There is nothing interesting about No. 5 Washington or its head coach, Chris Petersen. At least, that’s what Petersen wants you to think.
The rest of the nation is curious about the Huskies, wondering if their quiet rise is a sign that they are ready to return to contention in the Pac-12 and possibly challenge for a place in the College Football Playoff. But that is not the focus — not for Petersen.
“We’re kind of burying our head in the sand,” Petersen said of the attention being paid to his team. “I do think it’s important that we pay attention to it as coaches and talk about those things because it can be distracting — there’s no question about it.
“It’s distracting to me to have to sit here and talk to you,” he said with a laugh.
That’s consistent with Petersen’s philosophy from his time at Boise State, a program with a lower profile than Washington’s, but one where he enjoyed fabulous success using the same methods he’s employing in Seattle.
That isn’t to say Petersen doesn’t like to inject a little fun and personality into his program, but you won’t hear any of that from the man himself. However, in talking to former and current colleagues, little pieces of Petersen’s personality are revealed.
Back when he was at Boise State, after the Broncos started winning some games, a few of the younger coaches decided to spend their raises and bonuses on Harley Davidson motorcycles.
Petersen, being the levelheaded man he is, decided a Harley wasn’t the right choice for him. He bought a small, red scooter.
“That was his answer to the Harley — the red scooter,” said Montana State coach Jeff Choate, who worked under Petersen at Boise State and Washington. “That says everything you need to know about Chris Petersen. … It was Wild Hogs and then Coach Pete.”
Every so often, Petersen drove the 5 miles from his house to work on his scooter and parked it out back of his office. Staffers saw it from the building and remarked, “That’s so him.”
If Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and his ubiquitous social media presence, his milk commercials, his love for Judge Judy and his recommendations for optimal trick-or-treating are at one end of the attention-seeking-coaches spectrum, Petersen, likely in disguise, is at the other.
Even so, his team’s play on the field is doing plenty to garner headlines. He appreciates the necessity of the spotlight — especially in terms of recruiting — but do not mistake appreciation with affinity.
“That’s who he is and what he believes in: worrying about the things that matter and not being distracted or affected by the noise,” said Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who formerly filled that role at Boise State. “Keeping perspective on the things that it takes to be good and not being distracted by things that don’t have an impact on that.”
Petersen wasn’t against having a little fun at practice and keeping things light. He and his sons liked to bring Super Soakers to practice.
“The water guns,” former Boise State punt returner Chris Potter said. “He had a blast with it. A lot more fun than we did, obviously.”
Petersen used to come up with crazy drills for his punt returners. He had them lie down, facing away from the punter, with a football in each hand. They had to wait until they heard the sound of the ball on the punter’s foot, and when they did, they were to jump up and turn around, only to be met by Petersen (and sometimes one of his kids) with a Super Soaker, spraying them in the face with water.
In a way, Washington’s 2016 season feels similar to what Petersen faced at Boise State. The Broncos operated with no margin for error; they needed to run the table to have a chance at a BCS bowl. The Huskies, with a weak nonconference slate, might not be shoo-ins for the playoff with a loss — not even as Pac-12 champions.
Not that that will be the subject of any of Petersen’s team talks.
“I want our guys to just do what they’ve been doing — just preparing hard and staying focused on the right things and showing up on Saturday with great energy and playing as a team,” Petersen said. “These guys have been giving everything they can possibly give, so we just need to stick to that and stay focused and not pay attention to all the stuff that doesn’t really matter.”
All this hype about sophomore quarterback Jake Browning, who leads the nation in passer efficiency rating? The buzz about Browning playing his way into Heisman contention? Unimportant.
How about a Huskies defense that features several future NFL picks? Blasé.
The fact that most people outside of Seattle can’t name more than two players on the team, aside from Browning? Intentional.
Petersen likes to keep things on the straight and narrow. His process has worked for him in the past, and he doesn’t want to deviate from his set course.
Except when he’s throwing a costume party. Because Petersen loves a good costume party.
“He’s going to get mad at me for saying that,” Washington athletic director Jen Cohen said.
At Boise State, Petersen hosted a costume party for the coaches and their families at the end of the recruiting year. One year, the party had a Western theme; another was a “Saturday Night Live” theme.
“He can get into some pretty good characters,” Cohen said. “He’s a lot of fun. I’ll tell you that much.”
Peterson needed to be a lot of things upon his arrival at Washington, a program that had been upended by the sudden departure of Steve Sarkisian. There were factions within the team that were unsure whether they were going to accept a new coach, no matter if he won 88 percent of his games at his previous job.
Some players didn’t transition well to Petersen’s scheme. Some players didn’t transition well to his process. But within the program, he has cultivated an enormous amount of trust in his process, and three years later, Seattle is seeing the fruits of his labor.
“Those of us that are a part of the program with him get to see that side of him,” Cohen said. “That’s why he’s getting so much out of his players because he cares deeply about them.”
Inside the program, there’s a lot going on that most don’t see, just as it was at Boise State. On game days, for a few hours at a time, everyone gets a glimpse of the genius of Petersen’s creation.
By all appearances from outside the program, Washington is that plain house on the corner with the typical, white picket fence and manicured lawn. That guy who comes out every so often? The one who might be quietly on his way to a playoff berth and a third Paul Bear Bryant Award?
There’s nothing special about him. And that’s just the way he likes it.