From his standards off the field to the meticulous way he practices the Huskies on fundamentals to him frowning on French fries, new coach Chris Petersen is installing what he calls “a new culture” to UW football. The players are absolutely receiving the message.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – Chris Petersen’s black W cap is pulled down low toward his eyes, which are intently watching his offense. He is bent at the waist and his hands are on his knees, like a base umpire intently following a pitch. His black whistle at the end of his black lanyard dangles in front of his long-sleeved, purple W shirt.
“Finish!!” he bellows as running backs race past.
“C’mon O-line! Let’s GO O-line!” There you GO!” he yells, punctuating his praise with a fist thrust. That causes the play card stuck into his waist band to shake along with the air horn that is tucked into the right pocket of his black sweatpants.
He is absolutely into it, in the middle of everything, in his first practice as Washington’s coach.
Is this intensity and hands-on persona what UW can expect in the new era that began this week with the start of spring practices at the Dempsey Indoor facility?
“No,” Petersen joked, “Usually I'm in a tower, doing nothing, just eating snacks.”
The Huskies already know better.
Petersen has suspended two-time team captain John Timu for the first two weeks of spring ball. He has suspended presumed starting quarterback Cyler Miles and potential starting wide receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow indefinitely. He has sent Jesse Callier, the senior heir apparent to replace record-setting rusher Bishop Sankey, away from spring practices to fix academic issues.
"This is a work-in-progress in terms of the culture that we want and how we’re going to do things,” is how Petersen put it.
“The general impression I got is there is a lot more focus on the tiny, tiny, tiny details instead of the big picture. To focus on us, individually, and not just the big scheme."
Has he talked to the team about the suspended Huskies, to emphasize his points on personal accountability and high standards?
“There’s been no talk of those guys,” Petersen said. “They haven’t been here and we’ve moved on. And we’re going.
“It’s not about those guys. It’s about the guys that are in the room. That’s the message.”
Message absolutely received, just one practice into this new era of Husky football.
“They’ve let us know who they are,” wide receiver Jaydon Mickens said of Petersen and his staff.
Running back Deontae Cooper has been at UW since January 2010, the second year of former coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff.
“They’ve got different philosophies. They are different, personality wise,” Cooper said of the new coaches.
“Coach Pete is about taking care of business, getting it done. If not, then you’ve got to go see him.
“That’s how it is.”
“TINY, TINY, TINY DETAILS”
For the first time for any Husky since at least high school, the players did conditioning sprints en masse from sideline to sideline and back to end practice Tuesday morning. That was the price for not taking care of the ball on offense, and not coming up with attainable turnovers on defense.
When they got done running those, the gasping players gathered in a circle in the middle of the Dempsey field. All 75 or so players present were to clap once entirely together, then take the same knee at the same time to listen to Petersen.
The players didn’t quite all get that done in harmony the first time. So they did it again.
As they came off the field, the first practice completed, new strength and conditioning coach Tim Socha (pronounced “SO-ha”) stood at the Gatorade buckets yelling at exiting players to jog, not walk, completely off the field and out of the building.
Someone who has been around Husky football since before the 1991 national-championship team made me pause and ponder the other day. He said the meticulous, intricately caring way Petersen operates reminds him more of Don James than any coach the Huskies have had since “The Dawgfather.”
“The general impression I got is there is a lot more focus on the tiny, tiny, tiny details instead of the big picture. To focus on us, individually, and not just the big scheme,” said center Mike Criste, who will be a fifth-year senior this fall.
How tiny are those details Petersen is redefining for the Huskies? Monday, Petersen was asked if he has made significant changes to any of the ways the Huskies operate.
“Yes,” he said. “Every, single thing.
“Not right or wrong. We have our way that we’ve operated and so that’s why we’re here, is implementing it. Probably the only thing that hasn’t been new is, they were morning practice guys before we got here and that’s what we were, too.
“The whole strength and conditioning program is completely different. I emphasize again: They did a great job in the past with their style and how they did things. We just know our way and it’s been successful for us, so everything’s been different.”
In every way, for the players.
“I mean, it’s totally different,” quarterback Jeff Lindquist said. “I was talking to a couple of the guys the other day -- we didn’t even know how we were going to stretch, how the drills were going to be, just how we are going to be operating.”
They know now.
In the three months since he took the job Petersen has been seen inside classrooms on campus, checking up on players to make sure they are there.
FROM FORMATIONS TO FRENCH FRIES
Mickens said Petersen has even changed how the Huskies eat at their training table.
“Yeah, we had some French fries but coach didn’t like that too much. Coach Pete, he didn’t like that too much,” the glib receiver staid with a smile.
“These guys are more into details. They take pride in the little things. Even if you had a great block, they will tell you you probably could have had a better block by driving your hands in more. So these guys are really into details and fundamentals. That’s what we’ve got to get down first.
