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Forde-Yard Dash: What to Make of the Chris Petersen Bombshell

Washington coach Chris Petersen surprised the college football world by announcing he will step down.
Washington football Chris Petersen

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Fremont Cannon brawl tape sold separately in Las Vegas and Reno):

MORE DASH: SEC Coaching Carousel | Playoff Decisions



The most jarring resignation in college football since Bob Stoops (21) stepped down at Oklahoma in June 2017 arrived with a thud Monday afternoon: Chris Petersen (22) is done at Washington after six seasons, and will be replaced by defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake (23).

Absolutely nobody saw that coming.

Understand this: Petersen is wired a bit differently from many football coaches. He was very slow to leave the improbable empire he built at Boise State, putting family and mid-major comfort ahead of naked ambition. He was wary of the stress and compromises that were byproducts of win-at-all-costs football at the Power 5 level.

If Petersen were a career climber, motivated by fame or money, he wouldn’t have stayed with the Broncos for eight seasons. Everyone knew he was a coaching superstar after his first year on the job there, when Boise went 13-0 and won the Fiesta Bowl on the most amazing succession of trick plays in the history of the sport.

He will be missed in the sport. His career winning percentage of .793 ranks second among active coaches with at least five years of FBS experience, and that’s without ever coaching a day at a true blueblood program.

In talking to someone who knows Petersen Monday, he believes that different wiring played a part in the coach’s decision to step down at age 55. (Stoops was 56 when he retired.) Petersen could simply be ready for a season (or more) away from the grind of high-major coaching.

Worth noting: the two major career changes Petersen has made both came after his most disappointing seasons. He left Boise after an 8-4 season, the only time he didn’t win at least 10 games at the school. Now he’s leaving Washington after a 7-5 season that began in the Top 15 of the polls. The stress associated with losing and underachieving eats at all coaches, but perhaps Petersen more than most.

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Petersen did great work elevating the Huskies, taking over a program that hadn’t won a Pac-12 title since 2000 and capturing the conference crown in both 2016 and ’18. The ’16 team made the College Football Playoff, the last Pac-12 team to do so. Petersen is the only coach in Washington history to record three straight seasons of double-digit victories.

But this year’s team was an undeniable bust. A onetime offensive savant, this Petersen team was pedestrian on that side of the ball and afflicted with key mistakes at key junctures—some of them decisions by the coaching staff. Perhaps most surprisingly, a guy known as a gifted in-game tactician saw his team go 0-4 in games decided by one score, losing to California by a point, Oregon by four, Utah by five and Colorado by six. Throw in a 10-point loss to a bad Stanford team and this was a lost season at Washington.

Perhaps, like Stoops, this will be a short-lived time away for Petersen. Stoops is back now in the new XFL, and nobody would be shocked to see him return to college coaching or the NFL. But Petersen is a different guy, and he may be able to live happily ever after without walking a sideline again.


Winner: Mike Leach (24). The Washington State coach has gone oh-for-Petersen, losing to him six straight times by a combined 139 points, including bookend 31-13 losses in Pete’s first and last seasons. Leach has been a rumored job candidate at a lot of places the last few seasons, and his interest is perhaps fueled in part by an inability to beat his primary rival. Nobody is saying beating Jimmy Lake will be a piece of cake, but it’s at least a fresh start for Leach—if he stays on the Palouse.

Loser: The Pac-12 (25). The only active coach in the conference who has been to the playoff just stepped down. This only adds to the imperative that Stanford’s David Shaw and UCLA’s Chip Kelly rediscover their championship-level coaching prowess—otherwise Utah’s Kyle Whittingham is going to feel lonely at the top. If an already struggling Pac-12 unexpectedly loses Petersen and unexpectedly keeps Clay Helton at USC, that’s not good math.

Winner: Boise State (26), perhaps? Missouri is interested in Broncos coach Brian Harsin, who succeeded Petersen, and other schools might be as well. If Harsin leaves, maybe Petersen returns to his happy place on the blue turf?

Winner: Potentially Washington (27). If Petersen’s in-house succession plan works as well as Stoops’ did when he handed off to Lincoln Riley, the Huskies will remain at or near the forefront of the conference. The 42-year-old Lake is considered a rising star in the profession, capable as both a recruiter and a tactician. He turned down interest from other schools in recent years, perhaps knowing that his day would come in Seattle.


Gus Malzahn (28), Auburn. Really, all Gus wanted with his comp car was transportation to Waffle House for his celebration of another Iron Bowl upset of Alabama. Malzahn’s record against Nick Saban is now 3-4, the best winning percentage against Alabama-Era Saban of any current coach not named Dabo Swinney (2-2). Malzahn called an excellent game, topped off by the clever use of his punter to bamboozle the Crimson Tide into a penalty that gave Auburn and first down and ended the game. For any Tigers fans still wishing for someone better as coach, stop. You have the best man for the job.


Jim Harbaugh (29), Michigan. He’s still winless against Ohio State, and at this point fairly hopeless, too. The Urban Meyer Era came and went, but the beatdowns have not subsided on Ryan Day’s watch. Most sobering stat of the weekend for Michigan fans: the Buckeyes have actually scored more points the past two seasons against the Wolverines (118) than against Rutgers (114). The preeminent game in the Big Ten East is now Ohio State-Penn State, not Ohio State-Michigan, and it’s up to Harbaugh to do something about that.


When hungry and thirsty in the underrated southern river town of Columbus, Georgia, The Dash recommends a meal at the Black Cow. The comfort food will soothe your soul, starting with the fried bacon appetizer and extending through the collard greens and steak. But the highlight might be a hazy, tasty Chance IPA from Wild Leap Brewing (30) in nearby LaGrange. Try it all and thank The Dash later.

MORE DASH: SEC Coaching Carousel | Playoff Decisions