Jimmy Lake is betting on himself.
On his system. On his vision.
And — cue the critics — on his staff.
On Monday, 13 days after former Washington defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach Pete Kwiatkowski accepted the same job at Texas, the Huskies announced the following staff changes:
- Inside linebackers coach Bob Gregory has been promoted to defensive coordinator
- Defensive quality control coach Rip Rowan has been named defensive line coach
- Co-defensive coordinator Ikaika Malloe has shifted focus from the defensive line to outside linebackers
- Running backs coach Keith Bhonapha has added Gregory’s previous title as special teams coordinator
Of course, Gregory — a 57-year-old assistant with defensive coordinator experience at both California (2002-09) and Boise State (2001) — is the headliner for the Huskies. A Washington State alum, Gregory worked with Chris Petersen as an assistant coach at Oregon from 1998 to 2000, before he and Petersen both accepted coordinator positions under Dan Hawkins at Boise State in 2001. After spending seven seasons as Jeff Tedford’s defensive coordinator at Cal, Gregory reunited with Petersen as the Broncos’ linebackers coach in 2010 — before following him to Seattle four years later.
In seven seasons at Washington, Gregory has tutored a lauded list of linebackers — including Shaq Thompson, John Timu, Azeem Victor, Keishawn Bierria, Ben Burr-Kirven and Edefuan Ulofoshio. His defenses led the Pac-12 in scoring defense and total defense for four consecutive seasons, from 2015 to 2018. He also earned occasional criticism for what fans deemed recruiting misses and inconsistent development, and his special teams units struggled last season as well.
All things considered, the announcement Monday was not met with widespread acclaim. Yet Lake assured fans that “we did an exhaustive process. We interviewed numerous people around the country at different levels — college, NFL — and we had the best defensive coordinator right here on our staff. That’s Bob Gregory.”
With nearly UW’s entire defense returning next fall, Gregory — a Broyles Award finalist for the best assistant coach in college football in 2004 — won’t have to wait long to prove he was worth the promotion.
“You go into (the search process) with eyes wide open and you really want to listen to these other candidates and what they would bring to the table,” Lake said. “But definitely during and after all those interviews, weighing the options, it just kept going back to an internal hire that made the most sense.
“Our defense has been extremely successful. We definitely did not want to bring in just a whole different brand-new defense for our guys to learn. There’s a lot of stability here in knowing that we’re not going to just completely throw our defensive scheme in the garbage can and start from scratch. We are not doing that whatsoever. Now it’s going to be building on what we’ve done in the last eight years and adding different wrinkles, just like we normally do.”
Still, though Gregory’s promotion comes with coveted systematic continuity, it’s far from the splash so many fans (and recruits?) obviously craved.
And, from a résumé standpoint, Rowan’s elevation also is undeniably risky.
A 29-year-old former defensive lineman and linebacker at Austin Peay State, Rowan served as a graduate assistant at Southern Mississippi (2014-15) and Florida Atlantic (2017-18) before being hired by the Huskies in March 2019. The Marietta, Ga., native worked closely with Malloe during each of the past two seasons, but has yet to hold a job as a full-time position coach.
At least, until now.
“This guy has energy bouncing off the walls,” Lake said. “That’s where, of course, we lose years and years of coordinating experience (with Kwiatkowski’s departure). But we also have a lot of years and years of coordinating experience still on this staff, and now we add even more recruiting juice with Rip Rowan. He’s a young guy that is ready to get after it, ready to prove his worth. Since he’s been here all he’s done is work hard and has given us an advantage in all his duties that we gave him as quality control coach on defense.
“We’re excited to watch the connection he’s going to make with these recruits, and having that young, energetic mentality is going to be fun to watch.”
Of course, it will be more fun if Gregory and Rowan can improve a unit that ranked fifth in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (161.3 yards allowed per game) and seventh in opponent yards per carry (4.54) last fall. Along the front seven, UW brings back contributors at defensive line (Tuli Letuligasenoa, Sam Taimani, Faatui Tuitele, Jacob Bandes, etc.), inside linebacker (Ulofoshio, Jackson Sirmon, M.J. Tafisi, Alphonzo Tuputala, etc.) and outside linebacker (Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Ryan Bowman, Laiatu Latu, Sav’ell Smalls, Cooper McDonald).
In other words, there should be no excuses.
And for Lake, continuity is essential — on the field, and on the staff.
“It is so important. So important,” said Lake, who promoted offensive analyst Derham Cato to tight ends coach last offseason. “As you guys see with how we’re setting up our staff, I always want to be able to promote from within when guys are doing their job and we know it’s going to make us better. Our quality control coaches and even our GAs, they are working to become that next guy at whatever position it is. If for whatever reason the qualifications are not there and we’re not happy with that candidate then we will definitely go outside of the building.
“We’re all about being bricklayers around here, and that’s a code word for being a hard worker. There’s a lot of hard workers in this building and I am extremely delighted that we’ve been able to promote from within and reward that hard work.”
It should be noted, however, that those rewards don’t require the financial investment of ostentatious outside hires. And, considering the financial effects of COVID-19, it’s possible the search process was impeded by monetary limitations.
But Monday, Lake said unequivocally that this wasn’t the case.
“No, not at all. Not at all,” he repeated, when asked if money was a factor in his hires. “(UW athletic director) Jen (Cohen) has been unbelievable. President (Ana Mari) Cauce has been unbelievable.
“Look, this place is always going to be about bricklayers and hard workers. When we start doing things the way I know we’re going to be doing them around here, if that’s what you want to see — salaries go up — that’s probably what’s going to happen to keep these great coaches that are here. For us to go outside of what we’re doing on defense and go spend a bunch of money on a coach that’s going to change our whole defense? This is my opinion, and probably a lot of shared opinions around here: for how successful we’ve been on defense, that’s not the right thing to do.
“So President Cauce and also Jen Cohen have always been very forthright. Anything we need, we will be able to do. And I know that’s going to be the case here going forward.”
Essentially, Lake said that Gregory and Rowan are his guys — that he didn’t need to search outside his staff to find a perfect fit. Lake is betting on the bodies, and brains, inside his building.
Either he’ll win big, or that building will come crashing down.