Inside Chris Petersen's stunning decision to step down: 'He’s not wired like these other guys'

In a hotel conference room in Boise sometime after the 2013 season, USC officials met with Chris Petersen about their open coaching job. The Trojans were coming off Lane Kiffin’s tenure, which rated high in off-field drama and low in victories.

The Trojans brass initially clicked with Petersen, who had two things desperately needed at USC – an aura of professionalism and a 99-12 record. The interview was going well until it turned to donor and media relations, and all the optimism quickly fled the room.

USC officials looking to recreate the free-wheeling and wide-open era of Pete Carroll cringed when Petersen presented rigid answers about access and glad-handing. “It was very authentic to who he was, which was refreshing,” said a person briefed on the interaction. “But based on Los Angeles and the USC environment, USC didn’t think it would work.”

Chris Petersen’s potential marriage with USC ended with both sides feeling like they wouldn’t fit. Petersen would have coached in proximity to Hollywood, but he wasn’t going to become Hollywood.

Nearly six years later, with Petersen stepping down at Washington, the USC story proves instructive as to what makes Petersen tick. “He’s not wired like these other guys for fame and money,” a friend of Petersen’s told Yahoo Sports on Monday. “He just likes coaching ball.”

Petersen’s resignation takes on the unique duality of being both stunning and yet not particularly surprising. The timing made even those closest to him flinch, but the reasoning was authentic to who Chris Petersen is off the field. (He’s planning on taking a “leadership advisory role” in the athletic department.)

Washington head coach Chris Petersen looks on from the sidelines during an NCAA college football game against USC on Sept. 28, 2019. (AP)

Petersen’s decision shows a perspective that there’s a big world beyond scoreboard, recruiting rankings and third-and-7. He finished his stints at Boise and Washington with a record of 146-38, an outlandish 79 percent winning percentage for a coach who stayed defiantly understated. “There’s no illness or ulterior motive to his retirement,” a person close to Petersen told Yahoo Sports on Monday. “He just needs to recharge.”

Petersen never coached for the stadium size, the paycheck or, certainly, the attention. He shunned all of that, perhaps as much as any successful modern coach. In the late aughts and early teens, as Petersen led Boise on one of the most dominant runs of college football in this era, he had countless chances to leave. He rarely even returned phone calls, as then-Washington athletic director Scott Woodward found out. “He didn’t give us a sniff when we first had the job open,” Woodward said with a laugh on Monday. 

Petersen enjoyed the relative serenity in Boise, though, and relished building the program with OKGs – Our Kind of Guys. That metric was judged more by love of football than any recruiting-service star symbol. Petersen helped turn Kellen Moore into one of the most prolific quarterbacks in college football history – he went an astounding 50-3 as a starter – and pushed Boise into the college football mainstream with two undefeated seasons capped by Fiesta Bowl wins.

“He always struck me as someone who was very balanced and had priorities that were based on more than just winning football games,” said former UCLA coach Jim Mora, who coached against Petersen in the Pac-12.

The most telling detail about Petersen may be that when he got to Seattle, the bustling Northwest city was too busy to notice him. And he loved it. He and his wife, Barb, and two sons could go to dinner and ferry to different destinations without being bothered. “It has been the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the move that I just blend in,” he said a few years back. “Literally half of the people who recognize me here are from Boise. Honest to God. That’s the truth.” 

Those who know Petersen best can wax nostalgic about his behind-the-scenes personality. The coaches would chat about the annual costume party he and Barb hosted, as they’d dress up to a theme like “Saturday Night Live” and consistently deliver one of the most fun nights of the year. The players raved about his focus on team building, arranging the locker room so different position groups and classes mixed together. Players raved about the paintball nights, barbecues and lake swims that were a mandatory part of bonding together. “I think he’s a renaissance man,” Woodward said. “I think he’s an intellectual. He thinks about a lot of things in different ways than most people do.”

Petersen ambushed the football mainstream through trick-play blunt force back on New Year’s Day in 2007 in his debut season as a head coach. Boise State stunned Oklahoma after the mystical trifecta of scoring on a hook-and-ladder, halfback pass and Statue of Liberty play to seal a Fiesta Bowl that’s regarded as the most entertaining comeback in the history of the sport.

Just as unpredictable as his entrance was into the college football consciousness, so was his exit. Each moment fitting in their own way, nearly 13 years apart.

Petersen won the Pac-12 twice and reached the College Football Playoff at Washington, a fantastic run that ushered the program back to the mainstream. Washington slipped to 7-5 this season, an unexpected dip considering the promise of transfer quarterback Jacob Eason. Petersen decided to step away and recharge, likely happy to be away from the ridiculousness of recruiting and mandatory media appearances.

To Petersen, culture was much more than a sign on the wall of the facility. And life has always remained much more than the final score. It’s fitting that a coach who was an unconventional thinker and leader would exit this way. There’s a chance Petersen may return to coaching. There’s also a chance he may get captivated by something completely different, and we may never hear from him again.

With a career bookended by a pair of unexpected reverses, here’s to Petersen finding his own private Hollywood.   

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