The praise for Jimmy Lake poured forth this week after the Huskies’ defensive coordinator was named Chris Petersen’s successor as Washington’s head football coach.
Athletic director Jen Cohen called him “the right guy at the right time.” Petersen himself raved about Lake’s ability to take the program beyond its current level of success. And yet Petersen also acknowledged the reality of elevating a coach with no head-coaching experience: There’s an underlying uncertainty about how it will work out.
“I mean, nobody knows how these things go,’’ Petersen said. “I’ve never seen (someone) that’s more prepared and ready that’s not actually been in the chair. There’s no doubt.”
The encouraging thing for the Huskies – beyond their faith in Lake’s coaching and recruiting abilities – is the plethora of recent (and nearby) examples of “coaches in waiting” who soared beyond the success of their predecessors.
Now, technically, Lake wasn’t a coach in waiting, in that he wasn’t designated in advance as Petersen’s successor. That process tends to get messy, particularly when the established coach isn’t in a hurry to leave.
That was certainly the case with Syracuse basketball, where Mike Hopkins left for Washington rather than wait for Jim Boeheim to retire. Another example: Mack Brown tapped Will Muschamp as the heir apparent to the Texas job in 2008, during a period when the Longhorns were experiencing great success. But two years later, after a 5-7 season, Muschamp bolted to become head coach at Florida.
With Petersen and Lake, there was no formal agreement of a succession plan, at least that we know about. But there was an assumption by those following the program that Lake was next in line if and when Petersen decided to walk away – a decision that was not unexpected in the abstract but which stunned everyone when it was executed last week.
“I’ve been thinking about Jimmy for a long time,’’ Cohen explained at Tuesday’s news conference. “(But) there was no plan. Chris didn’t give me enough hints that we were getting to this point. But I always expected something like this.”
The Huskies could look east to Gonzaga to see a positive example of how such a handoff can succeed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. In 1999, fresh off the Zags’ Cinderella run to the Elite Eight, head coach Dan Monson took a seven-year offer to become head coach at Minnesota.
Prior to that season, Monson had elevated his young assistant, Mark Few, to associate head coach. Few was named to succeed Monson – and lifted the Gonzaga program to unimaginable heights. They have become a legitimate basketball powerhouse, making the tournament in all 20 of Few’s seasons and advancing to the title game in the 2016-17 season.
A few years later, in Eugene, Mike Bellotti tabbed his dynamic offensive coordinator, Chip Kelly, as his eventual replacement when he moved into administration. The announcement came at the end of the 2008 season, as the Ducks were preparing for the Holiday Bowl. The timetable was left open – but Bellotti stepped aside the following March, perhaps accelerating his departure as head coach to keep the in-demand Kelly from leaving.
Bellotti was an extremely successful coach at Oregon, piloting the Ducks to winning seasons in 13 of his 14 years, with a 116-55 (.678) record and appearances in 12 bowl games. But Kelly took them to the proverbial next level with a 46-7 record in four seasons, a narrow loss in the national-title game after the 2010 season, and a top-five ranking in the final poll for three straight years.
Petersen himself was part of a program upturn when he succeeded Dan Hawkins at Boise State in 2006. Hawkins was 53-11 in five seasons at the helm of the Broncos, with four WAC titles, before moving on to Colorado. Hawkins’ well-regarded offensive coordinator, Petersen, became head coach, and we all know how that turned out, with Boise State becoming a national presence against all odds.
The Huskies could also merely turn on their television for two more recent success stories. When Bob Stoops stepped down in 2017 after 18 accomplished seasons at Oklahoma, citing many of the same stress issues as Petersen, the reins were handed to his dynamic young assistant, Lincoln Riley, then 33.
The program didn’t skip a beat; if anything, the beat was accelerated. Riley has a 33-5 record in his three seasons, molding Heisman Trophy winners in his first two years with a chance for a third with Jalen Hurts. The Sooners made the national playoffs in both years and could be headed there again after Saturday’s win over Baylor in the Big 12 title game.
When Urban Meyer quit at Ohio State last year, the obvious replacement was Ryan Day, who had joined Meyer’s staff in 2017 as co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Day has yet to lose a game – three wins as an interim coach in 2018 when Meyer was placed on administrative leave, and a perfect 13-0 record this season with national-title aspirations.
There are also plenty of examples, of course, where the trusted assistant could not sustain the success. For instance, after a brilliant start at Oregon when Chip Kelly fled to the NFL, with a berth in the national-title game in year 2, Mark Helfrich fizzled and was fired after a 4-8 campaign in 2016.
It should help that the Huskies made a seamless and amicable handoff from Petersen to Lake. That has been a rarity in Husky coaching changes, dating back to Don James’ abrupt resignation on Aug. 22, 1993, 12 days before the beginning of the season. It was one of the darkest days in UW athletic history, with the football program being hit with severe sanctions and James’ resigning in protest.
James’ successor, Jim Lambright, was fired after six seasons in which he put up a .637 winning percentage. Athletic director Barbara Hedges said before the Apple Cup that Lambright would not be dismissed, then did so following Washington’s loss to Air Force in the Oahu Bowl.
The new coach, Rick Neuheisel, was found guilty of secondary recruiting violations shortly after he arrived from Colorado in 1999, and was fired after the 2002 season in the wake of an incident involving an NCAA basketball pool. That led to two seasons of Keith Gilbertson, who was ousted eight games into year two but allowed to finish the 1-10 season.
If you think that was awkward, how about the end of the tenure of Tyrone Willingham, who was fired in late October of 2008 but somehow was allowed to finish the winless season. Those final five games might have been the most dispiriting stretch in the program’s history.
Willingham’s successor, Steve Sarkisian took the USC job after the 2013 regular season, leaving Marques Tuiasosopo as the interim coach for the Huskies’ victory in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
That ushered in the Chris Petersen era, which officially ends in a matter of weeks. What comes next is a mystery – but one with some hopeful clues.