PULLMAN – When Jake Dickert’s coaching career is finished, he imagines his days in retirement will be spent relaxing on a porch, soaking in the calming sights of a rural setting.
Washington State’s new interim football coach feels most comfortable in a small-town environment.
He was raised in pastoral Wisconsin. Throughout his 14-year coaching career, Dickert has gravitated toward jobs in modest, mostly blue-collar communities.
“It shaped who I am,” Dickert told Cougar radio ace Matt Chazanow in April 2020, about three months after he was hired to become defensive coordinator at WSU. “I like to say I come from humble beginnings.
“At some point, I always say I’m going to have a humble ending.”
He knows what daily routine he’d prefer after football.
“I’m just going to be sitting in a rocking chair looking at a cornfield when this thing’s all done.”
“Wheat field,” Chazanow said.
It’s too early to tell whether Dickert’s long-term future lies among the rolling hills, waving grains and tranquility of the Palouse.
But this area certainly jibes with the 38-year-old’s upbringing. He owns a home in Pullman – trampoline in the backyard and everything – where he resides with his wife Candice and their three young children.
“This is how I grew up,” Dickert said Tuesday during a news conference. “Small towns is what I know. Great people is what I know. When the RVs come into town, it takes me 10 minutes to get to work, and that’s a lot of traffic for me.
“I love Pullman. It fits me. It fits our family, and we’re blessed to be here.”
An unenviable weight was placed on Dickert’s shoulders Monday when coach Nick Rolovich and four Cougars assistants were terminated for failing to comply with a state COVID-19 vaccination mandate.
If Dickert can keep the WSU ship afloat across the team’s final five games, the Cougars’ leadership just might be asking him to stick around and get more acquainted with these wheat fields.
WSU athletic director Pat Chun said on a radio show Tuesday that Dickert will be considered for the head-coaching gig after the season.
When the Cougars host Brigham Young on Saturday, it’ll be Dickert’s career debut in that role.
“Every now and then, we run across a person that you sort of feel has been preparing for this chance, this opportunity in their career,” school president Kirk Schulz said Tuesday, “and that’s what we have in coach Dickert.”
Dickert paid his dues and steadily progressed up the coaching ladder, making eight stops in nine years earlier in his career. His breakthrough came at Wyoming under coach Craig Bohl, whom Dickert deems “my greatest mentor in this game and probably the man that has shaped me the most,” he said Tuesday.
He served as Bohl’s safeties coach for two seasons before being promoted to DC in 2019.
Past employers include North Dakota State, South Dakota State, South Dakota, Southeast Missouri State, Minnesota State and Augustana – all sub-FBS schools located in cities with similar populations to that of Pullman.
The only exception is Fargo, North Dakota, which boasts about 120,000 people. That appears to be the largest city in which Dickert has lived.
He split time growing up in two Wisconsin towns, each of them featuring populations under 5,000. Dickert played quarterback in high school and signed on to play at Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point as a signal-caller before being flipped to wide receiver, a position in which he excelled.
“What I like to share about my experience with players is I sold raffle tickets to get shorts and a T-shirt for fall camp,” he told Chazanow of his collegiate days.
After his playing career ended in 2006, Dickert asked UW-Stevens Point coach John Miech about his chances of staying on as a grad assistant.
He got the OK to join the staff, but was shifted to defense because his brother Jesse played center on the team and Miech figured it’d be wise to split up the Dickerts.
“Our coach said, ‘If you’re going to get into this coaching deal, I want you to be on the other side of the ball. It’ll help you in your experience later,’ ” Dickert said on the 2020 radio show. “The thought was I’d always get back to coaching offense.”
Any notions of that were quickly dispelled in 2008, when Dickert linked up with Bohl at North Dakota State and spent three years with the FCS heavyweight Bison as a defensive assistant. He said those seasons laid the foundation of his coaching style, schematically and personally.
Dickert is upbeat and conversational. When he was introduced Tuesday as the Cougars’ interim boss, he came across as honest, thoughtful and, yes, humble.
He spoke about unity and professionalism and outlined “faith, trust and belief” as the program’s cornerstones moving forward.
Yet at the forefront of his 30-minute talk were the players, the eldest of whom have been through too much heartbreak and turmoil over these past four years.
“We (the coaches) are willing to do anything possible for this team,” he said.
Dickert might not exhibit the exuberance of former coach Mike Leach and, to an extent, Rolovich.
He seems more straightforward, easygoing, and could undoubtedly be classified as a players’ coach.
Dickert has said in past media sessions that he stuck with this career primarily to support young people and foster growth.
According to Cougfan.com, he’d planned on becoming a schoolteacher before coaching began to work out.
In several instances after quality Cougar performances, he has diverted all credit to the athletes.
“The message to them is: I just really hope when you put that helmet on and we practice for two hours, and we’re in Martin Stadium, that they truly remember why they love this game and why they love each other,” he said Tuesday, “and why they’re all here, and the opportunity that is afforded to them going forward that they have built, not me. They built this opportunity of what we can still accomplish this season.”
Still, the designs Dickert installed over the past 18 months are beginning to turn heads.
WSU’s defense has taken his strategies to heart and is in the midst of a resurgence. The unit has a knack for timely, momentum-altering plays and stands among the nation’s elite in forcing takeaways.
Dickert emphasizes attacking the ball and a mindset of “bend but don’t break.”
He’s been tabbed as a head-coaching candidate by some college football analysts for revamping a defense that has been less than stellar in recent years.
Dickert’s schemes are inventive. Cougars defenders seem to move freely before the snap, and they disguise their tendencies well.
WSU dials up unique, disruptive formations – particularly on third downs, when the Cougars sometimes trot out four edge rushers and situate linebackers over the guards.
A couple of players were asked recently to detail what sets Dickert apart as a coach.
“I really love his attention to detail in practice,” safety Daniel Isom said. “He’s really hard on us for good reason. He wants to make sure we’re getting everything executed before the week’s over.”
More important than the X’s and O’s, though, is what Dickert has termed “Code Cougs,” a streamlined set of principles that defines his defenses.
“It’s a play-hard, play-fast, play-together mindset,” he said last October. “When you’re willing to sacrifice more for the group than you are for your own satisfaction and reward, it’s something special.
“We want to play as a unit. We don’t want to point fingers at mistakes. We want to build each other up. That’s the core of what we do. It has nothing to do with the scheme. It’s what is inside each man.”
Dickert will be more involved on offense than he’s been since his collegiate days at UW-Stevens Point. He doesn’t plan on tweaking WSU’s run-and-shoot tenets, but he’ll offer advice through a defensive lens while retaining his DC duties.