Pete Kwiatkowski helped work out a way to keep Jimmy Lake at UW. Lake: “I think we have everything at our fingertips to win a national championship right here. This is a very difficult place to leave, and I’d love to be here for a long time.”
They met 20 years ago in Cheney. Jimmy Lake was a senior safety on the Eastern Washington football team. Pete Kwiatkowski was entering his first season as the Eagles’ defensive line coach.
As his playing career was coming to an end, and as he pondered potential career paths with his business-management degree, Lake was at a crossroads.
“I hadn’t figured it all out yet,” he said. “I just knew I wanted to manage and make money.”
Lake did have one specific opportunity he was considering, and it involved him staying put in Cheney and starting a coaching career as an undergraduate assistant at EWU. For advice, he turned to one of the Eagles’ young assistants.
“Pete Kwiatkowski,” Lake said, “was definitely one of the guys who pushed me to be in this profession.”
Kwiatkowski’s push started Lake down a path to becoming one of the most sought-after coaches in college football. Two decades later, Kwiatkowski’s selfless maneuver this offseason pulled Lake back to the University of Washington and set in motion a behind-the-scenes shakeup of the Pac-12’s best defense.
The Huskies begin spring football practices Wednesday morning, marking Lake’s debut as UW’s defensive play-caller. It’s a job Kwiatkowski has done — and done as well as anyone in college football — the past four years for the Huskies, and he has willingly handed over the reins.
Both Lake and Kwiatkowski say the change isn’t as dramatic as it seems on the surface, and they’re confident the transition of power will ultimately work as the Huskies approach a 2018 season with designs on another College Football Playoff push.
• • •
At Boise State, Chris Petersen promoted Kwiatkowski from defensive line coach to defensive coordinator before the 2010 season.
In the eight seasons since, Kwiatkowski’s defenses (four seasons at Boise State and four at Washington) have allowed on average 18.7 points per game. That’s the fewest points allowed by any coordinator in major college football over that period. (It must be noted that Alabama under Nick Saban, and two different coordinators, has allowed 12.9 points per game since 2010.)
Given those results, and given their history together, it is reasonable to think that Petersen, the UW coach who counts Kwiatkowski among his closest confidants, would give pause before signing off on a move to shift play-calling responsibilities.
“Right,” Petersen said. “And I did. My only pause was, ‘Pete, are you sure about this?’”
It was Kwiatkowski, late last fall, who broached the idea with Petersen. The initial conversation, as they recall, went something like this:
Kwiatkowski: “We’re going to lose Jimmy, aren’t we?”
Petersen: “Yeah, I know that. It’s time.”
Kwiatkowski: “Unless he calls the defense, and I’m fine with that.”
Soon after, Petersen pitched the idea to Lake.
“It definitely was a surprise,” Lake said.
By mid-January, the transition was underway.
“You have to be around (Kwiatkowski) to find out how unique and special he is,” Petersen said. “A guy that’s as good as anybody in the country to say, ‘Yeah, I don’t care about calling the game; I just want to coach ball and be around good guys.’ How many guys say that and really mean it? Those are few and far between.”
Kwiatkowski, who will keep his co-coordinator title and continue coach to outside linebackers, strained to think of another example in the industry in which one coach voluntarily stepped aside for a colleague.
“I don’t know if it’s ever happened this way,” he said, “and at the end of the day I don’t really care. It’s not about my ego and my title. I know I’m a good coach and I know I have a big imprint on this defense. But I’m happy to do it to keep Jimmy around here and keep this thing rolling.”
• • •
Lake wants this story to be about Kwiatkowski, about what he sees as his friend’s uncommon unselfishness in an unflinchingly competitive profession.
“The first piece of this is: What an extraordinary man Pete Kwiatkowski is,” Lake said.
Kwiatkowski, 51, was equally complimentary. “I think the most of Jimmy,” he said. “He’s an unbelievable coach and person and friend, and I just think me stepping back and letting Jimmy get that opportunity — I really didn’t have any problem with it.”
Lake, 41, has been open about his aspirations to one day become a head coach. The last missing piece on his coaching resume was to be a full-fledged coordinator and play-caller, and he acknowledged that he was preparing to leave Washington to find that opportunity.
A year ago, he flirted with the coordinator opening at California. This winter, he drew interest from Alabama, Florida State, Texas A&M and Arizona State, all of which had coordinator vacancies.
Once again, with a supportive nudge from Kwiatkowski, Lake is staying put.
“I love the University of Washington. I love Coach Pete. I love Seattle,” Lake said. “I think we have everything at our fingertips to win a national championship right here. This is a very difficult place to leave, and I’d love to be here for a long time.”
Petersen has made staff continuity a priority, and both Kwiatkowski and Lake are expected to receive raises that will pay them each at least $1 million this year. (UW is expected to formally announce new contracts for its entire coaching staff soon.)
“In this day and age it is so hard to (retain coaches) with the money being thrown around at these guys,” Petersen said. “Even when you’re throwing a lot of money, someone around the corner is always going to be throwing more. And guys are driven and competitive and they want the next thing, so the combination of all those things makes it hard to have good staff continuity.
“But I also know my job here is to create a culture where people enjoy coming to work. I think our guys understand that, and nobody understands it more than Pete Kwiatkowski.”
Lake won’t be the Huskies’ only new play-caller next fall. Bush Hamdan, after a year with the Atlanta Falcons, has returned to take over as the offensive coordinator, another new wrinkle for a team expected to open the 2018 season as the favorite to win the Pac-12.
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How will it all work? How much different will the defense look this year?
Lake said there will be subtle tweaks, and some new plays, but the coaches do those sorts of things every offseason. The defense, he said, can’t stay the same. What won’t change, he insisted, is the collaborative way the defensive staff formulates its game plan each week.
“It’s never about one person. Through all these years we’ve been together — I know Coach Kwiatkowski has done a great job deflecting all the attention, but we truly do this all together,” Lake said. “We game-plan together. We script together. We make sure we all know what calls are going to get called, because we’ve done it together. This isn’t about one person.”