Jimmy Lake says he has clung to the long-ago words of his Husky predecessor, Chris Petersen, to help navigate his way through the madness of his first head-coaching job.
When Lake was on Petersen’s Boise State staff, his mentor told the assistants, “When you’re a head coach, you’re a problem-solver.”
Says Lake now, as months of uncertainty are finally morphing into the promise of real, live Pac-12 football games in six weeks, “That really stuck with me. There’s no question, all of us have been solving problems during this pandemic.”
These include issues as minute as fixing a balky Zoom system, as happened to Lake on Monday when the computers wouldn’t work for their team meetings, to the weightiest of matters: Keeping his team motivated and healthy through the roller coaster of 2020.
The final judgment on the success of the latter can’t be made for quite a while. But Lake said he believes it holds the key to this truncated, seven-game season that will commence Nov. 6 or 7. The Huskies began — or more accurately, resumed — low-impact walk-through practices Monday.
“There’s no question the teams that handle this virus accordingly, that have the most discipline in practicing all the social-distancing guidelines, the ones that conditioned, the ones that are begging for extra meetings with coaches to learn the schemes, the ones that are going to be more prepared — those are going to be the ones that are holding up that trophy come December,” Lake said Tuesday during a Zoom video call.
Lake and the Huskies have myriad problems to solve just in the standard football realm. He must identify a quarterback from the four unproven candidates, break in a new offensive coordinator, overcome the two defense stalwarts — Joe Tryon and Levi Onwuzurike — who opted out of the season, and get the team running smoothly despite the tumultuous lead-up to training camp.
On the bright side, Lake said, is the fact that the team is positively giddy to be practicing together again with an actual season on the horizon. Never mind that it will just be seven games and the Pac-12 will be the last one of the majors to launch. After having their hopes raised, and then dashed, on multiple occasions, just getting this far is like winning the lottery, according to the coach.
“Our morale right now is through the roof,” he said, “but no question — a few months ago, it was a roller coaster … at this point of the roller coaster, we’re at the top right now.’’
Lake said he senses a feeling of gratitude among players for every drill and every meeting, no matter how mundane. Lake is confident his players have been doing the requisite work even during the shutdown. He promised that “the vets” — the players with varsity experience, or about 70% to 80% of the squad — will be physically ready for the opener. As for freshmen and other incoming players, the verdict is still out — but that’s no different than any other season.
What IS different, of course, is the wild card of COVID-19. When a reporter posed a question Tuesday about Purdue suspending 14 students, including 13 athletes, for having a party that violated the school’s COVID-19 protocols, Lake thanked him. He hadn’t heard of the incident and planned to use it as a cautionary tale for his own team — the latest in a series of them.
“I’m going to have to write that one down,” he said. “What I like to do is share a lot of stories around the country. And we learn from some of the mistakes that other programs have been making. And so you can guarantee I’m going to share that story in our next team meeting.”
Purdue had its athletes sign a pledge to follow COVID-19 safety rules. Lake says the Huskies have no signed documents. They are relying on peer pressure to keep players adhering to the guidelines that have been painstakingly put in place and repeatedly drilled into them.
“It goes back to our goals, and if we’re going to reach our goals we have to protect the team by not bringing the virus into this building,” he said. “And we have to protect the team by not getting the virus outside this building and spreading it to your roommates. We have to insulate ourselves and create our own bubble here at the University of Washington football program.”
Cade Otton, the junior tight end, said Tuesday of the Huskies’ season outlook, “We have a shot to win everything.”
But to get there, the Huskies will have to reveal, in their play, that they really did spend their football down time conditioning and studying the play book. They’ll have to prove they can withstand the social temptations of college life that can lead to devastating results for the team.
Coax the Huskies through all that — and mold a cohesive, high-functioning team in the process — and Lake will have truly earned the status of master problem-solver.