On Saturday, Jimmy Lake’s family attended a party to celebrate his appointment as head football coach at the University of Washington.
They just didn’t know it at the time.
Lake’s mother and two brothers had flown into Seattle for Thanksgiving weekend. His wife, Michelle, and children — Jimmy Jr., Faith and Bronson — were all there, too. On Saturday afternoon, they were sitting on the couch, watching the Iron Bowl game between Auburn and Alabama — ironically enough, considering the Crimson Tide’s reported interest in Lake in recent years — when the phone rang.
It was UW athletics director Jen Cohen. Why was it Jen Cohen?
Lake — UW’s second-year defensive coordinator, for now — went upstairs to answer it, and Cohen told the 42-year-old assistant what only a handful of people on Earth already knew. Chris Petersen, Washington’s decorated sixth-year head football coach, had decided to step down following the Huskies’ upcoming bowl game. For the first time in Lake’s life, a head-coaching job was his.
And, out of respect for Petersen, Lake told only his wife. He said at an introductory news conference on Tuesday that “I wanted to make sure he got this (news) out the way he wanted to get it out.” Which meant, in a house crowded with loved ones, Lake sat on the most significant professional development of his life. He held a winning lottery number and had to wait to cash it in.
He didn’t tell his mother. He didn’t tell his brothers. He didn’t tell his sons and daughter. This was a reverse surprise party, where the subject of the celebration is the only one who knew.
Though, admittedly, Lake’s poker face could use a little work.
“My oldest son, Jimmy Jr., I was kind of staring at him, knowing that I was going to be the next head football coach at Washington,” Lake said. “He goes, ‘Dad, what are you doing? What are you looking at me like that for?’
“I go, ‘Oh, nothing. Nothing.’ So they kind of knew something was going on, but they had no idea that this was the news.”
Lake finally let his children in on the secret on Sunday night. He called his mother and brothers a few hours before the official announcement on Monday morning. By 9 a.m. on Tuesday, his immediate family was seated in the front row of the Don James Center on the north side of Husky Stadium, while Lake posed for pictures and held a purple jersey with his last name on the back — surrounded on each side by Petersen and Cohen.
Behind them, on Husky Stadium’s massive video board, three words were printed in bold white letters for all to see. The same words were plastered across every flat-screen television in sight:
A NEW REIGN
For further context, the words were also sandwiched by a pair of smiling faces — Petersen on the left, Lake on the right.
The secret was officially out. Now, all he had to do was say it.
“And so now, here we go: I’m the head football coach,” Lake said with a smile on Tuesday, sporting a purple tie, a white shirt and a black suit that matched his beard.
But perhaps it’s appropriate that Petersen and Lake’s faces were both featured on the poster. After all, according to Lake, the foundation of Petersen’s program will remain in place.
“A lot of the reason we are here is because of what coach Pete brought with his culture, his Built for Life program, the uncommon unity we have on our team,” said Lake, who agreed to a five-year deal beginning with an annual guaranteed salary of $3 million. “So I want to make sure – and I spoke with the team yesterday – that all that is going to remain the same.
“It’s one of the biggest reasons I’ve remained here over the years when I’ve had chances to leave: I want to be a part of this unbelievable culture that Chris Petersen has laid down for us. So my message to the current recruits that we’re recruiting and our team is, the recipe is going to remain the same. This is not going to change. I know how it’s supposed to be done, and it’s supposed to be done how Chris Petersen has done it.”
Lake added a few minutes earlier that “I know the recipe, I’ve seen the recipe and I’m going to copy the recipe.”
But, on the heels of an underwhelming 7-5 regular season, Petersen admitted on Tuesday that the recipe could use a few new spices.
“I really felt in our program, it was time for a change,” Petersen said. “I think the foundation is really good and really solid. But you can feel that it just needs a little new direction and a boost of energy. It doesn’t need to be blown up, but it does need to be tweaked and changed.
“And so this thing for me has worked out better than planned, because I don’t know if I had a plan. But if I could script it this way, where one of our guys in Jimmy could take over, it couldn’t be better. Because I have no doubt that this program is going to continue to grow. It’s going to take the next step, and we’ll be back to winning Pac-12 championships.”
To do that, Lake will have to strike a delicate balance — maintaining the essential elements of Petersen’s program while infusing necessary schematic and philosophical improvements. He said that “we’re going to have a different style on offense. We’re going to have a different style on our special teams. We’re going to be aggressive. We’re going to attack, and this place is ready to roll.”
Now, does that mean Lake is willing to overhaul Petersen’s offensive system, and potentially replace embattled second-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bush Hamdan along the way? And how will he fill out the remainder of his defensive staff? UW’s head-coach-in-waiting said those questions will be answered following the Huskies’ upcoming bowl game.
Tuesday’s news conference had little to do with scheme; it was a bittersweet celebration. It was the end of one era and the beginning of another. It was, as Petersen put it, “a combination between a funeral and a wedding, but it’s more of a wedding.”
After 54 wins, three New Year’s Six bowl games, two Pac-12 titles and one College Football Playoff appearance in six seasons, Petersen gracefully passed the baton.
“He’s a wonderful teacher and coach,” Petersen said of Lake. “I mean, nobody knows how these things go. You don’t know. But if it was ever stacked up like, ‘OK, this guy needs a chance to roll (as head coach),’ I’ve never seen one that’s more prepared and ready that hasn’t actually been in the chair. There’s no doubt.”
Added Cohen: “Here’s what I know: He’s really hungry for this opportunity. It’s good. It’s a really good thing. He’s got crazy energy. He’s a fierce competitor. He’s an incredibly great teacher of the game, and he has a unique ability to connect with his students. He cares about them both on and off the field. He also has a lot of confidence about his vision and future for this program. So here’s the good news: The future is bright for Husky football.”
And, suddenly, the spotlight is bright on Jimmy Lake. Less than 72 hours after he answered the fateful phone call, Washington’s next head coach stood before a cavalcade of television cameras. It was 9:47 a.m., and the news conference was over — but the questions were just beginning. He addressed Jacob Eason’s future, the 2020 recruiting class, his offensive philosophy and his readiness for the role. He repeated the phrase “uncommon unity” with unparalleled enthusiasm.
And as Lake engaged the Montlake masses, Petersen — hand-in-hand with his wife, Barbara — quietly ducked out the side door. If this was more a wedding than a funeral, Petersen was content to let his protégé have the reception all to himself.