Nick Rolovich came to Washington State as a fun-loving coach, known nationally for his off-the-wall antics and an ability to win.
After less than two years and only 11 games, Rolovich has been fired, and will be known nationally as one of the highest-profile terminations for refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Washington State athletic director Pat Chun said WSU had “initiated the separation process” with Rolovich and four of his assistant coaches for not complying with the state mandate that all state employees be fully vaccinated by Monday.
Defensive coordinator Jake Dickert has been named acting head coach.
“This is a disheartening day to be here today,” Chun said in a Monday evening news conference. “Our football team is hurting, our WSU community is fractured, and today will have a lasting impact on the young men on our team and the remaining coaches on the staff.
“As the director of athletics and the steward of this department, I take full responsibility for hiring Nick. … We believed we had found the perfect fit and a long-term solution for Washington State football. Unfortunately, we stand here today making a transition.”
Defensive tackles coach Ricky Logo, cornerbacks coach John Richardson, quarterbacks coach Craig Stutzmann and offensive line coach Mark Weber are also being let go.
“To be at this juncture today is unacceptable on so many levels,” Chun said.
Rolovich might not receive the remaining $3.6 million buyout of his contract.
He had applied for a religious exemption to the mandate requiring all state employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 18. To remain as coach, Rolovich needed approval for his exemption request and for his supervisor, Chun, to determine that he could effectively do his job while keeping the public safe.
“For the employees that we received notification [on] today, it was really simple and their accommodation requests were denied,” Chun said.
The Cougars were 5-6 during Rolovich’s 1½ seasons as WSU’s coach.
But Rolovich’s tenure has been marked more by his polarizing stance on the vaccines than what happened on the field. His view was in stark contrast to the one held by his bosses, WSU President Kirk Schulz and Chun, who adhere to the science that the vaccines are a safe and effective way to prevent COVID-19 as well as greatly reduce the risk of severe illness.
“Vaccine requirements work,” Schulz said Monday night.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday that more than 90% of Washington state government workers have been verified as fully vaccinated. Rolovich, the state’s highest-paid employee at $3.2 million a year, had the highest profile among the other 10%, who were at risk of losing their jobs by not following the mandate.
Chun would not comment on the financial details of the separations, but said that Rolovich was fired “for cause.”
Rolovich’s contract lays out specific reasons for termination for cause, including “conduct of employee seriously prejudicial to the best interests of the University or its athletic program.”
Because he was fired for cause, not only will Rolovich not receive the remaining buyout of his contract but he will lose other fringe benefits including a university-donated vehicle and a membership to the Palouse Ridge Country Club.
According to his contract, Rolovich has 15 days to submit an appeal to Schulz, in which case Schulz would have 30 days to review and decide on the appeal.
Despite the drama surrounding Rolovich’s job status, the team has been rolling. Washington State won its third consecutive game Saturday — each time as an underdog — with a dramatic 34-31 win over Stanford in which the Cougars scored the go-ahead touchdown with just over a minute left.
The Washington State players gave their coach a Gatorade shower in celebration, obviously aware that it might be his final game at Washington State.
“It means a lot having a coach that, first of all, is a players’ coach and truly understands us,” slotback Travell Harris told reporters after the game. “He’s an outstanding coach. He’s a coach we all love to play for.”
Chun met with the team Monday night, and he said the “response was what you would expect from college-aged young people who just lost their head coach and a bunch of position coaches as well.”
“That’s a very close-knit group,” Chun added. “They handled it maturely, but without a doubt there is a lot of sadness, disappointment and anger.”
Now the team will look to continue its momentum without Rolovich.
“I have confidence that Jake will do the job and have us ready to play BYU [on Saturday] and do a great job managing and leading our football program over the rest of the season,” Schultz said.
The perception of Rolovich changed forever when he made an announcement on Twitter on July 21 that he would not be attending the Pac-12 media days in person because he would not meet the requirement that participants be vaccinated.
In that statement, Rolovich said in part: “I have elected not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine for reasons which will remain private. … I will not comment further on my decision.”
For the most part, Rolovich was true to his word that he would not comment further. He declined to answer questions about the topic, even after Inslee announced Aug. 18 that everyone working in education must be vaccinated as a condition of employment, setting this month’s deadline.
But June Jones, who had coached Rolovich when he was a quarterback at Hawaii, did talk, revealing to USA Today that Rolovich had applied for a religious exemption.
After Washington State’s 31-24 win over Oregon State on Oct. 9 — just hours after the story on what Jones said was published — Rolovich confirmed that he was seeking a religious exemption.
That was the final thing Rolovich said on the topic until after Saturday night’s win over Stanford, when he was asked if he thought he would be able to keep his job.
“I don’t think this is in my hands,” he said. “I’ve been settled for a long time on it. I believe it’s going to work out the right way. If that’s not what [Chun] wants, then I guess I’ve got to move on. But I like being here, I like being the coach here. I love these kids. I’ve just got faith in it.”
No one could have predicted this ending when Washington State hired Rolovich on Jan. 14, 2020.
The hire drew praise from around the nation. Rolovich, 40 at the time, had turned around a struggling Hawaii program in four years as the head coach at his alma mater.
Hawaii had just finished a 10-5 season in 2019 with a victory in the Hawaii Bowl, and Rolovich was named Mountain West Conference coach of the year.
He brought his run-and-shoot offense to Washington State, along with the reputation for doing zany things to get his Hawaii program attention and to keep things light for his players.
Rolovich seemed to nail it when it came to first impressions at WSU.
He said winning the Apple Cup was a priority, and he wanted to improve recruiting on the west side of the state.
The Cougars finished 1-3 last season and this year did not get off to a good start.
WSU was 1-3 after a 24-13 loss to Utah, marking the third time the Cougars had blown a second-half lead in 2021.
Then came the turnaround, starting with a 21-6 win at California that was followed by dramatic home wins over Oregon State and Stanford.
But that is where Rolovich’s tenure at WSU ended, and now the search for a new coach in 2022 will begin.
“This person needs to exemplify what it means to be a Coug and embrace every aspect of leadership that is required with a job of this magnitude,” Chun said.