Chris Petersen’s sixth season as Washington’s head football coach will also be his last.
Petersen will step down following UW’s impending bowl game, the program confirmed in a shocking announcement on Monday. Second-year Husky defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake has been named the program’s new head coach by UW athletics director Jen Cohen. Petersen will transition into an advisory role for UW Athletics.
“It has been a privilege and a professional dream fulfilled to be part of this world-class institution,” Petersen said in a release. “I will forever be grateful, honored and humbled to have had the opportunity to coach our fine young men on Montlake for these past six seasons. I thank each of them, as well as our coaches and administrative staff for the incredible commitment they’ve made to Husky football during my tenure.
“The football program and Husky Athletics across the board will continue to prosper — and do it the right way — with Jen Cohen’s leadership and the University administration’s commitment to excellence. I’ll be a Husky for life, but now is the right time for me to step away from my head coaching duties, and recharge.”
It’s worth noting that the word “retire” was not used anywhere in Monday’s press release. The move was not caused by an illness or ulterior motive, according to a report by Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel. Petersen, Lake and Cohen will meet the media in a press conference on Tuesday morning.
The 55-year-old Petersen compiled a career record of 146-38 during his eight seasons at Boise State and six years at Washington, included a 54-26 mark on Montlake. His career winning percentage of .793 ranks second among active coaches with at least five years of FBS experience. He reached 100 career wins faster than all but four coaches in major college history, doing so in 117 games.
“Chris has been transformational for not only our football program, but our entire athletic department,” Cohen said in a statement. “It has been such a privilege to watch how he has been so committed to the development of our young men, not just on the field, but more importantly off. I can’t thank him enough for his service and leadership, and I look forward to having him stay on staff in a leadership advisory role, so he can continue to impact individuals across our department and the entire campus.”
In his six seasons on campus, Petersen led the Huskies to two Pac-12 Championships (2016 and 2018), three consecutive New Years Six bowl games and a College Football Playoff appearance in 2016. They won 39 games from 2015 through 2018 — most ever in a four-year stretch in program history. A win in the as-of-yet unnamed bowl game would be UW’s 40th from 2016 to 2019, another program record.
He delivered unprecedented results, and he did so without compromising his core beliefs.
“Doing this job that I do and getting to see shortcuts that others take and the amount of rampant cheating in college football … to have a guy that I have full confidence that doesn’t play in that gray area and really is willing to live in the black and white, even if it’s costly to some of the recruiting battles, it’s very, very commendable and something worthy to be very, very proud of,” said FOX analyst and former UW quarterback Brock Huard. “But I do think that eventually — and I don’t mind this being on the record — that takes a toll. If that’s the direction (college football) is going over the long term, I just don’t think he was willing and wanting to play that game.”
Lake, meanwhile, has never served as a head coach on any level. The 42-year-old former Eastern Washington safety was hired to be Petersen’s defensive backs coach at UW in 2014, and was subsequently promoted to co-defensive coordinator in 2016 and defensive coordinator in 2018. He also served as a defensive backs coach at UW under Keith Gilbertson in 2004.
Under Lake, UW’s defense led the Pac-12 in total defense and scoring defense in four consecutive seasons, from 2015 to 2018. He received raises and extensions each of the last two offseasons to help ensure that the highly coveted coach — currently the most highly paid assistant in program history — would remain on Montlake.
Suddenly, that’s no longer a concern.
“People have hinted at this in the past: why wouldn’t Jimmy go be the d-coordinator at Alabama? Why wouldn’t Jimmy want the Colorado job? Why wouldn’t Jimmy want the San Jose State job? Why wouldn’t Jimmy want that next step up the ladder?” Huard said. “I think it was pretty clear that Jimmy knew the wiring and the makeup of his head coach and that this opportunity would be here sooner rather than later. His intuition and his judgment on that was obviously spot-on.
“The fact that Jen Cohen and crew did everything to keep Jimmy aboard over the last few years as he was hotly pursued I think will make this transition that much easier, when you compare it even to the school in southern California and the 10 other vacancies at the FBS level. You’ve got a guy (in Lake) that I do believe is built for this next moment. The foundation has been laid, and I think Jimmy is built to do whatever it takes in the recruiting world, in the publicity world, in the marketing world to take the step from great to elite.”
That may mean making some very difficult decisions. On the heels of a disappointing 7-5 regular season, Lake must answer a series of critical offseason questions. Is it time to completely rewire Washington’s offensive philosophy/system? Would that mean replacing second-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bush Hamdan? And, given Lake’s promotion, how will UW’s defensive staff be affected? Is it as simple as elevating co-defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach Pete Kwiatkowski to his former defensive coordinator role? And will assistant defensive backs coach Will Harris assume the entirety of the DB duties?
The answers will come soon enough. But, for the first time in six seasons, they won’t come from Petersen.
“I can’t think of someone better than Jimmy to take over this program,” Petersen said in a release. “His energy and ability to relate to our players is unmatched. Jimmy is a great teacher of the game and his track record of developing young men both on and off the field speaks for itself. He is ready to take this step and I have full confidence that he will continue to build on the foundation that has been set here and he will elevate the program to new heights.”
A graduate of North Central High in Spokane, Wash., Lake’s coaching career began at Eastern Washington in 1999. He also served in stints at Montana State and with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions before being hired as Petersen’s defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator in 2012.
After eight seasons under Petersen’s tutelage, Cohen and Co. are betting Lake is ready to take the reins.
“I could not be more excited about taking over as head football coach at the University of Washington,” Lake said in a statement. “I’ve been dreaming of this opportunity for as long as I can remember and I can’t think of a better place to do it than in the world-class city of Seattle and at such a prestigious university with a rich football tradition. This wouldn’t be possible without the mentorship of Coach Petersen and I would like to thank him for everything he has done for me, as well as Jen Cohen for entrusting me with this opportunity.”
Lake is receiving a five-year deal beginning with an annual guaranteed compensation of $3 million, according to the Memorandum of Understanding UW provided to The Times on Monday. The annual compensation is set to increase by $100,000 each year, reaching $3.4 million in 2024.
Lake would owe a $6 million buyout if he terminates the deal without cause on or before Jan. 31, 2022. The buyout amount then drops annually to $3 million, $1.5 million and $500,000 in the three remaining years.
“There is no one better suited to assume the reins of our program than Jimmy Lake,” Cohen said in a release. “Under Coach Petersen’s mentorship, Jimmy has grown into one of the most widely respected minds in college football. He has an extraordinary way of relating to our student-athletes, is a gifted teacher of the game, and has a vision for what will make this program successful.”