Chris Petersen couldn’t rationalize what compelled him to leave Boise State for the University of Washington. Even harder, he said Monday, was holding a ten-minute meeting last week that “felt like 10 hours.”
It was to inform his 8-4 Boise State team that he was leaving.
This was the coach who never addressed speculation about his future with anything more than a shrug. He didn’t hold post-season meetings with players or coaches about other jobs. All believed he wasn’t going anywhere.
So one can imagine the awkwardness when word spread late last week that Petersen agreed to a five-year, $18 million contract to become the Huskies head coach.
“It’s kind of strange when you’re read all this stuff,” Petersen said Monday after his introductory press conference. “It’s almost like you died or something.”
It only grew weirder. Everyone from Boise — players, fans, boosters — was nice to him. Petersen coached the Broncos for 13 years, first as an offensive coordinator (2001-05), then as a head coach (2006-13).
“I think that my heart and soul have been in Boise for so long and they appreciate that,” Petersen said. “I wasn’t going to run out of there for just anything. For more money or a bigger stadium or anything like that. That’s never been what I’ve been about and I think people realize that.”
Petersen’s head coaching record at Boise State was astonishing: He went 92-12, won five conference titles and the Fiesta Bowl in 2007 and 2010. He gained a reputation as an innovative offensive mind capable of dialing up the perfect trick play at an opportune moment. In the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, the Broncos used the hook-and-ladder, a halfback pass and the statue-of-liberty to upset Oklahoma.
“For whatever reason, that’s what everybody thinks about Boise State,” Petersen said. “But when you think about it, there might be a trick play a game. There could be two, and then you run none the next game. It’s going to come down to fundamental football. Tough kids, playing hard and executing at a high level.”
Gathered Monday in Husky Stadium’s recruiting lounge to welcome Petersen were four bare-chested students who painted letters on their chests to spell out “P-E-T-E.” A crowd of distinguished UW alumni stood adjacent to reporters and television cameras.
“I think it created a buzz in the Pac-12 — ‘oh my god, Petersen actually left Boise State and he’s going to Washington?'” said former QB Sonny Sixkiller, an employee with UW’s IMG Sports Marketing department. “I think that’s a positive for the young kids going to school here, and I’m excited about what he brings to the program. I know he has innovation offensively, but he also has tough kids. That’s going to be good for the Huskies to get back to that tough brand of football.
“I felt really good on Thursday when I heard.”
Monday Petersen spoke about the need to leave his comfort zone, and how his family was ready for a change. He countered the assertion that he reached his ceiling at Boise State, and provided reasons why he wouldn’t falter at the UW. Former Boise State coach Dirk Koetter was an unimpressive 40-34 at at Arizona State. Dan Hawkins, who Petersen worked under from 2001-05, was 19-39 at Colorado.
“I mean, those guys are good coaches,” Petersen said. “But I’m different than those guys. Different places, for sure. I’ll say this. You need so many things to line up right. You gotta have that support, because those guys are really good coaches. So it’s not just the head coach. That I’ve learned. That’s part of this fit that I think with the support that’s here and the players we can get, I feel good about being here.”
Petersen’s MOU with UW, which is full of incentives such as a $100,000 bonus for winning the Pac-12 and a $125,000 bonus for posting an APR of 970 or more, guarantees him $3.2 million in 2014, then increases each year by $200,000. His final contract should be finalized in the next few weeks.
On his immediate to-do list is building a coaching staff. Petersen hasn’t made any official hires, but it is thought he’ll bring with him to Seattle defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski.
The future of UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi remain a question.
“We’re still working that out,” Petersen said. “I think in the next week or so, a lot of things are going to happen and play out. We don’t have an exact plan. It would be premature to talk about that.”
Petersen’s contract began Dec. 6, making him the highest paid coach at a public university in the Pac-12. USC and Stanford aren’t required to release information because they are private schools.
UW’s new coach sounded ready to live up to his billing.
“We’re going to play smart, fast, physical and unified football,” Petersen said. “There’s no doubt about it. We’re going to recruit just awesome kids here.”