Washington Football: Why Chris Petersen’s extension makes sense

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Washington football just signed Chris Petersen to an extension that will pay him an average of nearly $5 million a year. Here’s why the Huskies made the right move.

Last season, Chris Petersen guided the Washington Huskies to their first Pac-12 title in the 21st century. It was also the school’s first outright conference title since winning a share of the national championship in 1991. They made their way to the College Football Playoff after a 12-1 finish in the regular season. And while they lost to Alabama 24-7 in the Peach Bowl semifinal, the future looks bright for Washington.

The future looks even brighter after the school locked up Petersen to a contract extension on Monday that keeps the coach in Seattle through 2023. As originally reported by Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel, the contract will guarantee Petersen an average of $4.875 million per season over the next seven seasons.

This marks a 35 percent increase from his $3.6 million base salary from the past two seasons. It is also a significant bump in the $4.0 million he was due in 2017 and 2018. Whereas Petersen was ranked 25th in payment from his school last year, he will now move into the top ten of FBS coaches’ salaries. He is now the undisputed highest-paid coach in the Pac-12, and Petersen’s new pay scale puts him the same range as SEC coaches like Kevin Sumlin, Gus Malzahn, and Hugh Freeze.

The question many will soon ask themselves, when the dust settles and the numbers shake out, is simple. Was this a smart move by Washington as they try to maintain the momentum from last year’s championship season?

The simple answer? Of course this was a great move. But that is a little too simple. So let’s look at three reasons why Petersen is well worth the reworked deal for Washington.

Sep 4, 2015; Boise, ID, USA; Washington Huskies head coach Chris Petersen hugs Boise State Broncos defensive lineman Kamalei Correa (8) after the conclusion of the game at Albertsons Stadium. Boise State defeats Washington 16-13. Mandatory Credit: Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

1. Petersen has a proven track record of success

Back in 2006, Chris Petersen took over for Dan Hawkins as the head coach at Boise State. In his first season as the head of a program, Petersen led the Broncos to an undefeated record. Busting the BCS, they then provided one of the most legendary Cinderella finishes in football history:

Over the next seven years, Petersen averaged 11 wins per season at Boise State. The Broncos played in another Fiesta Bowl, beating TCU. They barely missed out on the chance to play in several other BCS games. And Boise State has taken down a series of high-profile teams all along the way. During the streak, schools came calling to see if they could court Petersen away from Idaho. He bided his time, and it was only after Washington called that he finally made the move to a Power Five school.

As of now, Petersen is one of just five coaches with at least 100 victories at the FBS level and a winning percentage of .800 or better. The Huskies leader currently ranks 16th among active coaches in wins. And the only coaches with a better winning percentage are Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, new Texas coach Tom Herman, and Buffalo’s Lance Leipold (due mostly to his time as a Division III legend at Wisconsin-Whitewater).

Since coming to Washington, he’s quickly rebuilt the Huskies. Let’s now turn toward the work Petersen has done since moving to Seattle.

Nov 25, 2016; Pullman, WA, USA; Washington Huskies head coach Chris Petersen hands off the the Apple Cup Trophy after a game against the Washington State Cougars after a game at Martin Stadium. The Huskies won 45-17. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

2. Washington is built for sustained success in the future

Petersen’s first two seasons in the Pac-12 were a bit rough, as the Huskies lost 12 games — as many as he had lost in eight years at Boise State. But last season proved that Petersen is capable of engineering a rebuilding project. The thing is that the cupboard was never really barren in the Puget Sound, but rather that the Huskies were getting less out of the talent they did have than was possible.

Steve Sarkisian left Petersen plenty of skill throughout the roster when he bolted for his ill-fated stint at USC. In his first year of recruiting, the Huskies fell from the 18th-best class in 2013 to the 37th-rated group in 2014. Since then, Petersen has been able to stabilize the pipeline.

Thus, even as players like John Ross move on to the NFL, the Huskies are set up to continue contending for the Pac-12 and College Football Playoff spots for the foreseeable future.

Next season, the Huskies return a large portion of their prolific offense. That includes Jake Browning, who will likely be a Heisman contender this season, as well as a pair of stud running backs. The defense will need to replace some key cogs, but they recruited three top-50 defensive ends and a trio of top-35 defensive backs last year. That builds upon a recruiting effort in 2016 where the Huskies scored another strong defensive class.

Given Petersen’s skills as a coach, he should manage to get the most out of the talent he has brought into the program. Which brings up the last main point about the long-term value gained by this deal.

Jan 11, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney congratulates Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban following the 45-40 victory in the 2016 CFP National Championship at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

3. Petersen’s contract provides fair market rate among top coaches

When measured against other Pac-12 coaching salaries, Chris Petersen’s contract looks massive by comparison. His new deal dwarfs the salaries received by coaches like Stanford’s David Shaw. But at this point, it would be foolish to measure Petersen solely against the other coaches on the Pacific coast.

Instead, given Petersen’s track record and the rebuilding job he has already done in Seattle, it is more fair to compare him against the other top coaches in the sport. Washington is locking in a Petersen at a rate that pays just half what Jim Harbaugh receives at Michigan.

There was little worry of Petersen moving. Just consider how long he waited for the right Power Five opportunity before taking the Washington job. But this deal is as smart for Washington as it was for the coach.

By the end of the contract, when the school is looking to either extend it further or send Petersen off into retirement, the base salary might look downright cheap compared to the future market. Either way, the deal is well within the market value for top-tier coaches. Washington was wise to seal up the coach they had been seeking for years while they could do so at a smart rate.

After engineering the turnaround of 2016 and returning a contender for 2017, Petersen can relax without worrying about his long-term security.

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