Opinion: Can you really blame Washington coach Chris Petersen for wanting to take a break?

Dan Wolken

There's a long list of reasons why Chris Petersen has been a little bit different from most of his peers in coaching, but let’s start with a few of them. 

When he came out of relative obscurity to lead Boise State to one of the most memorable upsets in college football history over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, he didn’t jump at the next big opportunity. In fact, over and over again, Petersen turned down jobs that almost any other coach would have taken — not just middle-of-the-road power conference gigs but some really good ones. And when it was finally time to leave Boise State in 2013, having turned that program into one of the sport’s most identifiable brand names, he went to the place where he was going to feel the most comfortable, not where he would have the best chance of winning a national title or have the most resources at his disposal. 

So perhaps none of us have been too surprised when Petersen stepped down Monday after his sixth season at Washington with an announcement that seemed to pop up out of nowhere — no leaks, no chatter within the coaching industry, no will-he-or-won’t-he drama. 

“I’ll be a Husky for life, but now is the right time for me to step away from my head coaching duties and recharge,” Petersen said. 

Chris Petersen says he will be taking time to recharge.

The wording of that statement is almost certainly not an accident. When Petersen talks about a “recharge,” it’s fair to assume he’s not completely done coaching at age 55 but rather taking a break from the grind of a world with endless headaches, constant scrutiny and few days off. 

And you know what? Given how miserable so many aspects of the coaching profession are these days and how much money these guys make, how can you really blame him for deciding it’s time to live a different life? 

Petersen is now the third high-profile coach in the last few years to walk away from a high-profile job without any pressure to leave. After 18 seasons at Oklahoma, it was important to Bob Stoops to get out while both he and his program were healthy so he woke up one day and handed the reins to Lincoln Riley. Then last year, Urban Meyer decided it was time to put a bow on his tenure at Ohio State, leaving behind a program that was primed for a possible national title run. 

Though all three of those decisions had different circumstances attached to them, they are connected by a changing paradigm in coaching. It used to be that most great coaches had Bear Bryant syndrome — a fear that the day they left the field, they’d be on a quick path to the grave just like Bryant, who died from a heart attack less than a month after coaching his final game at Alabama. 

But even though coaches love to coach and often don’t know anything else, the quality of life isn’t always spectacular these days because the actual coaching is only a fraction of the job. The rest is pandering to teenagers, sucking up to boosters, dealing with angry parents, fighting the transfer portal to hold a roster together and living in fear of a 3 a.m. phone call about a player getting in trouble. Heck, the Ole Miss coach lost his job this weekend largely because a 19-year-old kid did a dumb 19-year-old kid thing with a touchdown celebration that ended up costing his team the game. 

To be clear, there’s no reason to feel sorry for these guys. Pretty much anyone who gets a Power Five head coaching job these days is going to get a five-year contract worth at least than $10 million guaranteed that should set them up for life. Even for the bad coaches, the financial rewards of reaching that level are significant. For someone as successful as Petersen, there’s an opportunity for generational wealth. 

Which is all the more incentive for coaches who value their time and their sanity to do exactly what Petersen did on Monday and say after a disappointing 7-5 season that it’s time to take a break from the stress and the daily grind and just recharge the batteries. Wouldn’t we all love to be in a position to do that? 

The problem, of course, is that not everyone is Chris Petersen. A lot of coaches who would like to take a break won’t do it simply out of fear that they won’t be able to get back in, and certainly not into a job at the same level. With Petersen, there will be curiosity from every single big-time school that has a job opening over the next few years about whether he might be interested. 

Just like he was in leaving Boise State and going to Washington, you can bet Petersen is going to be both choosy and unpredictable, and his quality of life is going to be paramount in any decision he makes. Every coach in college football wishes they could be so lucky.