Petersen in process of starting over

Originally Published: April 16, 2014
By Chantel Jennings | ESPN.com

SEATTLE -- Chris Petersen sits in his office, anxiously folding an address label he peeled off a magazine. He looks past the football field into Union Bay, where the Washington crew team is practicing. He's still getting used to this view.

His last meeting ran 45 minutes long, but it was no worry to him. His family is still in Boise, Idaho, so he can stay at the office as long as he wants, which is what he needs right now. He needs to get to work on "the process."

This is not the "Boise State process." That might be where he gained his fame for working the process so well, but by no means was it built there. The process isn't one of blue turf. It comes from a program with no scholarships, a torn up field and an aged locker room.

It's a process Petersen learned 30 years ago. A process that was perfected at a Division II school 75 miles northeast of San Francisco.

It worked there. And at Boise. And in Seattle, Petersen says, it will work here, too.

The process will work. Just give it time.


Petersen did not want to be a coach.

He grew up with a front-row seat to the coaching profession. His father coached at a junior college near their hometown of Yuba City, Calif., but his dad's players seemed to care less than Chris did. From the sideline or the stands, Petersen seemed to want it more. He seemed to be angrier, happier, sadder than the players on the field.

[+] EnlargeJim Sochor
UC Davis AthleticsHall of Fame coach Jim Sochor, gave Chris Petersen his first job at UC Davis.

Maybe he was just too competitive. Maybe he was the oddity, not them. But if that was the case, he was fine playing as long as he could, as competitively as he could, then stepping away from the game.

After high school, Petersen played at Sacramento City College then spent two years starting at quarterback for UC Davis, where he posted a 19-3 record. Following his senior year, he was offered his first coaching job as an assistant at UC Davis. He was tentative. He loved playing for and learning from the UC Davis staff, but his childhood memories still outweighed his recent experiences.

His mentor and head coach at UC Davis, Jim Sochor, was the exact opposite. From age 5, Sochor knew coaching was what he'd do in life. He grew up just blocks from the San Francisco 49ers' field and would watch practices and chat it up with players as they'd head to the locker room.

In 1967, Sochor went to UC Davis as an assistant football coach and the freshman baseball coach. In 1970, he took over as head football coach. UC Davis hadn't had a winning season in 22 years. It hadn't won a conference title since 1915.

He changed it all by implementing one rule: Your football helmet never touches the ground.

"Your helmet is your most important piece of equipment," Sochor said. "It will save your life; you want to treat it with respect and dignity. That permeated the whole program."

It started with the helmet and moved out from there. The team would have three core values: trust, unity and togetherness. And in each player Sochor would develop a belief that he could win. Winning, Sochor said, was a choice. UC Davis would choose to win.

He had no scholarships, no money. The team's locker room was almost a half-century old and its field was rivaling that. But if the players did all those things -- believed in their values and each other and respected their helmets -- it could win. This could work.

And it did.

Starting in Sochor's second season, the Aggies embarked on what would become an NCAA record-setting 20 consecutive conference titles (Sochor led 18 of those teams).

In Sochor's 15th season, he recruited Petersen to UC Davis as a mobile QB.

And in his 17th season he asked Petersen to coach the freshman team. Petersen wasn't interested in it in the long term. But if it meant he could continue his graduate studies, he'd stick around a little longer.

"I think I did it just because I knew it would challenge me, it'd be a good leadership role," Petersen said. "I thought I'd coach for a year or two, finish my grad school and move on."


In 1992, a fellow UC Davis alumnus, Paul Hackett, convinced Petersen to join his staff at Pittsburgh. Three years later he ended up at Oregon under Mike Bellotti, another Aggie. And six years after that Dan Hawkins, UC Davis Class of '83, coaxed Petersen into moving to Boise State to be his offensive coordinator.  

At nearly every stop he has made, a UC Davis flare has been laid out for Petersen or there has been an Aggie light to follow. But after 27 years in the profession, Washington is the first team for which Petersen will establish the UC Davis process.

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
UC Davis AthleticsChris Petersen has carried what he learned at UC Davis with him to every stop he's made.

Here, he must introduce the process to the administration, the fans and the team. His coaching staff, many of whom came with him from Boise, gets the UC Davis process, but none ever played or coached at Davis.

"In my first month I realized what set him apart from other coaches I've been with, and it's really this process he goes through when he evaluates everything about his program -- you name it," defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said. "It's from every single detail, everything he does in his program, he evaluates. ... I've never been around anybody who's that thorough and that detailed."

Petersen still uses Sochor's helmet rule, though with an addendum: Helmets can touch the ground only during stretching, and they must be neatly stacked and organized during that time.

He has implemented the other biggest takeaways from UC Davis, too.

First, the coaches have to be great teachers. Whenever a player doesn't understand something, it is never the player's fault. It is always the coaches' fault. If Petersen breaks his stoic gaze on the sideline, it's because he's frustrated with himself, not a player.

And it is the coaches' duty to improve players' self-esteem. There must always be "compassion in interaction." Even during conditioning, even during gassers, even during games, Petersen demands his coaches find a way to build self-esteem in their players.

The players are the key in the entire process, so they're never to be undervalued.

In recruiting players, Sochor had looked for the overachievers -- the class president, the chemistry nerd, the youth group leader. He'd say, "potential is what you lose with."

Petersen does the same; he calls them OKGs -- our kinda guys. Talent will be the aspect that catches the coaches' eyes, but if a player falls short in any other category, that's where the recruitment stops. Petersen tells his coaching staff to fall in love with a player, not his film. He needs to be the kind of player who fits the program, the process.


The Washington crew team is just finishing up its workout in Union Bay as Petersen begins thinking about what he'll do that night.

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenAt Washington, Chris Petersen is in new territory. His players have no prior familiarity with his process.

Maybe he'll go out to grab dinner -- there's a new pizza place that he hasn't tried yet. And he's still in the phase of his job that no one recognizes him in public. And if they do, they're Boise State fans.

Or maybe he'll look over tomorrow's practice notes. There might be a way to make the practice more streamlined or effective.

Or maybe he'll read. He hasn't had a lot of time to do that during this transition, but at any given time he's juggling up to three books. Currently he's reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's "The Bully Pulpit" on the friendship of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and another on different principles of success, written by a high school teacher. Soon, he'll start "The Boys in the Boat," a memoir on Washington's 1936 crew team that won gold at the Olympics.

He also keeps copies of Harvard Business Review on hand because he says there's always at least one article that relates to what he does as a teacher and coach.

"I haven't read all these, though," he says, pointing to the books on his coffee table. They're exactly what one would expect in a coach's office -- mostly just books outlining the meaning of being a Husky or the University of Washington's history.

At some point he'll get to those, but right now there isn't enough time in the day for everything, especially when he and his team are behind on the process. But give it time and it will prove itself. It will prove itself like it did at UC Davis and Boise State.

The word is will, instead of could. Because, as Sochor said, winning is a choice and Petersen has made his decision.

"There are a lot of different ways to get this thing done and we have our way," Petersen said. "The secret ingredient is [the] guys ... if they believe and just keep hammering away, it will work. No doubt."

The process will work. It will.

Chantel Jennings | email

Oregon/Pac-12 reporter

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