By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – As the elevators opened at the fourth floor of the Huskies football operations center, Chris Petersen and his wife Barbara weren’t just smiling. They were beaming.
Those doors opened at 11:25 a.m. Monday, showing the Petersens into their new, unfamiliar life. A few minutes after that, in an office overlooking Husky Stadium’s five-month-old field, Petersen signed the memorandum of agreement on a five-year contract that will pay him an average of $3.6 million to be Washington’s new coach.
And about 30 minutes after that, just past high noon, four young, shirtless UW alums each with “P-E-T-E” painted in purple on their chests were barking as university president Michael Young introduced the 26th coach in 124 years of Huskies football.
“I need to start by saying how honored, humbled and excited I am to be here,” Petersen said, wearing a dark suit and purple, sharply patterned tie. “No question about it.”
Those were the first words in 13-plus years as anything other than a coach at Boise State for the 49-year-old Petersen, the only two-time winner of the Paul “Bear” Bryant Award as national coach of the year. The last eight years he had been Boise’s head man – until he and Washington created an intense, mutual interest beginning on Tuesday, the day after Steve Sarkisian left UW for USC.
Petersen had said “no thanks” to being chased by USC in recent weeks, plus to Stanford, UCLA and Penn State in recent years. But through his representative, Bennett Speyer, an attorney in Toledo, Ohio, Petersen let Washington know last week he wanted this job.
“Usually, I had no interest in other places,” Petersen said later Monday afternoon, standing in front of the two-sided fireplace in his new office overlooking Husky Stadium and Lake Washington.
“This time was different. I was surprised at myself that I was life, ‘OK, I am interested in this.’
“I kind of grew up in the Don James era,” said the native of Yuba City, Calif., with ties to the Northwest almost ever since. “I’ve admired this place for so long.
“People keep asking me, ‘Why now? You’ve been at Boise so long.’ Two things that keep coming to mind are timing and fit. It was just time. I think every place kind of has a shelf life. … It was just time.
“We’d done some really good things there. For me to take the next step as a coach, as a teacher, as a person, to grow, I needed to take this next step out of that comfort zone over there (in Boise). … I feel like I needed to take a step out of Boise to grow and improve. … It was very comfortable for me to be there, very easy to be there.”
Petersen, whose only two losses in 10 games against Pac-12 teams while at Boise State came at UW, pointed out at Husky Stadium to his front.
“And, really, at the end of the day,” he said, smiling, “I really can’t wait to win a game in this stadium.”
Petersen absorbed his worst loss as Boise State’s coach on Aug. 31 in Husky Stadium, the perfect, 75-degree night of the new, $281 million venues unveiling after 20 months of renovations. The place was packed, with more than 70,000 roaring so much his Broncos at times couldn’t even hear enough to get play off without a penalty.
Better believe that left an impression on Petersen.
“Let me tell you, that’s one of the reasons I’m here, and I mean that,” he said. “I mean, when you walk into this stadium, this beautiful environment, there’s not a better one in college football. And then you pack it with these passionate people in purple? Holy smokes!
“I mean, I was very, very irritated, to tell you the truth. But deep down, I really liked it, because that’s what college football should be about. I talk about the fit; that’s part of it. I want to be a part of that.
“I mean, this is college football at its finest.”
Woodward agreed the new stadium and its 80,000-square-foot football operations center from which Petersen spoke on Monday were “invaluable” in attracting the renowned coach when no one else could.
Woodward said Petersen was the only one to whom he offered the Huskies’ head job. The AD said he talked about the search with Alabama coach Nick Saban, who Woodward was with at LSU.
Of the entire, no-sleep endeavor from Monday when Sarkisian suddenly left through Monday’s official arrival of Petersen, the Huskies’ AD said: “At the end of the day we were successful.”
Petersen was 92-12 with two Fiesta Bowl wins to cap undefeated seasons at Boise State. He proclaimed himself “a Northwest guy, I’ve known this place forever” during the 22-minute press conference that was big enough of a deal to attract former Huskies coach Jim Lambright, coaches from UW’s basketball, track and other teams, plus current Husky football players such as Austin Seferian-Jenkins and a live, national-television audience.
“I’m excited about this opportunity, about this challenge. We are going to play smart, fast, physical and unified football, there’s no doubt about it,” Petersen said, punctuating every adjective with feeling. “We are going to recruit just awesome kids here. We talk about taking young men and turning them into real men. … That’s a passion of mine, to really get some guys straight on what a real man is and what a real man looks like and how he plays and how he conducts himself.
