Will Nick Rolovich be Washington State’s football coach after Monday?
After weeks of speculation, commentary, debate and Rolovich’s refusal to answer questions about his vaccination status, we should know soon.
That’s because if Rolovich, the state’s highest paid employee ($3.2 million annual salary), is not in compliance with the state’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate that takes effect Monday, he can no longer work as WSU’s football coach.
To continue coaching, Rolovich needs three things to happen: have his exemption request decided upon (which is no sure thing); have it approved; and if that happens, have his supervisor, WSU Athletic Director Pat Chun, determine that Rolovich can effectively do his job while keeping the public safe.
Rolovich said after Washington State’s 34-31 win Saturday night over Stanford, “I’m going to come to work tomorrow, get ready for BYU.”
“I don’t think this is in my hands,” he continued. “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 (Rolovich continuing as the coach), 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.”
WSU employees were encouraged to make exemption requests by Oct. 4, but there is no guarantee that all requests will be processed by Monday. WSU employees still waiting for their exemption request to be ruled upon when the mandate takes effect will be unable to work until it is decided upon — and approved.
“I can tell you that the committees working on this have been working diligently on this for the last couple of weeks — and their goal is to be able to make a decision prior to Monday, but it could well be, based on the volume and based on people who submit requests late, it may be after Monday the 18th that the employee would get word,” said Phil Weiler, WSU vice president for marketing and communications. “There will likely be people who do not have decisions yet by Monday, and in that case, come Tuesday, they will not be allowed to work for the university for pay.”
That applies to all WSU employees, even the football coach.
Even if Rolovich’s request for a religious exemption has been, or will be, approved, that does not mean he will be able to continue working as the team’s football coach.
Upon approval of an exemption request, the WSU human resources department notifies the employee’s supervisor — in Rolovich’s case, that is Chun — who then has about two days to determine if reasonable accommodations can be made for the unvaccinated employee to do their job effectively while keeping the public safe.
“Can they continue to do all their duties, and can they do it in a way that doesn’t endanger the safety of the public if they are unvaccinated?” Weiler said.
Weiler used two examples to explain the process.
“Let’s say you are an accountant and you have your own office, with a door that closes, and you don’t interact with the public or even co-workers on a regular basis. You could argue that individual could continue to do his or her job with the door closed, and wearing a mask whenever coming into contact with people. And you could probably make accommodation to allow them to continue to work unvaccinated.
“On the flip side, let’s say you are in food services, and you are working side-by-side with other chefs, and then you are serving food to hundreds of students. It could easily be argued that individual isn’t going to be able to complete all their duties, and do it in a way that doesn’t put the public at risk.
“Either way, whether you approve or deny it, you need to do your due diligence.”
What about the job as football coach? Weiler wouldn’t speak directly to the Rolovich situation, saying only that the goal is to make the process as objective as possible.
It’s clear, though, that being a football coach requires a lot of close-contact interaction with others.
So what will happen next week? Rolovich has certainly given no clues, declining earlier in the week to answer any questions about the topic, which has been a typical response to all vaccine questions asked of the coach the past few months.
Ryan Leaf, the former star WSU quarterback who led the Cougars to the 1998 Rose Bowl, is confident Rolovich will be out of job next week, and that the decision could come as soon as Sunday.
“I’m just speculating, of course, just through my relationships and what I’ve seen and heard, and this is the outcome,” Leaf said. “He put this in motion on Pac-12 media day.” (Rolovich participated in the July 27 interviews remotely as the conference’s only unvaccinated head coach.)
Leaf went on, “This is ultimately what was going to happen, and when the governor stepped up and mandated the vaccination, it made it inevitable.
“On top of that, just his behavior through the process, with the media, with his bosses. He made it untenable to be the head football coach at Washington State. There is no way out. His behavior throughout the process sealed the deal. I think if he would have been more transparent and more forthright and had talked about it and made people understand — but the divisiveness of how he has behaved on top of everything else (is why Rolovich has to go). He would never be the coach in 2022, so you rip off the Band-Aid sooner rather than later.”
Leaf said he “is incredibly disappointed,” with the situation but said he also feels “partially responsible.” He was not on the committee that hired Rolovich, but he said Chun asked him for a list of his top coaching candidates.
“Coach Rolovich was at the top,” Leaf said. “I had (current Auburn coach) Bryan Harsin No. 1, and I had Nick as No. 2. Washington State should really look at the search committee and some of the things that they missed through the process. (WSU) should get their money back, that’s for sure.”
Few would have predicted a pandemic back then.
But Rolovich follows a number of individuals and groups on social media that contradict widely accepted scientific views on COVID-19 and the vaccine. Some of them coach vaccine opponents in how to apply for religious and medical exemptions, and promote alternative COVID treatments such as the anti-parasitic Ivermectin, widely dismissed by the broader medical community as both ineffective in treating COVID and possibly dangerous.
Rolovich’s stance on vaccines figures into a national dialogue that has thrust high-profile sports figures into the spotlight for their reluctance to get vaccinated. Increasingly, those points of view are clashing with mandates some cities and states have imposed. NBA superstar Kyrie Irving serves as a high-profile example.
With tipoff to the regular season a few days away and his team expected to challenge for the league title, Irving faced being benched for the Brooklyn Nets’ home games to comply with government mandates in that state. Irving was prepared to forgo $15 million — half of his annual salary. But the price of vaccine hesitancy just went up, as the Nets’ front office announced last week it would shelve Irving completely until he is vaccinated.
The question in our state is whether WSU will be launching another search for a football coach. The answer will likely come soon. “If on Tuesday the 19th you are not vaccinated or have not received an exemption or you don’t have one pending, then you will be terminated,” Weiler said.
Seattle Times investigative reporter Patrick Malone contributed to this story.