that trademark enthusiasm occasionally comes with consequences. Take Oct. 16, 2011, when Lake was a defensive-backs coach for the Tampa Bay Bucs. In the second quarter of a rousing 26-20 win, Bucs safety Tanard Jackson snagged an interception from Saints quarterback Drew Brees. And, when Jackson arrived on the sideline, Lake was waiting for him.
It did not go well.
“He comes over to me and we are getting ready to do a chest bump,” Lake recalled. “As soon as I jump my left patellar tendon popped. My players grabbed me and helped me off the ground. I felt like I got shot by a sniper in my thigh.”
The next day, the Bucs flew to London for a game against the Chicago Bears, and Lake was asked if he’d like to stay in the states to have surgery.
“I said, ‘There’s no way. I’m flying with the team.’ So I flew and limped around in London for seven days on a blown patellar tendon.”
He finally had surgery the following week — which happened to be the Bucs’ bye — and says proudly that “I never missed a day of work.”
Nine years later, the work continues. There are new puzzles, new problems, new opponents to prepare for. In a pandemic-shortened seven-game season, Lake — as well as offensive coordinator John Donovan and the Huskies’ starting quarterback, whoever he is — have plenty left to prove.
And the puzzles aren’t going to solve themselves.
“I haven’t seen him coach a game yet,” Cohen said. “And as far as I’m concerned, there’s a big difference for all of us when we’re preparing and then when we’re actually playing. I think it’s going to be really fun to watch him coach and bring energy to that. But he’s also going to grow and learn. None of us have it all figured out, and he doesn’t either.”
For proof, when asked if he can solve a Rubik’s Cube, Lake laughed and responded: “No, no, no, I can’t. I shouldn’t tell you I can. I can’t.”
But, 36 years and one week after he fashioned a Rubik’s Cube out of a cardboard box, Lake may be able to solve the Cal Golden Bears on Saturday.
And, if he does, you better believe he’ll celebrate.
“I’ve always been known to jump around, and I still do to this day,” Lake said. “And I get reminded by my wife all the time to settle down and not move around so much unless I want to lose another tendon.”