Chris Petersen's Exit At Washington Catches Everyone By Surprise

Chris Dufresne

Clay Helton, as of 3 p.m. Monday, was still the head coach at USC—but Chris Petersen was out at Washington.

This is really all you need to know about the spit-take unpredictability of Pac 12 football.

Petersen, the man many Trojan fans wanted USC to hire six years ago, announced he is resigning at Washington--but it’s N-O-T to coach USC.

Petersen, one of the finest coaches of his generation, followed Urban Meyer and Bob Stoops into that mid-50s burnout hole.

Coach Pete, 55, is stepping aside to refresh batteries and restore some sanity after a 7-5 season left him howling like a Dawg on Main Street.

He will remain at UW in leadership/supporting role while defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake moves up into the starting HC spot, three days after humiliating Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense for a sixth consecutive season.

No one saw any of this coming but that’s the beauty of live-action drama as opposed to scripted dialogue.

While we were all focused on Utah’s playoff chances, the continuing saga of Helton and gauging Chip Kelly’s interest level to remain UCLA’s coach, Petersen slipped out the back door.

I have long tried to convince my USC friends that Petersen was not the right fit for USC because he was a different “cat” who thought three was a crowd at Boise State. He was not media-friendly and definitely not a proponent of tunnel-vision football. Petersen had a small-town, macro-view of the world that would have likely suffocated him in Los Angeles.

We know now six years in Seattle were too much to handle. “I’ll be a Husky for life,” Petersen said in a statement, but now is the right time for me to step away from my head coaching duties, and recharge.”

Petersen tweeted out “Woof” (in code) every time he bagged a prized recruit. Monday, though, he went “Poof.”

One gets the sense Petersen did not enjoy the unsavory nature of big-time college athletics, another reason he would not have enjoyed USC.

Final tally: Petersen went 54-26 in six seasons at Washington with one bowl game remaining.

In the same six-year period, USC went 51-27 under Steve Sarkisian and Clay Helton.

Sark and Helton are generally treated like pariahs in Trojan lore.

Petersen, who won two Pac 12 titles in six years and made the playoff once, is leaving after a 7-5 season.

He was in zero danger of losing his job.

Helton's team is 8-4 this year while riding the hot seat former AD Lynn Swann provided by letting him return in 2019.

Helton, for all you think of him, did something Petersen never did at Washington—Helton won a Rose Bowl.

It’s hard to say whether Petersen will ever get the itch to coach again. If he doesn’t, well, thanks for the memories. He went 146-38 in stints at Boise State and Washington and no one can ever take from him that Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma.

The most puzzling thing about his tenure at Washington was how much he changed.

He left “swashbuckler” behind in Boise and became more risk averse in Seattle. Petersen and Boise State were synonymous with dynamic, out of the box, offensive thinking. It’s what made his Boise teams so fun to watch.

Yet, at Washington, he became much more conventional and predictable. The reason seemed obvious: he had access to better players in the Pac 12 and re-calibrated his philosophy.

Too bad. Petersen, at Washington, became more like David Shaw at Stanford. He played “complimentary” football and the percentages. Petersen turned into the ghost of Bo Schembechler.

While the rest of the Pac 12 was upgrading and innovating its offenses, Washington retracted. It spent four years lacking in imagination with Jake Browning at quarterback, then it was more of the same with transfer Jacob Eason.

This year’s 7-5 finish was utterly underwhelming and maybe too much for Petersen to take.

In a weird way, the coaching change is refreshing in that it now allows Lake the freedom to overhaul the offense.

The prospect of Lake’s defense and a new points-scoring attitude could instantly put Washington back in national attention.

Meanwhile, at USC, new AD Mike Bohn has already botched his first big assignment.

A decision on whether Helton was staying, or going, should have been made hours after Utah clinched the Pac 12 South on Saturday night.

That outcome eliminated USC’s chances of advancing to Friday’s conference title game against Oregon.

What was Bohn waiting for?

The longer he lets Helton twist the worse it looks and gets.


Chris Dufresne