Lake: '2004 UW Firing Will Make Me a Stronger Head Coach'

Dan Raley

Jimmy Lake was introduced as the 29th Washington football coach on Tuesday, amid much fanfare, hailed as the right guy for a difficult job. Fifteen years earlier, the school fired him and the rest of Keith Gilbertson's staff, discarding everyone without hesitation.

It just shows how fickle and unpredictable the coaching profession can be: One minute, you're a fall guy; the next, you're a coaching savior.

However, doing it at the same school, in that order, is unique indeed, as Lake can readily attest.

"When we got fired, I can still remember to this day our family packing up, the whole house, getting it in a U-Haul, and driving to Pocatello, Idaho, to go work for free at Idaho State," he said. "I'm always going to lean back on those experiences and I think it's going to make me a stronger head football coach."

In 2004, Lake accepted the cornerbacks job from Gilbertson, leaving his alma mater, Eastern Washington, after two years as an assistant. It was a chance for him to move up and coach in the then-Pac-10. He ignored stark warnings about very limited job security. 

Gilbertson remembers receiving a recommendation on Lake from Randy Mueller, who has served as general manager for the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins.

"We interviewed several people and Jimmy came in for an interview and jumped out," Gilbertson said. "He was really bright. He had great energy. And he's got great confidence. He was everything Randy said he was."

The UW went 1-10 that season, losing all but a game to San Jose State. It began what became the Husky football dark ages, part of six consecutive losing seasons that included an 0-12 meltdown in 2008.

"Everyone told me not to take the job, that everyone was going to get fired," Lake said. "But it was an unbelievable experience."

Said Gilbertson rather pointedly, "What happened there was no reflection on Jimmy. A lot of guys didn't want that job. He was not afraid. What was there was a mess. It took a long time to clean it up."

The early UW opportunity helped shape Jimmy Lake, a Spokane product who was a hard-hitting strong safety for North Central High School and Eastern Washington. He served as a team captain and earned honorable-mention All-Big Sky honors for Eastern.

Following his initial Huskies coaching stint, Lake went to work as an assistant at Montana State and in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions, before he was part of a staff fired in his second go-round with Tampa Bay.

Lake joined Chris Petersen for two years at Boise State and followed him to Washington, and now will fill his shoes. He was stunned as much as anyone when Petersen stepped down over the weekend.

"Nobody saw this coming," he said. "This definitely surprised everybody."

They'll coach together through the Huskies' bowl game, which hasn't been determined, and then Lake will take full control and put together a coaching staff that suits him. He'll return most of his defense, but needs to bolster an offense that may or may not have Jacob Eason at quarterback, depending on whether Eason turns pro early. 

Lake looks back at that dreadful 2004 season as a career-builder, as necessary to get him in position to take this job. The Huskies lost to Notre Dame 38-3, to USC 38-0 and to Oregon 31-6. Everyone paid their dues, including this new UW head coach.

"You have to go through some hard things and that was a hard season," he said. "I learned a lot in how to do things but also in how not to do things." 

Gilbertson, who lives in Idaho and does a pre-game UW football show on KOMO radio, says nothing will unnerve Lake on the job because he's seen it all and learned from the best. 

"I'm so thrilled he got hooked up with Chris Petersen, and the Chris Petersen experience of building a program and how to build good, young guys," the former UW coach said. "I'm really excited about him getting this job."