Jimmy Lake was suspended by the University of Washington on Monday for shoving and hitting linebacker Ruperake Fuavai, but that wasn’t the first time the coach got physical with a football player, according to five eyewitnesses who spoke with The Seattle Times on the condition of anonymity.
The alleged incident they described this week occurred less than two months before he was announced as the Huskies’ head coach. Lake is owed $9.9 million over the next three years, but could lose it if fired for cause.
On Oct. 12, 2019, UW trailed Arizona at halftime, 17-13, with a strong performance by the defense, which Lake coached, and a weaker offensive showing.
When Lake — then 42, in his sixth season as a Husky assistant and his second as defensive coordinator — entered the locker room in Tucson, Arizona, he began to yell and walk down the rows occupied by offensive players, eventually approaching Quinten Pounds, a veteran wide receiver, five eyewitnesses told The Times in separate interviews. (The witnesses were not made aware of details from the other accounts, or the identities of the other anonymous sources, but still provided similar accounts.)
“Lake comes in on just a complete rampage pretty much, picks up Quinten Pounds and throws him into a locker,” one eyewitness said. “Those lockers there were wooden lockers, and it was violent. It really caught everyone by surprise. It was really unprompted. He just kind of did that and then went on a tangent about how the offense needs to start playing better.”
Lake issued a statement to The Times on Friday: “I absolutely deny anything improper went on at halftime of the University of Arizona game in 2019. There were numerous witnesses in the game — from equipment room, to football staff, to strength and conditioning coaches, and no one came to me with concerns after halftime, after the game, never.
“To my knowledge there’s never been any complaints launched by anyone related to anything that happened during that game, and nobody from the university has ever raised any issues with me about what occurred in the locker room at halftime. I wasn’t aware of any issue until” contacted by The Times.
The Times requested comment from UW athletic director Jen Cohen and was provided a statement attributed broadly to the athletic department. It acknowledged that, while investigating Lake’s incident with Fuavai, “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.
“We have high expectations of conduct for our coaches, and we will not shy away from those expectations.”
UW President Ana Mari Cauce declined to comment. When reached by The Times, Pounds declined to comment publicly on the alleged incident.
The five eyewitnesses who claim to have seen the incident provided similar accounts. One said, “(Lake) pushed him, two hands, both on the chest plate of his shoulder pads, and he went into the locker.” Regarding the severity of the shove, he added: “Yes, he did hit the locker. Granted, he was standing six inches from a locker. He’s in full football pads, so shoulder pads hitting the composite material, sure, maybe that made a loud sound.”
Another individual recalled that Lake shoved Pounds in the chest, and the 176-pound wide receiver “fell a step or two back but didn’t slam against the locker or anything like that.” He added that Pounds “grazed the locker.”
Yet another eyewitness said he was unsure whether Lake shoved or threw Pounds but confirmed he forcefully contacted the player’s upper body and “he definitely did cross a line with that. … I don’t know why he chose (Pounds). It just seemed kind of random and out of line. I didn’t like it when it happened.”
A fifth eyewitness said Lake “turned to Quinten Pounds and like pushed him up against the locker — not maliciously, in my opinion anyways. It probably did cross a line, but it wasn’t with malicious intent.”
The Times reached out to a total of 32 individuals, including players and staff members, to request comment. One player who requested anonymity said “I do not remember or know of any altercations between Lake and any players during my time at UW.” Another stated he was “not sure at all” if the event took place. Two others declined comment.
One current player, who also requested anonymity, said plainly that there was “no altercation between anyone.”
“I was standing right next to Lake. Nothing malicious happened,” he added. “We had players on that 2019 team that were too soft to take criticism from a coach that wanted to win. That’s it. That’s the truth.”
An additional 21 players did not respond to interview requests.
Pounds, who recovered from three ACL injuries in four years to return for his fifth season that fall, dressed for the game but did not play. He was not injured by the alleged incident.
But according to one eyewitness, the action achieved the intended effect.
“It hyped everyone up,” he said. “I know that sounds kind of funny, but you know how football works. It’s a very manly sport. It got the energy going in the locker room.”
Added another witness: “It really wasn’t a big thing. It turned heads for a second, but nobody even really talked about it after the game or anything, like some things that do fester in the locker room for days and weeks.”
It’s unclear whether sixth-year head coach Chris Petersen witnessed Lake’s interaction with Pounds. Multiple attempts to contact Petersen about the alleged incident were unsuccessful.
Two eyewitnesses noted that, because of the layout of Arizona’s road locker room, some players or staff members likely would not have seen it. One added that “the only guys that would have seen it were wide receivers, tight ends, maybe some running back guys,” and likely not any defensive players coached by Lake or offensive linemen.
Those that did claim to see it came to their own conclusions.
“It’s very emotional, and it’s very intense (being a coach),” one eyewitness said. “But that stuff just doesn’t happen. You don’t have coaches pick players up, especially players that they don’t coach, and do that type of stuff.”
