A bad week for Washington coach Jimmy Lake appeared to end ignominiously Saturday night at Husky Stadium when, on top of calling for a punt on the last down when a non-zero chance remained to tie Oregon — an astonishing possibility given the game-long poverty of the offense — the snap flew out of the end zone and headed toward Lake Washington.
Then things, already wet and blustery, got worse.
After the 26-16 loss to fourth-ranked but beatable Oregon (box), Huskies and Ducks players had to be separated on the field by police and coaches after verbal skirmishing.
It appeared no blows were struck.
Unlike an episode in the first half, when Lake ran up the sideline and, on ABC national TV, struck one of his own players. Then denied it happened.
Lake suddenly overshadowed his silly claim Monday that Oregon was not a recruiting rival of UW for top players because the Ducks program lacked “academic prowess.” It was forgotten because Lake topped himself.
Or bottomed himself.
Certainly, he embarrassed himself and the program.
In the second quarter, a furious Lake ran up the sidelines, pushing aside a coaching assistant and a game official, and confronted Ruperake Fuavai, a second-year freshman linebacker from Seattle’s O’Dea High School. Fuavai trash-talked Oregon players after the play was blown dead. (Note: An earlier version of the column misstated that Fuavai was not in the game.)
With his right hand, Lake clearly swatted him across the helmet, then shoved him in the back.
Anyone around modern sports knows that a coach striking a player is unacceptable.
Asked what he was thinking, Lake said his intent was to separate the players after Fuavai shoved the Ducks’ Jaylon Redd.
“We knew all week long this was going to be a very intense match-up, and there was going to be a lot of trash talking,” he said. “Guys were chipping back and forth and one our players was close. I went in to separate them.
“We were glad that a penalty wasn’t thrown on our guys to put us back even further.”
Did you regret striking him?
“I separated them. I didn’t strike him.”
That will be news to the millions viewing on TV. The video clip was trending nationally for a while on Twitter.
It is hard to believe Lake a struck a player mid-game, in public. Harder still to believe he denied it. And it’s disturbing that no one in UW athletics confronted him after the game, admonished him for his actions, and told him to admit the mistake and show immediate contrition.
Christian Caple of The Athletic later published a statement from UW athletics director Jen Cohen:
We are aware of an interaction between Head Coach Jimmy Lake and a student-athlete during the first half of Saturday’s game. We have high expectations of the conduct of our coaches and we are working to gather more information on this matter.”
Lake, in his second year as Huskies’ top guy, coaching his 13th career game as a head coach, has made numerous mistakes this season. Some may be willing give him slack because of inexperience, but the Washington program does not come with training wheels, not at a $3 million salary. This episode demonstrates he’s cracking under strain of a season that is now 4-5.
After every game the Huskies have lost, Lake makes a strong point that responsibility for the shortfalls comes back to him and the assistant coaches he chose after succeeding Chris Petersen. It’s a necessary gesture, but it has become a rote response said so often that it is rendered meaningless.
Lake’s refusal to take responsibility for this episode — nearly all college coaches in similar situations confront the player with words and order him to the locker room — reveals a stubbornness that is betraying him as a head coach.
Even this week, he had a couple of chances with media to walk back his academic prowess jab and instead talked around it. Now media and opposing players and coaches are having a field day after a notable absence of prowess by the Huskies.
Including coach Mario Cristobal, whose Ducks rose to 8-1 after rallying from a 9-3 deficit behind 329 yards rushing.
“Proud of the way our guys came out and showed our prowess in handling inclement weather,” Cristobal said. “We continued to play hard throughout the entire game making sure every critical situation our team responded really well.”
That was exactly the opposite outcome for Washington, which was 3 of 14 on third- and fourth-down conversions and held a lead only because of a safety and a short-field TD after freshman LB Carson Bruener’s 50-yard interception return. They managed just one other touchdown drive.
But the UW defense still provided a final opportunity by forcing a punt that gave the ball to the offense with 2:14 left and 90 yards to go. After two dropped passes, followed by an incompletion, Lake said he thought that a punt from the end zone, then stopping the Ducks again, would gain the ball back with about 50 seconds left.
However unlikely that scenario, it was made moot by the wild snap, the final mistake of a mostly futile evening when the Ducks didn’t much look like a final four team.
Said Lake: “We obviously weren’t planning on a safety there with our punt operation.”
There’s a lot things Lake hasn’t planned for this season, particularly the ones of his own making.
The sideline episode likely won’t rise to a fireable offense, but it will not be fun to be Jimmy Lake on the recruiting trail, spending time talking around his mistakes before he even gets to his pitch about Washington’s academic prowess.
Prowess didn’t seem to trickle down from upper campus in any discernible manner Saturday to the football field.