PULLMAN – About 10 months ago, Jake Dickert was entrusted with the task of unifying a fractured team.
Now, members of Washington State’s football program consider unity and trust to be among the team’s greatest assets.
“(The players) understand that our coaching staff and our people are here for them,” Dickert said earlier this month during his first preseason as WSU’s head coach. “When you understand that, there’s a real power in it. We’re all in this thing together, creating the best team we can be. It’s important to them and they’re taking an active role in it.”
Dickert was named acting coach in mid-October after Nick Rolovich and four WSU assistants were fired for failing to comply with a state COVID-19 mandate. The Cougars could have fallen apart. Instead, they rallied to a winning season. Dickert earned his promotion in late November, one day after WSU stomped Washington, then spent his offseason reshaping the program and firmly establishing his principles, setting the stage for the debut of the “New Wazzu” – Dickert’s catch-all tagline for his rejuvenated team, which opens a much-anticipated season at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at home against Idaho.
Throughout the past month, Cougar players were asked to define the “New Wazzu,” the tenets of Dickert’s coaching strategies and the culture he has instituted here. It starts with a “player-led team,” receiver Lincoln Victor said, but extends beyond the sport.
“The ‘New Wazzu’ is all about approaching every day with a new mindset, a will to win and doing the right things all the time, and not just when someone’s watching,” he said. “Not just doing the right things on the field, but having integrity off the field and being great young men, because after ball, we’re going to be fathers one day, we’re going to be guardians, we’re going to be out in the world.
“What you learn from here is what you’ll take away. The ‘New Wazzu’ is just our lifestyle, our new routine. You can see it on the field in practice. Everyone shows up with a mindset, ready to play and attack the day.”
Many Cougars noted WSU’s “player-led” identity under Dickert.
“Us players, us leaders are stepping up and having a voice, because this is a player-led team and the best teams are player-led,” senior nickel Armani Marsh said. “Accountability and the little stuff, if it comes from the players, that’s how you get a good team.”
As a first-time head coach last season, Dickert put faith in his experienced players, trusting them to take on extra leadership responsibilities in keeping the Cougars together through a uniquely difficult situation. As WSU’s permanent coach this year, Dickert is granting his veteran players some level of autonomy, trusting them to adopt expanded teaching roles in upholding the team’s standards of play and character.
“I’m a big believer in accountability and player-led teams,” Dickert said. “It’s just an emphasis on them being their best. When players hold themselves accountable, that’s when you have real power.
“It can be one thing for me to say it, but they’re buying into it. They’re driving it. I think that’s when you have real accountability within a program.”
Players seem to appreciate the style of coaching, which emphasizes personal growth and relationship-building while stressing maximum effort “in every aspect of life – being a man off the field, on the field, in the classroom, when it comes to our daily duties as men in the community,” edge rusher Brennan Jackson said.
“He just expects and demands excellence from us. He expects us to be that way, because he knows we can. When he talks about our best on and off the field, he really means putting your best foot forward in everything you do. … When you have a group that really believes in that standard, then you see so many guys start to grow and become men really fast.”
Added fellow edge Ron Stone Jr., speaking on the same topic during Pac-12 media day in July: “It’s really important that the team has accepted and embraced that belief. That’s the difference maker in the ‘New Wazzu’ and everything we’re bringing this year.”
Raised in pastoral Wisconsin, Dickert worked primarily in small, tight-knit communities during his climb up the coaching ladder. The 39-year-old made stops at eight programs before he was hired as WSU’s defensive coordinator ahead of the 2020 season. Considering his unpretentious upbringing and folksy personality, Dickert seems suited for Palouse life. He speaks often about his affection for Pullman and the communal nature of the college town surrounded by farmland. It’s no surprise that Dickert stresses the importance of camaraderie in his program.
“It’s just different (here) – it’s just a family, a real family culture,” transfer safety Sam Lockett III said. “Everybody’s together and there’s a whole lot of love. That’s one of our core values: love and just being together.”
Victor, asked to compare last year’s preseason with this one, highlighted the improved “togetherness of the team” ahead of its 2022 season.
“Hopefully, if you’re an outsider, it’s something you feel when you’re around the program,” Dickert said when asked to define WSU’s culture. “Culture is what you feel. You can only fake energy to a certain point. Words like ‘best’ and ‘accountability’ and ‘standard,’ those are things we use, but it’s something you should feel each and every day.
“From our coaches to our players – down to custodians, chefs and administration – we’re all a part of being accountable and making this program the best it can be.”
It starts from the top. Dickert sets the tempo, and the Cougars haven’t missed a beat. They played a spirited brand of football last year and appear primed to continue that trend in 2022. A proven unifier, Dickert has drawn praise for his leadership qualities and devotion to his players.
“This guy cries almost every meeting when he’s talking to us,” Jackson said. “He’s passionate about the game. He really loves us as players. You can just see the whole team intermix and intertwine better.”
Dickert is an energetic presence at practices. He always seems to be on the move, offering hands-on guidance for players regardless of the position group.
“You see how vivacious he is, his personality,” running backs coach Mark Atuaia said. “That’s exactly the juice we have in our program every day. You have to match it. If the head man is doing it – shoot, you gotta do it, too. It’s infectious and it pervades the whole building.”