It was not something anyone necessarily saw coming.
Many initially thought it might be fake news.
But this week, Washington Huskies head football coach Chris Petersen announced a surprise retirement from coaching.
How could this be?
Petersen was building a Don James-style empire on Montlake.
Or so we thought.
It turns out he was just doing what you almost never hear about.
Retiring from a grueling profession of long hours and high stress in order to focus on other things in life.
Some of us were expecting a scandal to break—something we didn’t know or suspect given Petersen’s squeaky-clean reputation.
That’s often how these coaching careers come to an end.
But not this one.
We’ve just become so accustomed to people being forced out that it makes it hard to accept that someone more or less at the top of their game and career would step away.
Was the 7-5 record in 2019 the tipping point?
That probably had something to do with it. Maybe it accelerated or perhaps reaffirmed the decision he had already planned to make.
But given his success, it’s hard to believe that Petersen didn’t have a long leash as far as his supervisor was concerned. This season could have been viewed as a bad blip rather than a downward trendline assuming things picked back up next year where they had left off prior to this one.
So what do we make of the Petersen era at UW?
By all accounts, it should be considered a resounding success. No, he didn’t win a National Championship, or even compete for one, but aside from that, it’s hard to imagine him winning the Pac-12 Conference twice (2016 and 2018) and going to the College Football Playoffs (2016) being considered anything even close to a failure.
Petersen reclaimed the Pac-12 North for Washington for the first time in a long time. He routed rival Oregon twice (2016 and 2017). Petersen hauled in loads of top recruits, and Washington was often near the top of the recruiting rankings for the conference under Petersen’s tenure.
Washington’s new coach is rising star Jimmy Lake. Lake came to UW when Petersen was hired in 2014. He started out as defensive backs coach and in 2016 was promoted to defensive coordinator. There were rumors that Nick Saban tried to hire Lake to join him in Alabama the last couple of years; there’s now speculation that the reason Lake stayed is that he knew Petersen planned to retire, though publicly everyone involved has said that Lake didn’t know about Petersen’s departure until he was offered the head coaching job by athletic director Jennifer Cohen after she received Petersen’s resignation.
It was a simple mic drop. It was a, “I’m retiring to spend more time with my family,” retirement in a world where people almost never actually mean that, at least when it comes to coaches, politicians, and others in the public sphere.
So, what should we expect of the Lake era at Washington?
That’s the million-dollar question. By all accounts Lake is a tremendously talented coach, beloved by players, recruits, and colleagues alike. Given the way the Huskies’ offense performed this year, expect big changes on that side of the ball. Since quarterback Jacob Eason is likely to go to the NFL this offseason, the Huskies will likely break in a new quarterback to go with their new offense.
Was six years too short or too long for Petersen’s tenure?
Again, it’s unusual for a college coach to retire simply because he’s tired of coaching. Often, coaches are fired because they are unsuccessful. If they are successful, they either stay put to achieve more success or they move on to a new coaching job to achieve success on a bigger stage, much as Petersen did when he left Boise State to come to Washington.
But Petersen has done neither of those things, which complicates the question about the appropriateness of his length of stay here.
Some will say his stay was too short, given that there is more for Washington to accomplish.
There are probably even some who say that his stay was too long, that he should have retired after last year’s first-place conference showing.
Hindsight is 20-20.
Fans can debate for eternity on what he should have done, as they often do, but that debate would be academic.
At this point, it’s a fait accompli.
If you ask Petersen, he would probably say, like Goldilocks when she reached the third bed, that it was just right.