University of Washington

Chris Petersen can trace coaching success to Yuba City, UC-Davis roots – even though he wanted to be a school psychologist

It is hard to believe, listening to Chris Petersen talk about process and unity and the Harvard Business Review, that there was a time when he didn’t want any of this.

You watch his Boise State teams lay double-digit thumpings on opponents for years, and you don’t stop to think about Chris Petersen — two-time BCS bowl champion, two-time national coach of the year, nationally respected offensive guru —standing on a practice field at UC Davis in 1987, when he was not yet 23 years old, beginning a job that at first he didn’t really want, one that he had no idea would serve as a launching pad toward destinations more lucrative.

At that time, Petersen had just finished guiding the Aggies to a 19-3 record in two years as their starting quarterback, and now there he was, coaching the school’s freshmen team, a job he was persuaded to take by a staff of veteran coaches who knew better than he did; who watched how he played, how he commanded the huddle, how he encouraged his teammates, and saw the potential for greatness.

Petersen wasn’t so sure about all that. He was there to complete his bachelor’s degree and eventually his master’s. He was going to be a school psychologist.

He certainly was not going to coach. But, hey, this job was no easy get for a kid straight out of college. Plans to play professionally in Montreal fell through when that CFL franchise folded. So why not?

“Of course, I thought I had all the answers, too, because I’d just gotten done playing,” Petersen says 27 years later, sitting down for 21 minutes and 54 seconds in an office that overlooks Husky Stadium, Union Bay and beyond.

Two weeks with those freshmen begat a comical revelation: “I couldn’t even get our guys in stretch lines. It was unbelievable. It was like herding cats.”

No, sir. Chris Petersen, the guy who turned Boise State from little guy to giant killer and is now the highest-paid employee in University of Washington history, was not going to be a football coach.

* * * * 

Yuba City, California, population 64,925, sits about 45 minutes north of Sacramento and just west of Marysville, its smaller neighbor located just across the Feather River.

Petersen grew up in Yuba City. His father, Ron, was the head football coach at Yuba College, a two-year school that lists an address in Marysville. Chris remembers Sunday afternoons at the house, assistant coaches filling the living room, 16-millimeter film canisters rolling and the previous day’s game projected on the wall. He loved it.

He traveled to away games on the team bus. He was the team’s ball boy for a while. He hung out in the locker room. He attended every game he could, ecstatic after victories, devastated after losses. He cared.

But he noticed that, sometimes, his dad’s players didn’t.

“I thought I was more into winning and losing than some of the players on his team,” Petersen said. “And I remember thinking, ‘I’m never going to do this, let these guys control my happiness.’ But there’s so much more to coaching. I didn’t know what I was looking at, at the time.”

Ron never held that outlook against his son. He knew the toll exacted upon a coach by frustrating seasons, and there were a few of those. Chris had a front-row seat.

“If you’re winning championships every year, everything’s honky dory,” Ron said earlier this month via telephone from his home in Yuba City. “But when you have a couple of losing seasons, it’s not real happy around the household, and you might consider doing something else for a career.”

So, there you go. Chris didn’t want to coach. But his dad’s athletic influence still rubbed off on him in a big way.

A two-sport star at Yuba City High School, Chris says now that he probably most enjoyed playing basketball, if only because practice was so much more enjoyable than two-hour sessions on the football field. He told himself each year that he was going to turn out for the high school tennis team — he used to play against Bill Stevens, a former Washington State tennis star and current WSU sports information director who was in Petersen’s high school class — but after spending the fall and winter playing football and basketball, he was “kind of burnt out,” so it never happened.

Ask a few friends what they remember most about growing up with Petersen, and nearly all of their memories are athletics based. Lincoln Eden — “Big Linc,” as they called him in high school — a lieutenant now with the Yuba City Police Department, met Petersen in middle school when his family moved to the area, and the two quickly became friends. They played Little League baseball together. Ron taught him how to lift weights. And though Eden didn’t play football — he preferred basketball, and later played at Sacramento City College and the University of Redlands — he ran routes and caught passes from Chris to help sharpen his quarterback skills.

“He threw the ball so hard,” Eden remembers with a laugh. “I think he would get upset with me when I missed a lot of them because they were very good passes and I just couldn’t catch that well.”

Petersen eventually earned Yuba City’s starting quarterback job, leading the Honkers to a 9-1 record his senior year, and drew interest from a handful of smaller schools. UC Davis showed interest then but wanted Petersen as a defensive back, according to a 1986 article in the Los Angeles Times (the headline, touting Davis’ ability to turn scrawny athletes into college stars, begins: “Slow and small? Get to NFL via Davis”). So he instead opted to play for two seasons at Sacramento City College.