“We need to buy in to what they are selling here (in spring ball) so we can be an unstoppable force.”
That, of course, is essentially what’s been going on these first three months of the Petersen era at UW. The Huskies went from 0-12 to four consecutive bowl games under Sarkisian. The first-time head man was youthful and energetic and charismatic. He got his players and donors and a fan base to believe again. He got Washington back from the abyss. He got Husky Stadium rebuilt and re-filled. That mission: accomplished.
Change is coming, whether we like it or not. This is a great life lesson. We can either accept it and embrace it, or fight it and it doesn’t go good for any of us.
Seconds after Sarkisian told his stunned players he was leaving for USC and then did so out of the team meeting room and out of Husky Stadium in a brief, quiet meeting Dec. 2, UW Director of Athletics Scott Woodward gave the players a promise.
“I will get you a great coach,” he told the Huskies, U-turning the room’s mood from stunned to pumped. “Not a good coach. A great coach.”
Though jarring, Sarkisian leaving for USC came at an ideal, crossroads time for the Huskies – and only because of whom Woodward got to replace him. The program has grown up past the need to get competitive again into the needs to compete for and win championships.
And not just Pac-12 crowns but the one at the end of the new, national, four-team playoff system.
Ninety-two and 12. That was Petersen’s record at Boise State. Two of those wins were where the Huskies have been trying to get back to since they appeared in the 2001 Rose Bowl – in elite bowls of the now-extinct Bowl Championship Series.
Petersen led Boise State to perfect records and the top five finishes in the final Associated Press rankings, in the 2006 and ’09 seasons. He is the only coach to win the Paul “Bear” Bryant Award as national coach of the year twice.
No wonder he and his staff had instant credibility among these Huskies, whether it’s been about formations or French fries.
“That’s definitely one of the reasons I was excited when we found out they were coming. They have the experiences that we want. They have the knowhow to get to the places we want to go to,” Criste said.
“I think with our hard work and their knowhow we can get to the places we want to go and accomplish our goals.”
“A GREAT LIFE LESSON”
Petersen realizes this isn’t easy on 19-, 20- and 21-year-old guys who came to Washington to join Sarkisian’s program -- only to now have to attempt to thrive while learning his completely new one.
“Change is hard. It is hard,” the new coach said. “ But that’s the one thing we know about life: Change is coming, whether we like it or not.
“So this is a great life lesson. We can either accept it and embrace it, or fight it and it doesn’t go good for any of us.
“But I think they’ve done a nice job. I really do. Because it’s hard. Heck, those other guys recruited all those guys here, they had a good way of doing things, then we come in and kind of blow it up and say, ‘Hey, let’s try it this way.’ It’s just human nature to not want to change. But they have done a nice job for the most part. Certainly, a work in progress.”
Petersen is a devotee to the art and study of leadership. He is a voracious reader of books on the subject. And these last three months for Husky football has been right out of Leadership 101 manuals.
Break a unit down by focusing on individuals and their individual tasks first, to ensure a foundation gets set with strong, fundamentals instilled in each member. Then rebuild those basic blocks into a harmonious whole, one far more skilled and detailed than the original team.
That’s why this spring and summer – on the practice field and far off it – is and will be a process. It’s why Petersen and his staff are spending so much time on fundamentals and on those “tiny details” now. The 2014 opener at Hawaii isn’t for another five-plus months.
In the meantime Petersen and his staff – all but holdover tight-ends coach Jordan Paopao came with him from Boise State – are doing far more than installing quick pass routes, blocking schemes and blitzes. They are instilling a culture that will emphasize winning with unity, fortitude and fundamentals as much as with sheer speed and athletic ability.
From the early afternoon of Dec. 2 when Sarkisian gave a brief, departing word in the team meeting room of the football operations center, turned left, and walked out to USC, this may be better than most Huskies could have imagined it turning out for them.
It is for Criste.
“Yes,” he said. “At the time there was definitely a lot of chaos, not knowing anything at the time, who we were going to get, who we were going to have to go with us to spring ball after the whole thing happened.
“But right now it definitely is smoothed over for us. And it feels like ... it feels like home.”
Mickens says he and his teammates are starting to get comfortable with the new staff and its ways.
“Getting to know these guys, getting to know what they are about and what level they want to take this program to, it’s tremendous,” he said. “And we are all buying in.”
It is, to be sure, a process. It won’t happen overnight, as the suspensions to some of the team’s leaders show.
But something tells me that by the time the season kicks off in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on Aug. 30, that devotion will be complete. The non-devotees won’t be playing.
Petersen is sending his message loudly and clearly to his players: It doesn't matter who you are. It doesn’t matter what you've done. My way has gone 92-12. Follow it and win. Or else don’t play.
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He receive a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
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