He added: “I think if you reach out to anyone who was in the locker room at that point, if they want to tell you the truth then they’ll tell you what happened. Because it was shocking. It really was.”
Another eyewitness said he “was just kind of in shock,” but didn’t feel the action was inappropriate, because, “I grew up to, like … (believe) whatever happens in football, it’s just part of football.”
“I wouldn’t say it was over the line,” he added. “ … I think it was just more the situation, that he was mad that we were losing to a terrible team. Receivers offense-wise weren’t really doing much. So that’s kind of what happened. He had his emotions get the best of him.”
Likewise, a third eyewitness said: “It was a football move, if that makes sense. I’m not saying I condone it or that I would have done the same thing. But in the moment it didn’t come across as, ‘Oh my gosh, coach Lake is abusing the players. Oh my gosh, coach Lake is being very physical when he doesn’t need to be.’ It was more of, ‘Let’s get going! I’m going to shove you guys around so you can get out there and you shove them around.’ ”
A fourth eyewitness said “afterwards I kind of looked around like, ‘Did that just happen?’ ”
“I don’t know if (Lake) ever told any of the coaches,” he added. “I don’t know if they ever saw or heard about it. I remember talking about it with my close friends on the team, like, ‘That’s kind of (expletive) up that he did something like that.’ But it was over and done with right as it happened. I don’t think we ever told any athletic director or anything.”
Lake earned $1.4 million in 2019, making him the highest-paid assistant coach in the Pac-12 and in the history of the program. He was granted significant raises both in 2018 and 2019, after receiving repeated overtures from Alabama and others.
The five eyewitnesses who claimed that Lake did physically contact Pounds added that they did not see Lake physically contact any other player before the sideline incident with Fuavai last weekend.
It was Lake’s interaction with Fuavai that prompted an eyewitness to contact The Times.
“I’d feel guilt keeping that news in, because this shouldn’t happen, and this (Fuavai incident) is not the first time that Lake did that,” the eyewitness said. “Who’s to say it’s the last time it’s going to happen, especially behind closed doors? You don’t know what happens behind closed doors. Obviously his shove of QP was not on national television.”
A second eyewitness had a similar response.
“When I saw that (Fuavai) video I remember talking to my roommates about the Arizona game a couple years ago, you know?” the eyewitness said. “I remember being like, ‘Do you remember that time? And now this?’ “
The eyewitness was then asked how the forcefulness of Lake’s shove to Fuavai compared with Lake’s interaction with Pounds.
“(The Pounds shove was) definitely worse. Definitely worse,” he reiterated. “If there was a camera on there, it would be like, ‘Why is that guy doing that?’ You can say in that situation with the (Fuavai) video at the game that maybe he’s just trying to push the player back away, prevent him from getting the penalty. But there was just no reason for this at that time.”
Washington rebounded in the second half of the 2019 Arizona game to earn a 51-27 victory on the road. That night, Petersen told reporters “the whole first half was very, very frustrating on offense, and everybody was frustrated at halftime, coming in. So I’m proud of those guys and how they responded, how they answered, how we came out and kind of did what we thought (we could do).”
Student-athlete exit interviews obtained via a public-records request reveal that of the 17 football players who departed UW following the 2019 season, just four — 24% — said they’d encourage other student-athletes to attend the university. A year before, 10 of 12 departing players (83%) said they’d encourage other athletes to attend UW.
After Petersen abruptly stepped down on Dec. 2, 2019, Lake was named the Huskies’ next head coach 51 days after the alleged incident. Cohen promoted Lake rather than performing a nationwide search.
“Jimmy’s always been on my radar as a possible replacement for coach Pete, should this day ever come,” Cohen said at the time. “I’ve had the chance to observe him, visualize him in this role, and I know he’s the perfect fit for us moving forward.”
Lake has gone 7-6 in 13 games since, claiming a Pac-12 North title in a COVID-19-shortened 2020 season before stumbling to a 4-5 record this fall. While he serves his suspension, defensive coordinator Bob Gregory will assume the duties of acting head coach for the Huskies.
Lake’s contract runs through the 2024 season. The Eastern Washington alum is scheduled to make $3.1 million this year, $3.2 million in 2022, $3.3 million in 2023 and $3.4 million in 2024.
Should UW fire Lake for cause, “all obligations of the University to make further payments or provide other consideration hereunder shall cease,” his contract states.
According to said contract, “just cause” includes — among other criteria — an “act injuring, abusing, or endangering others.” It could also comprise “any other conduct of Employee (Lake) seriously and materially prejudicial to the best interests of the University or its athletics program, as determined within the reasonable discretion of the Director (Cohen).”
If UW fires Lake without cause, it would owe him the remainder of his contract — $9.9 million guaranteed — unless the school and Lake agree to a settlement.
Lake’s one-week suspension is scheduled to be lifted Sunday.
Seattle Times staff reporter Patrick Malone contributed to this report.