SEATTLE -- It was only the fifth month of Chris Petersen's new life, and it was only the 15th practice, and when it ended there arrived a brief interlude where it was sunny and raining at the same time. Petersen stood on a patch of turfgrass, and he squinted through the thick droplets and smiled through clenched teeth and answered a question about disciplinary actions by saying he still didn't have an answer to the question. "We'll take this one day at a time," he said. "The culture's not going to be changed in two months, three months."
Last December, Petersen quietly departed Boise State for the University of Washington after the most surprising eight-year run of success in the modern history of college football. It felt like a little bit of a shock then, this change, and it still feels like a shock now. For years, Petersen had been courted for nearly every major job opening in the country, his name floated again and again, and he'd turned them all down. After a while, you just kind of presumed that he wasn't the kind of guy who wanted to be anywhere else, that he was content with life in a small market, with a team that would forever exist on the fringes. You figured maybe Chris Petersen, deliberate and introspective and process-oriented, wasn't built for the chaos of big-time college football; you figured maybe the hassles and the attention and the booster-schmoozing made him uncomfortable enough that he figured, Why bother?
And then, just when you thought he'd never do it, he did it. He took the one job that he'd apparently always been eyeing, a job that's always felt a little bit underrated, a job with a solid infrastructure (the Huskies won nine games last season before Steve Sarkisian departed) and a strong fan base, a job with strings attached but not as many strings as, say, Texas or Michigan or USC. A job that Chris Petersen figured he could handle without falling headlong into the hassle. And here he was, at the end of spring practice, dealing with the sort of uncomfortable situation that leads, inevitably, back to comparisons of how the job Petersen used to have is nothing like the job he does have: In February, after the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, two of his players got caught up in a fracas on UW's fraternity row. One of them, quarterback Cyler Miles, was not charged, but remains in limbo; the other, wide receiver Damore'ea Stringfellow, pleaded guilty to multiple misdemeanors after allegedly grabbing a woman, damaging her camera and knocking her unconscious.
Petersen has refused to say much about the situation, except to say that he'll say something about the situation when he has something definitive to say. Whatever that means, and whenever that may be, probably in the fall, after a few months of deliberation, once the spotlight turns back to football. "This is such a political job," he told the local media, "and I'm never going to make decisions because of political reasons to make me look better."
It's not hard to think of coaches who would utter such a line precisely because it would be an inherently political statement in itself. Petersen doesn't appear to have that level of guile in him. He refuses to get on Twitter, and when someone asked what it would take for him to get on Twitter, he openly admitted he'd do it only if it benefitted recruiting. He seems legitimately interested in the bonding-and-unity aspect of his job; he lamented the fact that he couldn't travel to recruit for the next few months because it would get him away from the rubber-chicken dinners and fundraising dates that make him so uncomfortable. He's here alone for now, as his his family is still back in Boise. And I imagine he's not completely finished thinking about all that he left behind.
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I don't know if major college football coaches are ever really fulfilled, in the way that normal human beings might become fulfilled, or at least in the way that normal human beings develop a tacit satisfaction with their station in life. It is not a profession that courts a great deal of contentment. There's always another championship to chase, another goal to aspire to, another recruit to lure away from one's rival, another film to watch, another donor to mollify, another grudge to hold. There's always another way to succeed. And the truth is, this wasn't a job Chris Petersen ever thought he'd have back when he was a graduate assistant at the University of California-Davis. "I think I just did it because I knew it would challenge me, it'd be a good leadership role," Petersen told ESPN.com's Chantel Jennings. "I thought I'd coach for a year or two, finish my grad school and move on."
But Petersen kept rising, eventually taking over for Dan Hawkins at Boise, and in 2007 he coached one of the most memorable games in college football history. He built Boise into a national power, the underdog story of the decade, and likely missed a national-championship shot by the breadth of a missed field goal. At one point before the great conference dissolution of the 21st century, Boise joined the Big East, and I imagine if the Big East had survived -- if Boise had provided him a route to national prominence -- that Petersen might have stayed, as well. It didn't happen, and Boise found itself marooned in the Mountain West, where the route to a College Football Playoff is tenuous, at best.
In that context, Petersen's departure makes more logical sense. At some point, as Boise "struggled" the past couple of seasons -- and it is mark of Petersen's success that an eight-win season is considered a struggle -- the parameters of the job might have caused him to hit a wall. He'd outgrown his surroundings, both in terms of resources and salary. The Washington job is a way for him to recharge, to cautiously re-implement his system from the ground up in a major conference. "There's kind of a new energy," Petersen said. "There are a lot of things that we took for granted back where I came from. Some places it could be a little better (than at Boise), some places not as good. It's all about building this program and going forward."
And yet the whole thing still breaks my heart a little. There was something beautiful about Petersen being where he was, about one of the best minds in college football refusing to accede to the power dynamics of his profession. After a while, he and Boise belonged to each other, their sensibilities intertwined, and while I do think Boise will most likely survive without Petersen, and I imagine Petersen will survive without Boise, I'm still not sure entirely how.
"I know you're the right fit for this program, sir," somebody said, as Petersen signed autographs for a few of the fans who stood in the rain to watch his team complete spring football with what was essentially a glorified practice. "I know you're going to do great things."
And Petersen said thanks, and he signed, and then he walked off, out of the sunshine and the rain, away from the photographers, and into the quiet beneath the tunnel.