Legendary UC Davis coach Jim Sochor says now of Petersen’s collegiate career: “My only regret is that we only had him for two years. I’d have loved to have had him for four or five.”

* * * * 

Conversations with members of those glory-days coaching staffs at UC Davis reveal a constant trait: These guys are all so damn nice. And they won so many games, it’s a wonder more coaches aren’t the same.

It’s especially true of Sochor, now 76, whose storied, 19-year head coaching career at UC Davis included 18 conference championships. His guiding principles — trust, unity, togetherness, positive reinforcement — are the hallmarks today of Petersen’s programs. He didn’t scream or curse. He didn’t degrade. Petersen is quick to credit his UC Davis roots for instilling those philosophies, which are evident at each Huskies practice.

But Sochor could see those qualities in Petersen at a young age, and so he recruited him again out of junior college. At a time when most programs wanted him as a defensive back, Sochor this time extending the opportunity to play quarterback at a school that produced good ones.

Petersen was relatively small (6-foot, 185 pounds), and played in an offense at Sac City that didn’t emphasize passing. And Sochor didn’t necessarily bring him in to be the team’s starting QB; he thought he had his man there in Roger Wilkinson, a 6-2, 195-pound product of Vintage High in Napa, California, “a real talent,” Sochor said, who two years earlier had turned down a coaching offer from Nevada coach Chris Ault to honor his commitment to UC Davis.

Wilkinson was a backup his first two years, and injured his shoulder in a 1984 game against Santa Clara. He couldn’t throw the same anymore. That opened the door for Petersen, who outplayed him during camp and won the Aggies’ starting job heading into 1985, then led all of Division II in passing that season. Wilkinson, converted to fullback, was on the receiving end of many Petersen throws, including 12 in Davis’ 45-41 victory over the University of the Pacific during Petersen’s senior season in 1986. Sochor recalls these details with striking precision.

The kid from Yuba City was making a clear impression upon his coaches: Chris Petersen was the truth.

“I worked with him a lot in audibling and looking at defenses, and he got great at it, and you could just tell he was going to be a good coach,” Sochor said. “He had all the qualities — decision making, his ability to see the field, to see what was going on, the poise and grace to make the calls and change the plays at the line of scrimmage; that really lent itself to being a good coach later on.

“He just had a natural affinity for it. Just a real proclivity for leadership and team-building, and he was good at articulation. His thoughts were good and positive.”

It was Bob Foster, then UC Davis’ defensive coordinator and later its head coach, who most connected with Petersen. And it was their friendship — a bond later enhanced by their stint together in Oregon — that most helped persuade Petersen to become a coach.

“I felt like once he got into it and was successful, he was going to end up staying with it and be a shining star in our profession,” Foster said via telephone last week before a round of golf in eastern Washington. “I felt that from the beginning, and I still feel that way.”

* * * * 

Petersen fondly remembers the time he spent coaching the freshmen because “I probably learned more in that than I learned in the next 10 years.”

His competitive drive took over. After one year with the freshmen, he asked to do it again “because I thought I could do so much better.” So he did. Beginning with the 1989 season, he was promoted to receivers coach with the varsity team — with Foster as head coach — where he remained for three seasons before finally realizing, master’s degree in hand, that maybe being a coach wouldn’t be so bad, after all.

“The coaches that I was working with were tremendous,” Petersen said of Sochor, Foster and Bob Biggs, among others. “After a few years, I decided, OK, if I’m going to do this, then I probably need to leave Davis and see if I can do this.”

So he did, coaching quarterbacks for a year under Paul Hackett at Pittsburgh, holding the same position for two more years at Portland State, then coaching receivers for six seasons under Mike Bellotti — another former UC Davis coach — at Oregon.

By then, Petersen was married to his wife, Barbara, with whom he has two sons, Jack and Sam.

In 1999, they faced the biggest challenge of their lives. Sam, barely 1 year old, fell and hit his head while watching an Oregon practice from the bleachers. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors eventually discovered a cancerous brain tumor, a condition that might not have been noticed if not for Sam’s fall. The tumor was removed, but as the Idaho Statesman detailed in its book “Blue Magic,” the cancer spread to Sam’s spine, and several rounds of chemotherapy treatment were required.

This story has a happy ending. Sam just turned 16 years old. He is cancer free, and his treatments become more and more of a distant memory with each passing year, even though it forever changed Petersen’s life perspective. Sam’s need for treatment made it difficult for Petersen and his family to want to leave Eugene when Dan Hawkins came calling after the 2000 season, offering Petersen the offensive coordinator job at Boise State.

Petersen recalls Sam’s doctors telling him: “They have good doctors in Boise. If this is what you want to do, you need to live your life.”

