Here’s one of many ironies in the whole sordid mess that is the Nick Rolovich downfall at Washington State: He was in the midst of a brilliant coaching job.

Even his detractors would have to acknowledge that. After starting the season losing three out of four games, which made it appear that the second-year coach was hopelessly overmatched, the Cougars had won three consecutive outings against Pac-12 North foes. In fact, it was the kind of midseason turnaround that fans of Rolovich’s struggling cross-state rivals in Seattle can only dream of.

(Another irony: One of Rolovich’s first acts as Cougars coach upon being hired 21 months ago was to install a countdown clock in the locker room to monitor the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the Apple Cup. Cougar fans were ecstatic that Rolovich understood the urgency of that rivalry in a way that seemed to elude his predecessor, Mike Leach, who finished with a seven-game losing streak against the Huskies. Turns out, however, that Rolovich will never get to coach in a Washington State-Washington game.)

Cougar fans right now should be reveling in the home stretch of the 2021 season. They should be dreamily wondering if they could somehow pull off a miracle and win the Pac-12 North, maybe even — mirabile dictu — make it to the Rose Bowl. They should be eagerly awaiting Saturday’s nonconference showdown with BYU. It’s the fun part of being a college football devotee.

Instead, of course, the WSU program is in disarray following Monday’s dismissal of Rolovich and four of his assistants for their refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine, which was required for all state employees under Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate. Instead of focusing on the win streak, die-hard Cougar fans find themselves mired in opposing camps, pro-Rolo and anti-Rolo, an internecine divide that is vastly overshadowing the team’s accomplishments on the field.

That is the legacy of Rolovich. When he chose to go unvaccinated he also chose to ignore, or at least accept, the consequences of his action (the ones beyond the basic health ramifications of rejecting a shot that 3.76 billion people around the world have taken — and millions more would eagerly do so if it were available to them).


I’m talking about the collateral effect on those around him. That includes the players he left high and dry in the middle of a promising season (many of whom have pledged full support of Rolovich); the remaining assistants who may find themselves out of a job next year when a new coach takes over the program; and the university, which has spent months doing damage control on the Rolovich fallout at a juncture that’s precarious enough with all that COVID-19 entails in higher education.

And, yes, it includes the WSU fans, who I assume want nothing more than to root passionately for their team, unencumbered by the need to choose sides on the lone head football coach in the Pac-12 to go unvaccinated.

In that sense, it’s possible that the firing of Rolovich will be liberating in a way that would have been difficult to achieve with his continued presence, considering the vast and seemingly unreconcilable divide that his vaccination decision caused. Now there will be a chance to move beyond this mess, even though that seems hard to envision while the emotions are still so raw.

The emotions will eventually cool down, however, and the season will move along without the giant, gaping distraction of Rolovich. Certainly, interim coach Jake Dickert struck the right notes in an introductory Zoom news conference Tuesday, during which he was flanked by university president Kirk Schulz and Washington State athletic director Pat Chun.

Dickert, the defensive coordinator under Rolovich, wisely acknowledged straight off that the Cougars players are hurting, that they’ve been changed forever, and promised to be attuned to their feelings. He said that his primary goal is to turn “fear, doubt and uncertainty” into “faith, trust and belief.”

Dickert added, “If we can stick to those three cornerstones, faith, trust and belief, I believe there’s something special here in this football program that we can continue to finish with all of our goals still ahead of us.”


It will be an overwhelming challenge for a first-time head coach, inserted midseason into one of the most difficult situations imaginable, to transform that from coach-speak into reality. But Dickert seems willing to give it the old college try. He said that at the first post-Rolovich practice Tuesday morning, the energy level increased as the workout went on.

His message, he said, was this: “I just really hope when you put that helmet on, and we practice for our two hours, and we’re in Martin Stadium, they truly remember why they love this game, and why they love each other, and why they’re all here. And the opportunity that is afforded to them going forward that they have built, not me; they have built this opportunity of what we can still do and accomplish this season.

“So I want to give them leeway, I want to give them space, I want to give them time. And every day is a step closer to a new normal and new reality and ultimately still working towards, and sprinting towards, our goals.”

Dickert also had a message to the Cougars fans, whether they be furious with Rolovich, furious with WSU administration, furious with Inslee, or somewhere in between:

“I know sometimes people are mad, but if you’re mad, I hope you’re so mad you’re willing to help and support our players. And if you think today’s a day for celebration, I hope you’re going to show up on Saturday and celebrate for our guys. And let’s come together, because I believe they deserve this.”

That may be one of the few things that just about everyone can agree upon.