Chris Petersen didn’t quite like the way I phrased the question, which was about how he maintained his personal integrity and values in a college football environment permeated with a “win at all costs” mentality.
“I don’t think it’s win at all costs,” he shot back. “It’s win with the values and beliefs that you’re all about. That’s how we do it.”
Now, you can roll your eyes if you like. You can be skeptical about Petersen’s “Built for Life” blueprint and the so-called “OKGs” — Our Kind of Guys — he recruits for his Washington football team.
But answer me this: Can you envision Petersen embroiled in the sort of controversy that threatens to bring down Urban Meyer at Ohio State? Or any of the other rampant examples of coaches who let the lust for titles and victories undermine their sense of right and wrong and poison their program?
I find it implausible. Of course, we don’t know what lurks deep in Petersen’s heart of hearts, just as we don’t with anyone. No one can say with absolute certainty that rules aren’t being bent and compromises being made behind closed doors. Coaches have surprised us before with scandals that belied their squeaky-clean reputation.
But in words and in action, Petersen and his program appear to be doing as good a job as any in the country in maintaining the proper balance between winning football games and doing so without sacrificing your ideals.
Football can be a dirty business, as we all know. The temptations to stray come fast and furious. The key, Petersen says, is staying true to who you are, and what you are trying to be. Which, he acknowledges, isn’t easy.
“I think every day something comes across my desk that I’m challenged integrity-wise,” he said, speaking at a news conference Thursday to mark the opening of training camp leading to a 2018 season of unlimited promise for the Huskies.
“It’s not about making one good decision and move on; it’s an everyday thing when you’re in a big organization or a big place. And a lot of times, it’s subtle stuff. It all starts small. We tell our players all the time that it starts small. You don’t end up all of a sudden … that doesn’t happen.
“So you have to pay attention to the small things to make sure that you’re on track with who you want to be and how you want to conduct business.”
In 13 seasons as a head coach at Boise State and Washington, Petersen has won at an .816 clip (129-29). That’s better than Nick Saban (.778) and Dabo Sweeney (.771) and behind, among FBS coaches, only … Meyer (.851).
This is not an attempt to turn Petersen into a holier-than-thou figure. He might not be win at all costs, but he burns to win. I’d like to think that it’s possible to do it without selling your soul.
Here’s when it gets especially tough: When things are going really, really well for your program, and you feel the pressure to maintain that success. Or when things are going really, really poorly, and you feel even more pressure to turn it around.
“It’s hard,” Petersen said. “We’re not perfect, so it’s hard with the pressure, and you get blown off course. But that’s why I always say that’s why you have a philosophy of who you are and how you want to do things. So when things get really good, you don’t get off track, and when things get hard and the pressure builds, you don’t get off track.”
The dismissal of defensive star Marcus Peters in November 2014 can be seen as an illustration of Petersen resisting the win-at-all-costs mentality. This was late in his first season at Washington, remember, when it was not at all known whether Petersen could transfer his tremendous success at Boise to the big stage of the Pac-12. Certainly, the Huskies, en route to an 8-6 season, would have been more competitive with a future All-Pro cornerback such as Peters, but Petersen was trying to make a larger point about how he wanted business conducted.
He said Thursday he had already met with his staff that very day to discuss, not for the first or last time, the ethical way to conduct a program — prompted, I would guess, by the Ohio State situation. Petersen always tells his assistants that when he talks to them about such matters, “I’m first and foremost talking to myself.”
Petersen credited UW athletic director Jen Cohen with constant vigilance and training for the entire department on proper protocol for handling various thorny issues that might crop up.
“We’re going to have conversations about this all the time,” he said, “when it’s appropriate — what’s going on in the real world and how it fits with us and applies to us.”
“We just try to do the right thing. I think it comes down to that. There’s still going to be mistakes made. We get that. We’re human, and there’s a lot of dynamics. … I’m not trying to make ourselves different or better. But it’s something you talk about and you pay attention and you try to live a life that you want the kids to live, and it all works together.”
In times like these, those are comforting words. Let’s hope Chris Petersen never has to eat them.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Larry Stone is a columnist for the Seattle Times
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