* * * * 

Hawkins, a chatty, charismatic dude, was an assistant on Sochor’s staff at Davis in 1985, Petersen’s junior season.

The two aren’t just industry acquaintances. They’re friends. Hawkins says he’s always admired Petersen, “in terms of how you treat people, how you teach, how you coach, how you motivate. First-class person all around.”

Boise State compiled a 53-11 record in Hawkins’ five seasons as coach, all of them with Petersen as offensive coordinator. Ryan Dinwiddie, BSU’s quarterback from 2001-03, set a national record for passing efficiency under Petersen’s watch. The Broncos began earning their reputation as an entertaining, innovative offense, flush with trick plays. In other words, Petersen’s fingerprints were all over it.

“Pete was a huge reason we won when I was head coach,” Hawkins said.

Petersen figured he’d go with Hawkins when he left for Colorado after the 2005 season. But the thought of moving didn’t excite him. Then again, neither did taking over the head coaching job at Boise State — “I was just still liking being the coordinator” — which, obviously, he did, begrudgingly.

“It was such a learning curve,” Petersen said.

Boise State finished 13-0 in Petersen’s debut season, and beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Some learning curve.

Still, he says, those early years as a head coach were formative. Must have been. The Broncos won 92 games in Petersen’s eight seasons at the helm.

“It’s so different once you’re in that chair,” he said. “It takes a couple years to really get used to and figure out some things — what your true beliefs are and how you want to operate, and then continually evolve and grow and get better through that process. You’ve got to figure out what you’re all about, and get that down, and that takes quite a while. And then you’ve got to continually – like in anything – you’ve got to get better and evolve. So I think we know what we stand for, and I think we’ve grown over the years and seen a lot of different things, and are fairly well-prepared.”

* * * * 

The differences between Petersen and his predecessor, Steve Sarkisian, are striking.

Petersen does not cherish the spotlight. He is friendly and engaging and smiles kindly during conversation, but one gets the impression he would sooner eat his hat than hold court at a press conference.

Sarkisian preached process, same as Petersen, but where Sarkisian was trying to find his way as a coach while building UW’s program, Petersen already knows what he’s about. Now, it’s simply a matter of following the blueprint he used in Boise — the same one forged so many years ago by Sochor and Co., emphasizing positivity, proper citizenship and academic achievement — and recruiting good enough athletes to make it work in the Pac-12 Conference.

Eden, the police lieutenant from Yuba City, joins a chorus of Petersen pals who don’t doubt his recruiting philosophies will resonate at UW. Eden’s own son is a pitcher at Oregon State, and while he was being recruited, he was looking for a coach who would take as good of care of his son as Petersen would.

“It’s not just about producing a good athlete on the field, but a good person, an individual, a man,” Eden said. “I think that’s what Chris does. Its kind of like, how can a parent not trust their son to someone like that to go compete athletically?”

Petersen’s office in renovated Husky Stadium is shiny and sleek, but he admits it won’t feel settled until he’s been here about a year. The drive into Montlake across the 520 bridge from his home in Bellevue takes less time than his daily commute in Boise. A few issues of the Harvard Business Review sit on a table, and Petersen says he “always” reads it, before rattling off brief reviews of his favorite books (“The Bully Pulpit,” “Team of Rivals,” “The Slight Edge,” “Good to Great”) and movies (“Gladiator,” “Forrest Gump,” “Saving Private Ryan”).

As Washington grinds through camp in preparation for its Saturday opener at Hawaii, Petersen has little time for anything other than football, which is to say he does not have time to think about missing Boise.

“I’ve got some really good friends and we love that place,” he said. “But I feel very good about this move.”

After 13 seasons and numerous suitors, it seemed Petersen would never leave Boise State. But it didn’t surprise those close to him.

“Sometimes,” Hawkins said, “you wake up and you need a different place to get a cup of coffee, and a different place to work.”

“He’d done about what he can do there,” Foster said. “If he was going to go somewhere, this is the time to do it.”

“U of W is a program he had sort of been looking at in an area in Seattle that I think appealed to him,” said Biggs, a former UC Davis assistant and head coach.

* * * * 

Cameron Boyer, another childhood friend and former teammate of Petersen at UC Davis, is now a teacher at Gray Avenue Middle School in Yuba City.

He looks out at his students and sees more Boise State apparel than would be expected in this small California town.

“You see Boise stuff all the time here,” Boyer says, “and a lot of people didn’t even know him.”

Such is the influence of a local legend, the reluctant protégé of champions, the driven, competitive son of a community unsurprised by his success.

“I couldn’t be prouder,” Ron said. “It doesn’t surprise me. He’s been successful at everything he’s done. If he chose a different profession, I think he’d be extremely successful in any profession he chose.”

As it turned out, herding cats suited him best.

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