Faced with a football coaching change, the University of Washington hasn’t gotten it right when promoting Huskies assistant coaches into the top job. Each time, it’s turned out messy.
Either seeking to retain program continuity or looking for an easy way out of the coaching search, UW has hired five of these loyal soldiers over the past 100 years — and fired four of them, and is on the verge of terminating the fifth.
Jimmy Lake looked like a perfect fit, until he didn’t.
In his first head coaching job at any level, Lake’s 2021 team was ranked 20th in the preseason Associated Press poll, then lost to Montana of the Big Sky Conference. Defeats mounted. A week ago against Oregon, he was seen on national TV having an explosive moment with a player. The Huskies lost to the rival Ducks, 26-16.
A couple of more victories and no video footage of the heated moment, and it would be business as usual for Lake.
However, he’s suspended for a week and won’t be at Husky Stadium at 4 p.m. Saturday when his 4-5 team takes on 6-3 Arizona State. He’s on the verge of becoming a tragic figure in UW football annals because of his emotional outburst. He’ll join the other assistants who couldn’t bridge for long the career gap from UW assistant to head coach.
The previously fired include Keith Gilbertson, Jim Lambright, John Cherberg and Ralph “Pest” Welch, their promotions and terminations becoming major Seattle sports headlines.
Then UW fumbled a perfectly good reason to elevate hire a former assistant when it passed on Gary Pinkel.
In 1998, he was the successful head coach at Toledo, eight seasons after he left his post as offensive coordinator under Don James, for whom he played at Kent State. He was groomed to become the Montlake leader.
When Lambright was fired at the end of the ’98 season, Pinkel interviewed for the job. He became a finalist, then was passed over when athletics director Barbara Hedges decided she wanted someone with more of a carnival marketing approach.
She hired Rick Neuheisel.
Neuheisel lasted four seasons before he was fired for betting in an NCAA basketball tournament office pool, one which later was deemed permissible.
Pinkel took the head coaching job at Missouri, where the Tigers went to nine bowl games in 11 seasons (10 in 15 overall), a pair of Big 12 championship-game appearances and transitioned the program into the powerhouse Southeastern Conference.
During that run, UW in 2008 made a pitch for him when Tyrone Willingham was fired. But Pinkel had Missouri rolling, and Michigan was also in hot pursuit. He passed on the Washington opportunity, which at that time required a huge rebuild.
“I did talk with them a couple of times,” Pinkel said of the Huskies. “It just didn’t go. One time I was interested, the other time I wasn’t. That would have been an awesome opportunity, but they went in a different direction. We did a lot of great things. We came to Missouri.”
Now the personable Lake, who spent six seasons in Montlake as an assistant under Chris Petersen and seemed well-suited to succeed him when Petersen announced his surprise retirement in 2019, became careless with his dream job and, by all accounts, is about to lose it.
Others who met a similar Husky fate:
He was UW offensive coordinator for the 1991 national championship team, and used that leverage to become the head coach at California, but was fired after minimal success. He came back to the Huskies as part of Neuheisel’s staff. He was asked to become head coach when Neuheisel was removed and reluctantly accepted. He lasted two seasons. UW nosedived to 1-10 in 2004 and he and his staff were fired. Among those dismissed was Lake, a young defensive-backs coach.
Lambright served as an assistant coach for Jim Owens and James, becoming a highly regarded defensive coordinator for the latter. When James resigned after his program was socked with a bowl ban and scholarship limits for NCAA and conference rules violations, Lambright became head coach 12 days before the start of the 1993 season. In his second season, he beat Ohio State at home and ended Miami’s 58-game home winning streak. Yet he continuously clashed with his boss, Hedges. Under pressure from donors, she fired him in 1998 following a 6-6 season.
In 1953, Cherberg was elevated from Howie Odell’s staff after the end of the glorious Hugh McElhenny/Don Heinrich era. He was a disaster, lasting three seasons. He went 3-6-1, 2-8 and 5-4-1. With his team turning mutinous, Cherberg went on KING-TV and revealed the existence of a booster slush fund that paid players handsomely, over and above scholarship allowances. He was pushed out. He rebounded nicely two years later when he was elected the state’s lieutenant governor, holding that job for 32 years.
Ralph “Pest” Welch
A loyal assistant coach to Jimmy Phelan for a dozen seasons, Welch was promoted to head coach in 1941 when Phelan was fired a week after the Pearl Harbor bombing ushered the U.S. into World War II. Welch coached six seasons of mostly break-even football, compiling a 27-20-3 record. He was fired in 1947. Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports editor Royal Brougham privately bragged how he grew weary of Welch. He had the ear of the UW athletics director.