PULLMAN — Washington State’s football team is rolling, but the Cougars aren’t sure whether they’ll have a head coach come Monday.
For the past few months, an unprecedented situation at WSU involving second-year coach Nick Rolovich and the state’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate has overshadowed the Cougars’ on-field performances, and created a politicized fissure between the school’s supporters.
The conclusion to this strange saga, which has been making national headlines, is finally in sight.
The deadline to comply with the mandate is Monday. Washington’s educational workers must be either fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, or be approved for a religious or medical exemption.
Rolovich has put in for a religious exemption.
After the Cougars’ 34-31 victory over Stanford on Saturday — the team’s third consecutive triumph — Rolovich said he was still awaiting an update and would come to work Sunday and go about business as usual.
“I believe it’s going to work out the right way,” he said.
Rolovich’s path to continue coaching in Pullman is far from straightforward.
In accordance with the mandate, he’ll need to prove a “sincerely held” religious belief that prevents him from getting vaccinated in his exemption application, which must be approved by a “blinded” committee — meaning, the committee reviews requests without knowing the names of the applicants.
WSU spokesman Phil Weiler said employees were encouraged to make exemption requests by Oct. 4. Because of the volume of requests the committees is sifting through, it’s uncertain whether Rolovich’s will be processed by Monday.
“There could well be employees who don’t know the status of their request by the end of the day Monday,” Weiler said. “(The committees) have been head-down, working pretty feverishly to try and make sure employees aren’t in a state of limbo.
“They’re being reviewed on a first-come, first-serve basis. Some employees may have waited to the point where they’re going to have to go on unpaid leave while they wait to hear the decision.”
As Gov. Jay Inslee’s edict is worded, an employee who has not received word on their exemption request cannot work for the university starting Tuesday.
In that case, the employee can take leave without pay or vacation time until an exemption is granted.
If an unvaccinated individual’s exemption request is ultimately denied, he or she can elect to receive a vaccine and take a two-week pause from working in order to hit the mark for full vaccination status. Rolovich sidestepped the question when asked if he would consider getting the shot to save his job — if his exemption request is denied, that is.
Rolovich announced July 21 he wouldn’t be receiving a coronavirus vaccination, and that his reasoning would remain private.
Then Inslee made a proclamation in mid-August. The state’s educational employees had to accept the shot to remain employed. The only way out of it? A religious or medical exemption.
Rolovich dodged the question for months, declining to offer specifics but assuring WSU supporters that he would “follow the mandate.”
Some backed Rolovich for sticking to his guns. Many called his stance selfish and contradictory to his leadership position at WSU, the state’s research institution. Rolovich is the state’s highest-paid employee at $3.2 million a year.
The situation has sparked intense debate and speculation, dividing WSU’s fan base.
“That’s been my biggest disappointment in all of this — whether you agree or disagree with his decision — just how this has evolved,” said Bruce Amundson, a major donor to WSU athletics. “It hurts me to see Cougar fans who are normally very united fighting among themselves, calling each other names.
“I feel for the team. Those are young men that have worked their tails off to represent the university in the best possible light. They’re certainly doing that. To have something overshadow that is disappointing.”
After the Cougs locked up their exciting victory over a middling Stanford team, players poured Gatorade over Rolovich’s head — a sporting tradition usually reserved for major victories and season finales.
When asked about the celebration in postgame interviews, Coug players said it didn’t signify anything out of the ordinary.
Over the past couple of weeks, WSU’s players have stood up for their coach during media sessions. Quarterback Jayden de Laura told a sideline reporter Saturday: “Stop hating on Rolo. We love him.” Standout slotback Travell Harris commended Rolovich after the game for being a “players’ coach.”
“He’s a coach we all love to play for,” Harris said.
Senior running back Max Borghi was asked whether Rolovich’s uncertain future was a rallying cry for the team, or if it was difficult to remain focused on a game considering the Cougars might not have a coach in a couple of days.
“I mean, we were just focused on winning this game and doing the best we could,” he said.