The most important part of a college coach’s job is to prepare his players for competition.
Everything else — game planning, enforcing team rules, implementing strategic adjustments, teaching and reinforcing fundamental techniques — is a superfluous detail compared to Task No. 1.
Be ready to play.
For reasons he was unable to explain but will be required to identify, Chris Petersen failed to put the Washington Huskies in the right frame of mind before their Cactus Bowl contest Friday night against Oklahoma State. That the Huskies were able to fight back, and managed to turn an embarrassing blowout into a somewhat suspenseful fourth quarter, only underscores their maddeningly sluggish performance in the first half.
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Washington had the talent to move the ball and make defensive stops against an Oklahoma State team that barely qualified as bowl eligible, but a talent edge doesn’t mean squat if it’s not accompanied by motivation.
Oklahoma State, despite a 6-6 record and no compelling desire to win other than, well, there was a game to win, took the field with purpose. The Huskies took the field as if it were the kind of weekend-night study hall arranged as punishment for skipping class.
“I think if you put the tape on,” Petersen said of the Cowboys, “you just see they were playing harder than us from the start.”
If any solace can be taken from a defeat that mitigated his team’s late-season resemblance of a pretty good one, it’s this: The Cactus Bowl wasn’t the first time Petersen’s players began a bowl game asleep at the wheel.
In 2007, at the conclusion of his second season at Boise State, Petersen took the Broncos to the Hawaii Bowl, where they played the role of chainsaw-massacre victims against East Carolina. Boise State, with a 10-2 record and No. 24 national ranking, was favored to beat the 7-5 Pirates by 10.5 points.
Boise State went three-and-out on its first four possessions, then sandwiched a kickoff-return touchdown with an interception and a fumble. The Broncos gained three yards of offense in the first quarter — East Carolina gained 181 — which explained the Pirates’ 31-14 lead at halftime.
Boise State rallied to tie the score at 38, only to lose on a late field goal. The Broncos’ evident talent advantage was offset by the indifferent attitude — equally obvious — they brought to Hawaii.
“It was weird for us to start slow,” quarterback Tyler Tharp said afterward. “I think it was a combination of not being ready to go and missed assignments.”
Petersen’s press conference analysis of that 41-38 defeat was almost a word-for-word precursor of his postgame remarks Friday night.
“The first half was very frustrating,” he said in 2007. “You have to come through when the money is on the line. It is some hard lessons for us, but we will learn and get better.”
Petersen has a tendency to speak in clichés — he makes Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson sound like an orator channeling Winston Churchill — but his vow to “learn and get better” was realized. After Boise State’s too-little, too-late rally was thwarted in the Hawaii Bowl, the Broncos won 61 of their next 66 games under Petersen.
The subsequent run of success included four bowl victories, five top 15 finishes in five seasons, and a second national coach of the year award for the man whose team wasn’t ready for East Carolina in Hawaii.
There might not be a more difficult challenge for a coach than firing up his players for an inconsequential bowl game against an inferior opponent, and Petersen’s determination that the Huskies were due some time to spend with their families and friends poses the stuff of second guessing.
Instead of focusing on Oklahoma State during the days preceding Christmas, Washington took the week off. A mistake? It looks that way, and if Petersen gets the chance to practice for a similarly scheduled bowl game next season, it’s certain the home-for-the-holidays perk will be rethought.
“We’re going to look at everything,” he said. “I think probably the most important thing I had to do is probably (concentrate) on the last two days leading up to the game. Somewhere stress that energy, that focus, that toughness factor, how this game needs to start.
“That’s got to start with me. I have to bring that to the table so they can grasp that, start faster and get some things done.”
Washington isn’t Boise State, of course, and 2014 isn’t 2007. But for Huskies fans inclined to believe Chris Petersen is the latest mid-major conference coach revealing himself to be way over his skis in the powerful Pac-12, a relaxation of the fear factor could be in order.
He didn’t have his players ready for the Cactus Bowl, an inexcusable mistake that, as he admits, is on him.
Hey, it happens. It happened to Petersen seven years ago, and his crisis-management response was to assemble a succession of Boise State teams that won 61 of their next 66 games.