Can Petersen topple Oregon and make UW king of the Northwest?
JUL 24, 2014 11:30a ET
HOLLYWOOD -- As he waited to begin his second Pac-12 Media Days interview Wednesday morning, Chris Petersen had no idea the extent of the two-day grind ahead of him. He’d be speaking to three national TV networks, about 20 local TV and radio affiliates and an event room full of print reporters by the end of the day Thursday.
He’s not in the Mountain West anymore.
“I was under no illusions -- my life got harder coming to take this job. I get it,” Petersen told FOXSports.com. “When I was in the Pac-10 as an assistant at Oregon [from 1995-2000], every game was a dog fight, and it’s just gotten harder and harder to win since.”
Petersen, 49, spent eight seasons as Boise State’s head coach, racking up a staggering 92-12 record, and was the Broncos’ offensive coordinator for five years before that. Each new 12-1 season brought with it another round of coaching carousel rumors – Stanford? USC? Arkansas? – and each time he stayed put for another year, fans wondered whether the notoriously reclusive coach would become a Boise lifer.
As it turns out, Petersen shares the same wandering eye as most in his profession.
“Coaches are strange birds sometimes; we’re always sort of looking for that next challenge, that next thing to do,” he said. “That’s what it was.
“Boise’s a great place. I could have been there for a long time. But I don’t know if that would have been the best thing for me or for Boise to stay there forever. Just kind of time for that next chapter and Washington’s a place that sort of fit the things I’m about.”
Save for one season at Pittsburgh as a young assistant, Petersen, a California native who played quarterback at UC-Davis, has spent his whole life in the Pacific or Mountain time zones. And he’s old enough to remember when Washington -- not Oregon, Stanford or USC -- ruled the West Coast, winning a national championship in 1991 and remaining nationally relevant well into his stint in Eugene.
“I remember like it was yesterday when I was there, a lot of our sights were set on Washington,” he said. “I don’t think Washington had much interest in Oregon.”
The Huskies have plenty of interest in the Ducks now. They desperately want to beat them. Oregon has long since supplanted Washington as the Northwest’s preeminent program, beating the Huskies 10 straight times, with every single game decided by no fewer than 17 points.
Former Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, now at USC, did a nice job lifting the program from the depths of Tyrone Willingham’s winless 2008 season and pulled off the occasional upset of USC or Stanford, but he never could get the Huskies back into the conference’s upper tier.
Petersen is plenty qualified to finish the job.
Barely a decade after the program moved up from Division I-AA, Petersen led Boise to a pair of undefeated seasons (2006 and ’09) and Fiesta Bowl victories (over Oklahoma and TCU, respectively) and had the Broncos ranked as high as No. 3 nationally in 2010. Along the way his cast of former no-star recruits knocked off the likes of Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia and churned out NFL stars like tackle Ryan Clady and running back Doug Martin.
In Seattle, Petersen takes over a program already brimming with more high-caliber talent than he typically worked with at Boise. The Huskies last season won nine games for the first time in a decade but generally held serve, struggling against the Pac-12’s upper-echelon teams (Oregon, Arizona State and UCLA, in particular) but routing decent teams like Arizona, Oregon State and BYU. They did take conference champion Stanford to the wire in Palo Alto, falling 31-28, and many in the conference felt they were better than their record.
“Washington’s got good players,” said Cal coach Sonny Dykes. “They’re a big physical football team, they’ve got a lot of size on both sides of the ball.”
That happened to be a hallmark of Petersen’s best Boise teams.
Washington should be particularly stout in its defensive front, where it returns big-time pass rusher Hau’oli Kikaha (13 sacks in 2013), playmaking linebackers Shaq Thompson (78 tackles) and John Timu (77) and disruptive defensive tackle Danny Shelton (59). Thompson and Shelton have garnered preseason All-America honors.
Offensively, Petersen faces a considerable challenge replacing standout running back Bishop Sankey (1,870 yards, 20 touchdowns). But the biggest key for the Huskies is whether sophomore quarterback Cyler Miles can master a new offense despite missing much of the offseason. Miles, who completed 60.7 percent of his passes last season in occasional relief of an injured Keith Price, returned in May from a three-month suspension stemming from an altercation with two Seahawks fans following last February’s Super Bowl. Receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow, who’s since transferred, pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges stemming from the incident.
Miles remains the favorite to claim the starting job but will clearly have to win the trust of his new coach.
“Cyler’s kind of the wild card,” said Petersen. “He played last year, but we weren’t here. We have a new offense so we have to get him up to speed.”
Petersen’s Broncos teams were known for their offensive creativity, from their unorthodox formations to their famed trick plays. But Petersen’s players both at Boise and now Washington often speak of a more intangible element of their coach’s approach.
“This idea of team unity and chemistry, it’s a little different from what you hear and see out of other [teams],” said Kikaha, who said players have spent the summer hosting barbeques and other activities with their teammates. “It’s very family oriented. It’s for real.”
It appears Petersen is trying to import the best parts of his tight-knit Boise community to a campus smack in a major city. But will he also able to replicate the collective chip the unheralded Broncos always wore so proudly with more heavily recruited Pac-12 players?
“Every good team is going to play with a chip on your shoulder,” said Petersen. “I don’t necessarily think we were overlooked [at Boise]. People put that on us. I just think our guys liked to play, and play hard, and that’s what we’d like to do at Washington as well.”
We’ll find out soon enough whether the Huskies have the pieces to finally contend with Oregon. At the very least, their coach will have them properly prepared.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. Before joining FOX Sports, he covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” will be released in August. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.