HOLLYWOOD — Right on cue, at 9:20 a.m. Tuesday, Nick Rolovich’s image appeared on the large flat screen parked at the front of the second-floor ballroom where Pac-12 football coaches and players gathered for the conference’s media day.
For more than 10 minutes of his 25-minute virtual availability, Washington State’s second-year coach discussed the prospects of his football team this fall, the Cougars’ efforts in the weight room this summer and the recent ACL injury to Renard Bell, which will keep Rolovich’s top returning receiver on the sideline this season.
But not until Rolovich was 12 minutes into a long-winded opening statement did he address the vessel-sized elephant in the W Hollywood Hotel ballroom.
“The reasons for my individual choice will remain private,” Rolovich said. “However, I want to make it clear I respect, I support all the work being done by the state of Washington, who as a state has one of the highest percentages of vaccinations in the country. … As I go forward, I plan on adhering to all policies that are implemented for the unvaccinated at the state, local, campus, conference level.
“I’m not against vaccinations. I wholeheartedly support those who choose to be vaccinated, including our players, staff, coaches.”
Later on, the coach offered another response regarding the commotion and national attention that have come as a result of his decision not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I don’t mean to cause any heartache to this university or this athletic department or this state,” Rolovich said.
Among other conference-wide topics such as realignment and ongoing investigations at Arizona State, Rolovich’s decision not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine — which prevented the coach from being in attendance Tuesday — was predictably a hot talking point at the Pac-12’s first in-person media day since 2019.
Before any coach or player stepped up to a podium Tuesday, new commissioner George Kliavkoff was asked about the vaccine as it pertained to Rolovich.
“The decision whether he gets vaccinated or not is a private decision,” Kliavkoff said. “We don’t mandate that anyone gets vaccinated. We are not in the middle of that discussion with him. That’s not our business.”
Among the vaccine-related questions Rolovich fielded Tuesday — many of which he deflected, referring reporters back to a Twitter statement he made last week — the coach was asked about concerns his decision as WSU’s highest-paid employee would discourage others from getting their COVID-19 shot.
It apparently hasn’t had too big of a domino effect within WSU’s athletic department, if any at all. Athletic director Pat Chun confirmed to The Spokesman-Review on Tuesday that 85% of Cougar athletes and coaches are vaccinated. That number is lower for WSU’s football team — 75% currently — but Chun indicated the Cougars are “on a pathway to get to 85%.”
The 75% vaccination rate is one of the lowest in the Pac-12, however. Kliavkoff said two-third of teams in the conference have achieved a vaccination rate of 80% or higher, with half of those being at least 90% vaccinated.
The nature of the conversations held between Rolovich and WSU’s administration were characterized by Chun as “long.” The AD wouldn’t share the contents of his discussions with Rolovich, preferring to keep that information “private” and said while the coach’s decision “is not ideal by any stretch of the imagination … he’s made a decision, and we’ll manage.”
Chun did continue to stress the importance of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, which will be mandatory for anyone on WSU’s campus this fall who doesn’t apply for a medical, religious or personal exemption.
“Everyone in and around Washington State University follows the science,” Chun said. “We know vaccines are safe, they’ve proven effective, we know 99% of those hospitalized with COVID illnesses are unvaccinated. We urge all Washingtonians to get vaccinated.”
A quick scrub of social media implies mixed reactions from WSU’s fan base, with some going as far to call for the coach’s job. Players, for the most part, seem to be in unison backing their coach. Despite being vaccinated themselves, the two Cougars in attendance Tuesday — running back Max Borghi and linebacker Jahad Woods — offered support for Rolovich and said his decision hasn’t caused a divide within the team.
“I just saw a lot of hate toward Rolo and his decision,” Woods said. “It’s a lot of outside noise and people on the outside not knowing specifics. You shouldn’t jump to conclusions when you don’t know the reasoning behind it. It’s funny, because it hasn’t impacted the team in a negative way.”
Borghi also pledged his support for his coach while taking the time to explain his individual reasons for getting vaccinated.
“Like many, I’m sick of (COVID-19),” Borghi said. “I was just over the testing, was over all that, and I felt like it was good for myself and my community if I did it. That’s my personal choice, but everyone has the freedom of their own personal choice.”
In the coming weeks, Kliavkoff and the Pac-12 could unveil forfeiture policies that mirror those in other conferences if a team isn’t able to play due to COVID-19. Rolovich declined to comment when asked if he felt his decision not to receive a vaccination would put the Cougars at a competitive disadvantage, and Chun said WSU would adhere to any policies the conference introduces.
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