SEATTLE — No school had a merrier team riding the coaching carousel than the Washington Huskies.
There were 20 head-coaching changes made over the offseason in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). Texas hired the brilliant Charlie Strong. USC poached a rising star in Steve Sarkisian from Washington. Penn State acquired the hottest coach on the market in James Franklin, and Louisville reunited with the controversial yet gifted Bobby Petrino, who was 41-9 during his first Cardinals stint.
But of all the high-profile, headline-hoarding moves, Chris Petersen to UW won the offseason.
The Huskies went from losing their coach to a rival program to nabbing the unattainable mastermind. Petersen had spent 13 seasons at Boise State, five as the offensive coordinator and eight as the head coach, alternating between dominance on the field and shunning job opportunities in his free time. As a coordinator, he produced high-scoring offense and was nominated twice for the Broyles Award, which recognizes college football’s best assistant coach. As the man in charge, he posted a 92-12 record that included two undefeated seasons and two BCS bowl triumphs for a program that had to beat the system before beating the supposed big boys.
Now Petersen is at Washington. After the 2013 season, Petersen needed a new challenge for the first time in his career. The Huskies benefitted from great timing. And as Petersen molds a program that Sarkisian resuscitated from zero wins to four straight bowls, his mission is as clear and challenging as his celebrated arrival suggests.
Petersen must return the Huskies to the status of perennial national power.
There should be no hedging. There are no qualifiers necessary. This partnership is the final piece of an all-out effort to take the program as far as it can go in the modern-day, parity-driven Pac-12 conference.
It has been 13 years since the Huskies last appeared in a Rose Bowl. But the standard will always be the height of the Don James era, which ended 21 years ago. Much has changed about college football since then, and there’s much debate about whether the Huskies can be that dominant again. Such an argument is complicated and multilayered, but you can simplify it, too. The game is still all about recruiting and developing young talent. And Petersen is already strong in those areas. If he can take what he’s done his entire career to this level, he will have the Huskies’ best run since James.
It’s not just a hope, though. It has to happen. The Petersen hiring is the latest in a series of huge financial commitments the Huskies have made to restore the football program. The $280 million renovation of Husky Stadium, which re-opened last fall, was the biggest project. You only need to spend a few minutes walking through the beautiful stadium and the team’s new football-operations facility for visual evidence of the change the Huskies are striving to make.
During Sarkisian’s five seasons, UW athletic director Scott Woodward put more money than ever into the program, including frequently raising the salaries of both the head coach and his assistants. But the Petersen deal is even more significant: five years, $18 million. That’s a $3.6 million average salary. He’s the highest-paid coach of the Pac-12’s 10 public universities. USC and Stanford, the two private schools, don’t release their salary figures.
You don’t invest that kind of money without raising expectations. Soon, an 8-4 season won’t be something to celebrate. Petersen should be allowed a season, maybe two, to reshape the team to his specifications, but it won’t be long before there’s a loud demand for Pac-12 championships and perennial 10-win seasons.
In the meantime, he still needs to win. With 13 regular-season games and a probable bowl game this season, there’s a chance — quarterback permitting — the Huskies reach the double-digit win plateau in Petersen’s first year. A 10-4 record doesn’t seem outlandish, not with four manageable nonconference foes. If the Huskies sweep their preconference slate, finish a mere 5-4 in conference and win their bowl game, they’ll reach 10 wins. Sarkisian went 5-4 in the Pac-12 for four straight seasons, and he landed the USC job. He left the cupboard full of talent. This is possible.
For Petersen, the biggest Year 1 challenge fits his strength. He has to build an offense around a lot of young talent. The Huskies lost the production of quarterback Keith Price, running back Bishop Sankey and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Kevin Smith, who led the team with 765 receiving yards, is gone, too. It’s never easy to replace a quarterback who threw for nearly 3,000 yards, a running back who rushed for a school-record 1,870 yards, the best tight end in college football and your No. 1 receiver. But Petersen is an offensive innovator who should be able to get a fresh crop of skilled-position players to produce. If he does, and the Huskies prove that they have what appears to be their best defense in at least a decade, it could be an exciting fall.
Petersen won’t dodge expectations. He has a high personal standard. He didn’t win 88.5 percent of his games at Boise State by setting the bar low. His history suggests he has a 3-D approach: discipline, details, dominance.
“We’re such believers in the process,” Petersen said. “That’s the secret sauce. It’s the process. Everybody has their way, but if you can stick to your way, your guns, your belief, your principles and not get derailed, I think you’re going to have success.”
No question, Petersen is going to have success at Washington. But his aspiration can also be considered his burden: greatness. Anything less would be a disappointment.