Many of us remember Chris Petersen wildly pumping his fists on the Boise State sideline after calling a “Statue of Liberty” play in overtime to beat powerhouse Oklahoma 43-42 in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. It was one of college football’s ultimate David vs. Goliath moments.
Since then, Petersen’s name has been linked to every major coaching vacancy in the country. Yet every time his name would surface, he gracefully rebuffed the suitors. This past winter, after eight remarkable seasons with the Broncos, Petersen was finally ready for the next challenge and agreed to become the head coach at the University of Washington.
Petersen guided the Broncos to 10 or more wins seven times. He posted two undefeated seasons and is the only two-time winner of the Paul “Bear” Bryant Award, given annually to the county’s top college football coach.
And he did it while recruiting athletes who were passed over by many of the nation’s elite programs. Known as an offensive innovator, Petersen is one of the game’s best when it comes to developing talent. He looks for what he calls “our kind of guys” and is unwavering in his commitment to this ideal, which he brings to a UW squad coming off its first nine-win season since 2000.
At Washington, Petersen and his staff spent the spring installing a new system and culture. He is tough but fair, strong but supportive, and is the rare kind of coach who tells it like it is. Asked if he was pleased with the Huskies’ progress after spring ball, he told reporters, “No, absolutely not.”
High standards on the field are the norm for a Petersen team, but he holds players to even higher standards off the field. In 2012, Petersen was recognized by the NCAA for having the best Academic Progress Report over the previous two seasons of any coach in major college football.
I met Petersen in his office shortly before the end of spring practices. We only spoke for 30 minutes, but I walked away moved by Petersen’s sincerity. One word in particular stuck with me: genuine. Here is an excerpt from our conversation.
What do you love about college football? Football is much more complex than people realize. You couple that with young kids, 18 to 22 years old, where they’re still figuring things out and growing. I really feel like we can shape their lives once they leave us.
What are your impressions of Husky Stadium? The first couple times I came here, it caught me off-guard how loud this place was and how tough it was to come in here and play. I don’t think we have to do much to get our kids to embrace it. I think they walk into the stadium and see this unbelievable setting. It speaks for itself.
What motivates you as a football coach? It’s about whether the process is correct. It can be a very frustrating, very challenging job because once you think you make it right, it changes and you’ve got to go make it right again. There are so many different components of the program for it to look good on Saturdays.
How do you balance the role of football coach and teacher? We talk about three of our coaching objectives: to build self-esteem in our players, to add value to their lives, and to enjoy this process. Because it’s really a hard, tough, grinding process. If we don’t appreciate each day, if we don’t celebrate even our small victories, we’re kind of missing the point. Our life is here. If we’re only going to celebrate those fall Saturdays, our mindset is off.
What about attention to detail? Everything matters. Our mission is to get players to believe that. How you live your life, showing up early to everything, being in the moment—these are all simple principles of life and success.
What does your decision to take the UW job say about where you’re at in your career? I’ve known about the tradition and history of this program and had been such an admirer. All the things that I have gone through in my career have really established a strong philosophy of what’s important. The University of Washington really represented that. The people that support this place, the passion, and just the power of this place added up to be something that I wanted to be a part of.
Tell us about your ‘Our Kind of Guys’ philosophy? The bottom line is we have to be able to develop talent and it doesn’t matter if the kid is a two-star or a five-star athlete. That’s where all these intangible factors, which is part of our OKG philosophy, come into play. We want to recruit the highest level of athlete we can, but he has to want to be coached, he has to want to be great, he has to have a passion for football.
How do you sustain success week to week? For you to show up every week and play your best doesn’t sound that difficult unless you’re in it. Experts say you might be at your emotional peak maybe half the time. To have that emotional energy and that focus to compete at the highest level every single week—that is what we’re striving for.
Anything else? I’m just really excited to be here and so impressed with the people and the beauty of Seattle. It’s so spectacular. This really is the greatest setting in college football.—Derek Belt is a frequent contributor to Columns.