It’s not as if coach Chris Petersen is attempting to teach his Huskies players to speak Mandarin. Except it apparently feels as difficult.
“It couldn’t be more different; couldn’t be more night and day,” Petersen said this week. “I just shake my head at certain things, going, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Petersen was explaining his transition from Boise State, where he coached for 13 years, including the past eight as head coach with a 92-12 record that included unbeaten seasons in 2006 and 2009. No matter the level of competition, those marks of consistency within seasons and over many seasons are astonishing.
He even had his players paying attention in class. Boise State in 2011 was the only school to finish in the top 10 in both major polls and also receive a Public Recognition Award from the NCAA for finishing in the top 10 percent of the Academic Progress Rate, which the school received in 2010 and 2012 as well.
Naturally, a regular feature of his off-seasons was volleying away job offers from bigger programs. He liked where he was, comfortable in a smaller pond where he was the biggest fish. He was allowed to run the show as he wanted, in the way that Mark Few does with Gonzaga’s basketball program in Spokane.
But the world was changing around the program and the Mountain West Conference. The most significant was the litigation-induced breakup of the NCAA’s big-time football schools into five power conferences — and everyone else.
Boise State stands a real chance of being in the pool with everyone else, unless it can finagle an invitation to join one among the Pac-12, Big 12, Big 10, Southeastern or Atlantic Coast conferences. Boise State nearly became a member of the Big East Conference, but pulled out on New Year’s Eve 2012 before the conference collapsed upon them.
If Petersen were to ever bust a move to the big time, it had to be soon, before the inevitable wrenching apart of college football over money left Boise State among the have-nots. When the ripple effect of Lane Kiffin’s implosion at USC drew Trojans loyalist Steve Sarkisian away from Washington, he saw his opportunity.
The prestige, money and security of a Pac-12 post made the move a no-brainer. The hard part is happening right now, when he must take 60 or so inherited players to go with 25 of his recruits and do better than the 9-4 record of his predecessor.
The wildly uneven play of the Huskies in surprisingly narrow wins over Hawaii and Eastern Washington is a hallmark of the gears that grind when a program goes through a coaching transition. Fans neither know nor care about such things when they demand a coach be fired, but so much is so different that Petersen is feeling a little bushwhacked.
“It’s amazing how much you do take for granted,” he said. “How we travel . . . even our protocol in the locker is confused a little bit. It’s just like, ‘How do we not get this?’ And all those little things add up in getting these guys in a groove — let alone playing football.
“But that’s why I came here — for a new challenge.”
Part of the challenge that he is unlikely to mention is something that he rarely encountered at Boise State — the entitled athlete. At the top level of the sport, the rosters of Washington and the other conference schools are pickled with five-star athletes who have been catered to from childhood, nearly all of whom think they are NFL players.
Boise State recruited the wanna-be’s, players judged a notch below Pac-12 caliber. Some were late bloomers, some came from lousy high schools and nearly all played with the conspicuous edge of the overlooked. They were almost always coachable, many knowing that the next level was unattainable, so they had to make the most of college and the scholarship.
As the Huskies discovered Saturday against Football Championship Series-level Eastern, the wanna-be’s make pretty good football teams. The differences between the Huskies and the Eagles were minimal.
Besides the eye-popping 59-52 final score — the first time in the program’s 125 years that the Huskies won a game while allowing 50 points or more — a noteworthy development was the third-quarter benching of junior CB Marcus Peters.
Washington’s only experienced starter in the secondary drew a costly personal foul, then continued his rage with a sideline tantrum. Not only was he benched, Petersen is reported to be suspending him for Saturday’s game vs. Illinois, although Petersen wouldn’t confirm that this week. In fact, he closed practices to media for the rest of the season to prevent further inquiry.
But after the game Saturday, the anger was plain. Petersen didn’t call Peters an entitled athlete, but the selfish, costly behavior held all the earmarks.
“I’m not into stupid penalties,” he said of Peters’ unsportsmanlike conduct foul for head-butting an opponent. “(Benching) is not even an issue for me. If guys aren’t going to conduct themselves right, then they’re not going to play. If you don’t play the way we want you to play, then you won’t play.
“It’s not even a decision for me. It’s easy.”
Peters was the eighth player suspended or dismissed by Petersen since he took over. Reasons are varied, and not necessarily because of an entitled attitude. But he demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice short-term success for standards.
Illinois (2-0) has a quarterback, Wes Lunt, whom Petersen called “one of the best in the country,” who undoubtedly can’t wait to pick on the freshman-dominated UW secondary. The Huskies need Peters, but Petersen needs to make a point.
Junior WR Jaydon Mickens said most players have received Petersen’s message.
“Leave all egos at the door when you come in here,” he said. “There’s no star players here. It doesn’t matter . . . we all understand that and come to practice with that same mentality.
“Marcus will be right. He’ll get back right. It was just the competitive nature in him at the time. He’ll be fine.”
Time will tell. Petersen’s bumpy transition to the difficulties of life at the top level of college ball will smooth out, and by then his players had better be able to order off the Chinese menu in the the native language, or find themselves going football-hungry.