As he stood inside Washington’s spacious recruiting lounge facing a horde of boosters, athletic officials and four shirtless fans whose chests spelled P-E-T-E in purple letters, Chris Petersen tried to explain why he had taken the Huskies job after eight wildly successful seasons at Boise State.
“I needed to take that next step out of that comfort zone there,” Petersen said on that December day in 2013.
Five years later it seems as if he never left — the highly coveted coach who twice spurned UCLA in its attempts to hire him, trading in one snugly situation for another.
Petersen guided the Huskies to bowl games in each of his first two seasons before breaking through to the College Football Playoff in 2016. His teams have sustained the early success, winning 10 games in 2017 and currently possessing a No. 10 national ranking that’s the best in the Pac-12 Conference.
It’s a template UCLA fans would love to see their new coach emulate as Chip Kelly’s struggling Bruins (0-4 overall, 0-1 Pac-12) face Petersen’s surging Huskies (4-1, 2-0) on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
“Chris is one of the best coaches out there,” Kelly said this week, “so it doesn’t surprise me at all the success they’re having.”
Unlike Kelly, whose team is coming off consecutive losing seasons, Petersen didn’t exactly commence a full rebuilding upon his arrival in Seattle. Washington was already on an upward trajectory under Steve Sarkisian, finishing the 2013 season 9-4 and ranked No. 25 in the Associated Press poll after Sarkisian departed for USC before the team’s bowl game.
Petersen credited Sarkisian with helping to steady the program and make it a more attractive destination only five years removed from a 0-12 season.
“It’s all about timing,” Petersen said shortly after he was hired.
The Huskies opened the 2014 season ranked No. 25 — the first time they had been ranked in the preseason since 2003 — and rolled off a 4-0 start before finishing 8-6 with a loss to Oklahoma State in the Cactus Bowl.
There were challenges amid the early success. Petersen dismissed a handful of players, including standout cornerback Marcus Peters, and used team-bonding exercises that former offensive lineman Ben Riva described as “cheesy stuff.”
“There’s hard decisions along the way,” Petersen said this week. “Sometimes you’ve got to just keep recruiting your guys to get in. It can be hard on guys that you didn’t recruit because things are a little bit different than how they were recruited in.”
More than a year into the job, Petersen estimated that the culture change he hoped to implement might take another year to fully take hold. The Huskies featured a younger roster in 2015 and went 7-6 with a victory over Southern Mississippi in the Cotton Bowl.
Everything fell into place in 2016 once the team’s freshmen became sophomores, quarterback Jake Browning leading Washington to the Pac-12 title and a berth in the College Football Playoff before losing to Alabama in a national semifinal.
The Huskies have largely sustained their success, with Browning now a senior and the school’s all-time leading passer.
Kelly has never set any definitive goals at UCLA other than saying he wanted to “win now” — a sentiment echoed this week by Petersen when asked about his timetable for competing for Pac-12 titles once he took the Washington job.
“The plan is to win right away — I don’t think anyone goes in saying, ‘It’s going to take years to get that done,’ ” Petersen said. “We don’t have years. I know it takes longer than we all want it to, it just kind of depends, I think, in terms of the talent and culture that you inherit, how similar it is to what you were envisioning.”
Kelly inherited one of the nation’s toughest schedules, UCLA’s first five opponents having gone a combined 21-2. The Bruins also are among the youngest teams in the country, their roster featuring 71.7% underclassmen. That’s the fifth-highest percentage of underclassmen in the nation according to a preseason survey of Football Bowl Subdivision schools.
Maybe it should come as no surprise that UCLA is one of only four winless FBS teams, along with Nebraska, Texas El Paso and San Jose State.
Kelly has kept the same approach in his routine and practice plans, a consistency his players said they appreciated in their quest for a first victory.
“He just keeps saying, like, ‘Keep going, keep going hard, just keep pushing through,’ ” cornerback Elijah Gates said.
Kelly was also beleaguered the only other time he faced Petersen as a head coach. In his first game at Oregon, in 2009, Kelly’s Ducks lost to Petersen’s Boise State Broncos in a prelude to a more unsettling moment. Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount punched a player after the game, leading to a lengthy suspension.
Everything turned out just fine. Blount eventually returned and the Ducks ended that season in the Rose Bowl, commencing a four-year run in which Kelly’s teams went 46-7.
Now he’s trying to avoid that many losses in his first season with the Bruins.