“We talk about recruiting OKGs – Our Kind of Guys – that are great character kids, awesome football players, interested in a world-class degree. All of those things will really fit.”
Petersen’s deal was first presented to him during a meeting between him, UW athletic director Scott Woodward and senior associate AD Jennifer Cohen Thursday night in a 90-minute meeting at a hotel in Boise. It calls for him to earn guaranteed compensation of $3.2 million in 2014, $3.4 million in ’15, $3.6 million in ’16, $3.8 million in ’17 and $4 million in ’18. That would have had him 11th in the country, and tops in the Pac-12, per USA Today’s annual coaching salary survey entering this season.
The Huskies paid Petersen’s buyout of $750,000 to Boise State. UW gave Petersen an additional $500,000 “in the event a tax burden is incurred by you” as a result of the buyout payment.
Petersen can earn an additional $50,000 for reaching the Pac-12 championship game, $100,000 for being the Pac-12 champion, $300,000 for getting Washington into a college football playoff bowl, $400,000 for getting into the new, four-time national playoffs, $450,000 for an appearance in the national championship game or $500,000 for winning the national title. He also can earn an additional $150,000 for making the Alamo or Holiday bowls and $75,000 for any other, non-football-playoff bowl.
President Young cited Petersen’s “off-the-charts” winning percentage and academic achievement of his players while at Boise State. To that end, Washington will pay Petersen an additional $50,000 for the Huskies having a team Academic Progress Rate greater than or equal to 950, as defined by the NCAA; $75,000 for an APR of 960 or above; and $125,000 for an APR over 970 or above.
It took only 15 minutes officially on the job for Petersen to get asked if Washington would be his last job.
“You know how hard it was for me to leave Boise?” he said, smiling. “I didn’t take this job to go anywhere else. That’s not something that’s entered my mind, ever. I mean, this is where I want to be. This is where my family (he and Barbara has two boys, and eighth grader and freshman in college) want to be.
“I certainly envision and really hope that I can be here a really long time.”
Someone asked if Petersen wants to turn Husky Stadium’s turf from green to purple, after years coaching on a blue field to match Boise State’s dominant color.
The new coach laughed at that.
“Hey, I'm good for change. This is why I came here,” he said. “We had green in our (Boise) indoor facility.”
And it wasn’t long after that until he got the blunt question: Will you beat Oregon? Petersen beat the Ducks in their only meetings while he was at Boise State, in 2009 in Boise and in 2008 at Autzen Stadium in Eugene.
“Do we have to start that already?” he said, smiling and shaking his head.
“We’ll be swinging hard.”
Petersen, a former quarterback at UC Davis, has a reputation for trick plays because of memorable, game-winning ones at Boise State. But in fact his offense is rooted in running between the tackles out of spread formations, and on timely passing by accurate quarterbacks. That fits Washington’s offense this season of 1,775-yard rusher Bishop Sankey, a finalist for the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back, and Keith Price, UW’s departing career leader in completion percentage and touchdown throws.
Petersen said his offense will "probably be some form of the spread" tailored to skills of the quarterback, who “must be an accurate thrower.” Current redshirt freshman Cyler Miles, who started last month’s 69-27 win at Oregon State when Price was injured, is the heir apparent as Petersen’s first Husky quarterback.
Petersen said he will mostly stay out of the way of Huskies interim head coach Marques Tuiasosopo during the ongoing practices leading up to Washington’s Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 27 against Brigham Young in San Francisco. He said he will be around if needed.
There is one week left in recruiting before an NCAA-mandated dead period that runs into January. Petersen said he won’t rush out over this next week in whirlwind recruiting for the Huskies, because that could lead to mistakes for which the program would pay for years.
Instead he will be spending most of these next weeks finalizing his coaching staff. Woodward said he anticipated all of UW’s staff from this season will coach with Tuiasosopo in the bowl game -- minus linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, special-teams and running backs coach Johnny Nansen and defensive backs coach Keith Heyward, who all left with Sarkisian for USC.
Asked if he knew who will be on his 2014 UW staff, Petersen said: "Not yet. Premature to talk to that. We have a plan lined up, but it's not set in stone.”
What is set in stone is Petersen’s desire to be at Washington, after years of turning many other national powerhouses from Pennsylvania to California down.
“I couldn’t be more proud of standing in front of you today,” Petersen said.
“It comes down to a gut feel in your heart and stomach. And I felt this is where I needed to be.”