SEATTLE -- Chris Petersen operated as Boise State's offensive coordinator for five seasons before he was promoted to head coach, beginning a run that would earn him consensus esteem as one of the nation's best college football coaches. That run made him highly coveted as a perennial candidate for so-called bigger jobs, and that run is why Washington was so widely celebrated when it lured him to Seattle to replace Steve Sarkisian in the winter of 2013.
Yet his resume was missing something when he arrived at Washington, and that void might partially explain why his inaugural season in Seattle was underwhelming. Petersen had never been the new guy before.
Think about your own personal list of the nation's best college football coaches. How many were coordinators promoted from within, as Petersen had been at Boise State (Gary Patterson, Jimbo Fisher, Dabo Swinney, Mark Helfrich, Mike Gundy, David Shaw, etc.)? And how many had experience taking over a program from scratch before they arrived at their present job (Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Les Miles, Steve Spurrier, Art Briles, Todd Graham, Jim Harbaugh, Brian Kelly, Rich Rodriguez, Gus Malzahn, etc.)?
Those scenarios incorporate two distinct but valuable qualities to ease a leadership transition: 1. Familiarity; 2. Previous experience with a leadership transition.
Perhaps a bigger challenge facing Petersen than moving up to a Power 5 conference team was the uncharted territory of taking over a program with which he had no familiarity, and no previous experience with that responsibility in his career.
When Petersen was promoted at Boise State, he already knew the city, the school, the administration, his players, his opponents, his recruiting base, and his boosters. He also already knew what he wanted to change when he stepped in for Dan Hawkins.
“That’s a little bit easier transition even though you’ve never been a head coach," Petersen said. "You know the kids, what they like and maybe things you’d like to change. That’s how it was at Boise. You know the culture. You know what the weaknesses are, what you’ve got to shore up quickly and what your strengths are and how to play to them. When you come to somewhere new, you don’t know those things. You’re trying to figure that out and the kids are trying to figure you out. It’s much, much different.”
Familiarity eases a transition. When he ascended at Boise State, Petersen didn't have to juggle hundreds of new names, as he did at Washington. He didn't have to figure out how to motivate Player X and how his buttons were much different than Player Z. If he had an issue or question, he immediately knew whom to call for an answer. He didn't need to constantly ask for directions -- "Where's the training room again?" or "What's that shortcut so I don't have to get on I-5?" He didn't have to take a crash course on new traditions. He didn't have to fret about his family getting adjusted.
Further, when he arrived at Washington, he had never before experienced this lack of familiarity while being in charge. It's not like college football's hectic pace slowed down to help him get acclimated and comfortable.
When Saban took over at Alabama, he knew exactly how he wanted to implement his "Process" for a new program. Do you think Meyer's experience overseeing the fishbowl at Florida benefited him when he took over the fishbowl at Ohio State? Even a guy like Mark Dantonio could apply lessons he learned transitioning from defensive coordinator at Ohio State to head coach at Cincinnati in taking over Michigan State in 2007.
Petersen was new at being new, so it shouldn't be surprising that there were some growing pains, perhaps some false starts and some pushback from veteran players accustomed to a different leadership style under Sarkisian.
“It’s hard being new," Petersen said. "Newness is tough, especially when you are kind of established, especially for some of the older guys who are going, ‘Why are we doing this?’ [And Petersen would say] That’s because it’s how we do things. I don’t even know different ways. This is what we do and how we made it work. There are a lot of little things. It takes a couple of years. You talk to some people and it takes 18 to 24 months to change a culture. And I don’t say that like the culture was bad here. You’re just getting your way of doing things established. When I heard that, I thought, ’No way. It can’t take that long.’ Oh it does.”
Here's a practical example of a misstep. Petersen is notorious for his attention to detail. That, in fact, was said to be a notable contrast between him and Sarkisian. Yet when offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith reviews what went wrong on offense last season, there's a regret that implementing a new playbook marginalized the details, that the coaches could only teach the basics instead of the nuances of their scheme because there was so much installation taking place.
“We needed to hammer in the details of the new concepts more," Smith said. "We probably should have done less, just learning from last year. We had too much volume to be really detailed at what we did.”
There, of course, were other, less subtle challenges. Smith and Petersen were replacing a three-year starter at quarterback in Keith Price, and the overwhelming frontrunner for that job, Cyler Miles, was suspended for spring practices and the first game of the season. While there were some big names back on defense, the secondary was woefully young and thin. It didn't help that the putative leader of that secondary, star cornerback Marcus Peters, boisterously refused to buy into his new coaches and was kicked off the team in early November and replaced in the starting lineup by a true freshman against UCLA.
Still, the Huskies played better late in the season, nearly winning at eventual South Division champion Arizona and whipping Northwest rivals Oregon State and Washington State. If not for a terrible performance in the Cactus Bowl against Oklahoma State, Petersen's first year might have seemed more encouraging.
“I feel like the last third of the season, we really figured out how we wanted to practice, how we wanted to prepare for games," Petersen said. "You could really feel us changing. The bowl game was really disappointing.”
The good news for Washington, even though there are significant questions all over the depth chart, is that there's familiarity now; the newness is over. If that newness hampered Petersen's ability to be the coach he wanted to be, it is no longer an impediment. He knows his team and, as important, his team knows him.
“I think Coach P has been really consistent since he’s been here," quarterback Jeff Lindquist said. "That’s his forte. But in terms of adjusting with us, we’re all more comfortable with his system and how Husky football will be moving forward. I think he has to focus less on changing the culture and more on the details.”
That culture and those details defined Petersen's success at Boise State. The issue now becomes how far along and effective their implementation will be at Washington in year two.