At the close of practice, the Washington Huskies run to midfield, take a knee and clap as instructed by coach Chris Petersen. After one particular practice in April, however, 100-plus players did not pull it off in perfect unison.
So Petersen made them run off, come back and do it again.
It’s a seemingly tiny detail, but Petersen’s attention to said details helped turn Boise State into an unlikely national power and the long-dormant Huskies into a College Football Playoff participant last season.
I sat down with Washington’s fourth-year coach primarily intending to revisit the Huskies’ playoff run and look ahead to the 2017 season. But our interview quickly turned more into a conversation about his program’s uniquely successful model — what exactly constitutes an “OKG” (Our Kind of Guy); his intensive “Built For Life” off-field program; and why his coaches almost never yell at their players.
“I don’t know for certain because I haven’t been everywhere,” said Washington offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith, “but I do think we’re a little bit unique here.”
So unique, and so successful, that in April the school signed Petersen to a new seven-year, $34.125 million contract and raised his assistants’ salary pool by more than $1 million annually. This interview occurred shortly thereafter.
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FOX Sports: I know coaches don’t like revisiting last season, but this is the first chance I’ve had to talk with you. What did the playoff run do for your program?
Petersen: I don’t know. I have no idea — that’s how often we revisit it. We’re on to the next thing. The game is over, we analyze it like any game, and then we’re on to the next thing.
FS: I would think the effect is felt more in recruiting?
Petersen: That stuff takes a while. Everybody always says, “Oh, you did this” — you’ve got to sustain things for a long period of time to change things. So, it was a good step, good momentum.
But let’s not kid ourselves — the recruiting around here has been really, really good. We’re not going to the [CFP] semifinals without really good players. They can rank us however they want to rank us, they always have, and we always do the same thing. … It’s business how it’s always been.
FS: When a guy comes here as a freshman, what is the biggest adjustment?
Petersen: The intensity and the time commitment. Like, everybody wants to come here and play as true freshmen, so we play those guys, and then the other half redshirt. And that half is in the weight room kind of going through the motions, thinking, those [other] guys are so lucky because they get to play. Then with the guys that play, halfway through the season they think those other guys are so lucky because they get to redshirt.
Even if you’re not here [in the building] — it’s every second. If you’re not doing your homework, it’s right there. That’s why you need the guys that “love, love” this game. If you’re trying to get to that elite level, it just takes something that’s completely different than most have experienced.
FS: How do you figure out in recruiting if a guy “loves, loves” football?
Petersen: That’s the million-dollar question. Because they all like getting recruited, but that’s completely different than playing football.
FS: If a guy makes it clear his goal is to come here and use it to get to the NFL, is that a good thing?
Petersen: Absolutely. If they don’t want that as a goal, they shouldn’t come here. We are trying to recruit and develop NFL players, without question, and our coaches are unbelievable at this. They did it at Boise, with these lightly recruited kids. Year 3, [Washington had four first- or second-round draft picks.]
But to us, that’s Plan B. We play Plan B first, but Plan A is the rest of your life. We’re trying to figure out what the rest of our lives are going to look like while we’re here getting this unbelievable degree. That’s one of the hardest things in life is to create a vision for your life and figure out what do I like outside of this. You may not figure it out in your time here, but you’re going to be closer along. You’re going to have done things, you’re going to be connected to people, you’re going to have done some internships.
That’s Plan A. Football is Plan B, even though were playing it first. But if we don’t think you’re good enough to be one of the best players in this conference and have a chance to play down the road. …
There’s a big misconception about what an “OKG” is. An OKG first and foremost is a big-time player. If you’re not a big-time player, one of the better ones we think in our geographic footprint where we recruit, the game stops there. We don’t recruit you. Now, the second part is figuring out, is the guy a really good dude who’s wired correctly for the football part of things.
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FS: Does that misconception stem from he fact that at Boise, generally speaking, those were lightly recruited kids?
Petersen: I’m not sure. We have a lot of good dudes here that like each other that are good to each other in the locker room, who know how to practice, that are about each other. There’s a perception that you can’t win big with really good people, which is crazy to me. I think that’s the only way to do it.
FS: The only difference [here] is, they’ve had bigger-name schools chasing them during the recruiting process so people think it creates this sense of entitlement.
Petersen: It’s really a complex situation. You can’t tell me these kids who’ve been recruited for two to three years, that it doesn’t affect their mentality by the time they get here. That doesn’t mean the guy isn’t a really good dude, but it has an effect on them. It’s hard.
FS: As it is, going into Year 4, in terms of everything you want your program to be, how similar is it to when you were going into Year 4 at Boise?
Petersen: Yeah, I don’t know. We just have our way of doing things, and our way never stays the same. If you stay the same, you get passed by. So, I would hope we don’t look the same way we did in Year 4 [at Boise].
It doesn’t matter what you’re in — what business, what sport, whatever. If you don’t study the game that you’re in, you are going to get passed by. That is a time-tested principle. I’m not talking about watching tape, I’m talking about truly studying what is going on, studying everything.
FS: [Star receiver] John Ross isn’t here anymore, and the guys turning pro affected your secondary the most. But it seems like you’ve still got a bunch of guys who have played.
Petersen: We do. I’m excited to see what those guys can do.
[DBs] Sidney [Jones] and Budda [Baker] and Kevin King — how hard those guys worked, the focus they brought to this building every day, over the time, it changes your game. These are hard things I’m talking about. It’s completely against human nature to be able to do what we’re asking them to do. If these [young] guys can do the same thing, we’ll be in good shape this fall.
FS: How is it against human nature?
Petersen: To have that type of intensity day after day. You’re a college student, you have academics, you have all kind of stuff going on. I think it’s way harder on these players than it is pro football players. Pro football players — they’re pro football players. That’s what they do. These guys have a lot of other things going on.
The experience in college — we want them to enjoy this whole thing, but you have to be so disciplined with your time to do this thing the right way. These guys are growing and learning and all of these things. If it wasn’t so hard to do that, everybody would be great.
The process of practice and lifting, on certain days, your energy is going to be off. Can you power through that and still really improve?
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FS: I know when I was college student, there were days I was more focused on the classes than other days.
Petersen: It’s such a really cool process to stand back and watch from afar. It takes a year-and-a-half to two to really say, OK, I’ve got this. I understand these things.
FS: I’ve watched practices at a lot of different places. One thing that stands out here is after the play is blown dead, you don’t hear your staff screaming at the guys who messed up. Why is that your style?
Petersen: They don’t get hired here if that’s what they’re about. We’re trying to develop self-esteem out there, and that is a really hard thing to do. Because it’s usually never quite good enough. It’s a fine line, to really bring the intensity on the field and demand a standard. You have to be a really skilled coach to understand that. But we’re never going to scream at our guys, that’s not how we do it.
FS: Do you think the way you do things is unique?
Petersen: I think it’s very unique on the field, but gets more unique off the field, with our whole Built for Life philosophy. Because it’s every day, in terms of talking about what is important in life, evolving into the best version of yourself, being a man, being accountable — that can get old. We are in team meeting after team meeting. It’s a really intense program, because I care just as much about this Built for Life philosophy as I do about winning games. And the players know that. They’re like, we have to do this again?
Sooner or later — usually later than sooner — they appreciate it. You can play at the highest level of football, but this place has to be about more than football. It goes back to Plan B and Plan A.