Washington coach Chris Petersen knew a few days before it became public that Jeff Tedford was going to be named the coach at Fresno State. The two have been friends for years and last season Tedford served in a consulting role on the Huskies’ staff.
Petersen kept the news to himself. It wasn’t his place to share what was coming and Washington’s assistant coaches would find out in time.
When word got out, it was only natural for it to become a topic of discussion in a group text among the staff that included Tedford. But Petersen quickly grew confused by the direction of the conversation.
“Everybody was like, ‘Get the playbook, get the playbook,’” Petersen said. “They kept saying that and said something else and I’m like, ‘What are you guys talking about?”
The response: “We play Fresno next year.”
“’What? We play who?” Petersen recalled himself asking. “I had no idea we played Fresno until after he had the job.”
Coming off a 41-10 loss to Alabama, the team that ended Washington’s season a year ago in the College Football Playoff, Fresno State (1-1) heads to Seattle for a reunion of sorts with the Huskies (2-0) on Saturday.
The initial surprise for Petersen was that Tedford, Cal’s all-time winningest coach from 2002-2012, was even interested in consulting for the Huskies. He spent the 2015 season as the head coach of the B.C. Lions in the Canadian Football League, but after three seasons away from college football -- including a brief stint as the offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that was cut short due to health issues – he wanted back in.
Tedford pursued other opportunities, but the right fit never came. One day while in the car with his wife, he decided to call Petersen. They spent three seasons coaching together at Oregon (1998-2000) and he was living about 90 minutes north of Seattle. Maybe, he thought, his old friend could use an extra hand, or at least let him hang around the program.
“I called him and then he says, 'You’re probably going to get a job anyways,'” Tedford said. “I said, ‘I don’t know.’ A couple weeks later, he called and said, ‘Are you still interested?’”
Petersen doesn’t buy into the bigger-is-better theory when it comes to coaching staffs. He’s picky about who he hires and likes having a small, tight-knit group to work with. At first, the concept of adding a consultant didn’t necessarily appeal to him, but Tedford’s background made him an exception. They believe in the same style of football and Tedford, who had past relationships with other coaches on the staff, was clearly only wanting to bide his time until something came up for the 2017 season.
Though Tedford wasn’t allowed to coach the players, his presence, Petersen said, was a valuable asset for a team that would ultimately win the Pac-12 and reached the College Football Playoff.
“It was a great experience for me and I’m really glad he let me go and be a part of being around it and seeing how they do things because I think they do a phenomenal job,” Tedford said. “It was a great opportunity.”
It was also short-lived.
After four-plus seasons, Fresno State fired coach Tim DeRuyter on Oct. 23. His record at the school was 30-30 and 21-15 in Mountain West play, but the Bulldogs got progressively worse in his last three seasons and were 1-7 when the change was made.
Tedford was immediately intrigued by the idea of returning to his alma mater as the head coach.
“I played here. I coached here for six years,” he said this week. “I’m very familiar with the people here. I love Fresno. The people here are awesome and provide great support for the program.
“It’s home. It feels like home.”
It became clear early in the process that his interest was reciprocated and during the week of Washington’s game against USC at Husky Stadium on Nov. 12, Fresno State’s five-person search committee flew to Seattle to interview Tedford in person.
“Coach Tedford was heads and shoulders above all of the other candidates, although they were all fine candidates,” said Brian Panish, a prominent Los Angeles-based lawyer and former Fresno State football player who served on the committee. “I don’t want to get into names, but there were head coaches, there were NFL assistants and people who had ties to the program.
“It was a good pool of candidates, but when you boil it all down, he clearly was, in my opinion, and everyone else on the committee’s opinion, the right person for the job.”
Two days before Washington played USC, in what would be the Huskies’ first loss of the season, Fresno State announced it had hired Tedford. He stuck around for another week, but left before the regular-season finale against Washington State and missed the Pac-12 championship victory over Colorado and trip to the playoff.
Tedford’s early exit allowed him to be around the Bulldogs for their final two games of the season. The timing of his arrival allowed him to get a jump-start on evaluating players, research potential assistants and assess the overall state of the program. But he also tried to stay out of the way, not wanting to implement any of his own ideas at the tail end of the team’s season.
Through two games, it’s tough to get a read on the Bulldogs under Tedford because of how drastically different their opponents have been. They opened the season with a 66-0 win against an FCS team coming off a 3-8 record, Incarnate Word, before lining their pockets with a trip to Tuscaloosa.