Maybe eight or nine years ago, Chris Petersen had an opening for an assistant coach on his staff at Boise State.
He doesn’t remember what the job was, but he does remember this: Former Prosser High School coach Tom Moore, the father of former Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore, emailed Petersen a suggestion.
“Jimmy Lake is a really good coach,” Petersen remembers Moore telling him. “You should think about him.”
To which Petersen thought: “Who is Jimmy Lake?”
Jimmy Lake did not get that job.
But Petersen did eventually hire him to coach Boise State’s defensive backs in 2012, a decision based partially on Lake’s resume, and partially on a recommendation from defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, who was on Eastern Washington’s coaching staff when Lake was a player there in the late 1990s.
And he brought him to Washington in the same capacity in December 2013.
All Lake has done since is assemble a secondary expected to be among the nation’s best this season, anchored by two returning first-team all-conference players and several others who could someday play in the NFL.
The depth and talent of the Huskies’ defensive backfield is the team’s biggest strength. Lake, then, has become something of a star assistant, the architect of UW’s best secondary in recent memory.
“This is what you want,” Lake said. “Proven guys who have done it, and talented guys that are their backups that could also start in case one of those guys goes down.”
Lake aspires to be a head coach, and such a career trajectory appears as attainable as ever. After the Huskies allowed only 11 passing touchdowns last season and led the Pac-12 in scoring defense, Petersen promoted Lake to “co-defensive coordinator,” a label that essentially describes what Lake was already doing. The accompanying $110,000 raise might be a tad more significant.
And the money might be the only part of Lake’s professional ventures that matches what he envisioned when he graduated from Eastern Washington with a degree in business administration in 2000.
He played safety at Eastern and was a part of the Eagles’ run to the national semifinals in 1997. He loved it there, loved the coaches, loved his teammates. But he gave little thought to becoming a coach.
“I thought I was going to go off and run my own company and be a general manager of some company somewhere and make lots of money,” Lake said. “That was my goal.”
When his senior season ended, several Eastern coaches talked him into becoming an undergraduate assistant the following year. He helped coach linebackers, while also working as an account executive selling tickets for the Spokane Indians baseball team.
Once he finished his degree, then-Eastern coach Paul Wulff hired him to coach defensive backs as a full-time assistant.
He did that job for four seasons before, as he says now, he tried to force the issue. It proved to be a misstep: Lake left Eastern to coach defensive backs at Washington … in 2004. The Huskies finished that season with a 1-10 record, and UW fired coach Keith Gilbertson and his entire staff, Lake included.
Lake and his wife cried as they packed the U-Haul on their way out of town.
“We loved Seattle,” Lake said. “We loved the University of Washington. We really feel at home here, and that was a sad day packing up that U-Haul. That’s the other part of it: when you get fired, you usually have to pack yourself. When you get hired, someone comes and packs your stuff up for you.”
He experienced that feeling twice more: once as defensive backs coach for the Detroit Lions when coach Rod Marinelli was fired in 2008, and again as defensive backs coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when coach Raheem Morris was fired after the 2011 season.
That last one could be interpreted as a blessing, because it brought Lake to Boise State to work for Petersen, whom he refers to as “the best head coach in football.”
And it set in motion the series of events that brought Lake back to Washington. He was recruiting in Los Angeles on a December afternoon in 2013 when he received a SportsCenter alert on his iPad: Petersen, the alert read, was leaving Boise State for UW.
Thirty seconds later, Lake said, his phone rang. It was Petersen, asking Lake to come with him to Seattle. He agreed without hesitation, and now here he is, thriving at his fifth job in the last decade.
Lake credits his upbringing for his ability to adapt. His father was in the Air Force, so the family moved a lot when Lake was growing up. He was born in San Francisco. He spent five years each in Turkey and the Philippines. He eventually wound up in Spokane, where he played football, baseball and basketball at North Central High School. (It’s also where he met a girl named Michele in sixth-period Life Choices class. They were friends then. They are married now and have three children, ages 16, 14 and 9.)
Rather than lament all those moves, Lake instead embraced the opportunity to meet new people and experience different cultures. And he thinks it’s part of why he’s able to recruit so well.
“I can drop into any city,” Lake said, “whether it’s Florida or California, and be able to relate with the coaches and players and their families.”
Like all-Pac-12 safety Budda Baker, who was committed to Oregon before Petersen was hired at UW. He says now that Lake is a big reason why he eventually decided to stay home.
“I tend to know who’s faking it and who’s being real,” said Baker, who starred at Bellevue High School, “and when I met him, I knew it was real.”
The Huskies brought in six other defensive backs with Baker in their 2014 recruiting class; four of them — Baker, all-Pac-12 cornerback Sidney Jones, starting cornerback Darren Gardenhire and starting strong safety JoJo McIntosh — are expected to start UW’s 2016 opener.
Kwiatkowski said the thing he remembers most about Lake as a player was his intelligence, his ability to read the game from the safety position, and Lake tries to instill the same traits in his players.
“We don’t just learn techniques with our scheme,” Gardenhire said. “We focus on football — this split, each release, learning how to read formations, shot formations, just reading everything from splits to routes to concepts. … I feel like we’re one of the smarter secondaries in the country because of him, and our football IQ is there.”
Jones, a coveted NFL prospect, spends hours in Lake’s office breaking down film and credits Lake for his development.
“He’s experienced, he’s coached at the next level, he knows scheme, he’s very intelligent,” Jones said. “He connects well to the players, very energized. Has standards. Cool coach, but strict as well. He can have a discipline side to him, too.”
So, what’s next? It’s worth wondering how much longer UW will be able to keep Lake as an assistant; if the Huskies’ defensive backs perform this season the way they are expected, Lake’s stock will only continue to rise.
Petersen said he “absolutely” thinks Lake can be a head coach some day.
“Totally,” Kwiatkowski said, asked the same question. “He’d be a real good head coach, for sure. Great communicator. Very organized. He’s extremely competitive.”
Lake isn’t worried about the timeline. He learned his lesson, he said, after leaving Eastern for a job at UW that many warned him against taking. So if he’s going to leave UW, it’s going to be for the right fit.
He likes it here. His wife likes it here. He plays golf at The Home Course and Washington National, and drives his boat to work a handful of times each year.
“I just know if I continue to do my job and try to do it with excellence, recruit, make sure my players are being productive, then to me, everything will take care of itself,” Lake said. “And what’s awesome is I feel like I’m beneath the best head coach in football, so every day for me is a learning experience. I have notebooks on notebooks of notes taken on how Coach Pete handles different situations, and to me, that will definitely help me down the road, if that opportunity ever presents itself.”
For now, the promise of the 2016 season is opportunity enough.
“What we have to do is make sure we do what got us here,” Lake said. “We continue to work hard, continue to study in the film room, continue to have great practices, great meetings, to make sure we can replicate and actually go above and beyond what we did last year.”