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After firing 5 coaches, Washington State faces 'unprecedented' challenge

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There will be plenty of focus this weekend on who has left Washington State’s football program. The coach and four on-field assistants who decided to not get vaccinated, which cost them their jobs.

Former Washington State coach Nick Rolovich has become the highest-profile football coach to lose his job after declining the COVID-19 vaccine. Four assistant coaches were fired with him — defensive line coach Ricky Logo, corners coach John Richardson, co-offensive coordinator Craig Stutzmann and offensive line coach Mark Weber.

Essentially half the on-field staff exited midseason, a situation that athletic director Pat Chun called “unprecedented.” And there will be plenty of debates, litigation and politicizing the state of Washington’s vaccine mandate and the coaches’ choices not to follow it.

One thing isn’t up for debate — they’ve left behind a messy and rare situation to clean up at Washington State, which Rolovich shined another light on Wednesday after his lawyer released a combative statement threatening legal action. Washington State hosts BYU on Saturday in Pullman, and the Cougars will seemingly be scrambling until kickoff.

“We have to go forward,” athletic director Pat Chun told Yahoo Sports this week. “No matter what, we owe it to this team to go forward.”

Chun doesn’t minimize what happened. He spoke emotionally about a group of Washington State upperclassmen who’ve endured the death of two teammates, Bryce Beekman and Tyler Hilinski, during their time in Pullman. They are now on their third coach, played through a pandemic and faced a social-justice reckoning.

“For our upperclassmen who have been here for a few years, it’s been a hard road,” Chun said. “We’re focused on what is best for the well-being of our football team.”

Oct 16, 2021; Pullman, Washington, USA; Washington State Cougars head coach Nick Rolovich walks onto the field before a game against the Stanford Cardinal at Gesa Field at Martin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich walks onto the field before a game against the Stanford Cardinal in Pullman. (James Snook/USA TODAY Sports)

Chun has channeled his energy to supporting the team and interim coach Jake Dickert, the 38-year-old defensive coordinator who has been elevated to head coach.

Lost in the backdrop of the firing is that Washington State was playing well and is in contention for the Pac-12 North title. Washington State has won three straight Pac-12 games — besting Cal, Oregon State and Stanford — for the first time since 2018.

The disruption of losing five coaches distinctly reverberates from a functional standpoint. Washington State has to figure out how to cobble together a staff that lost three offensive coaches (Rolovich, Stutzmann and Weber) who knew the intricacies of the niche Run-and-Shoot offense that the Cougars run.

Stutzmann called the plays for the Cougars during the three-game win streak, and Rolovich has a background in play-calling and a large voice in the offense. Combine those losses with the offensive line, which is typically the largest group on the team, and Chun said there’s a scramble to bring in coaches for the remaining weeks and a plan to elevate others.

Associate head coach and offensive coordinator Brian Smith will resume play-calling duties, which he handled earlier in the year. Part of the reason for Dickert’s elevation, Chun said, was so Smith could manage the entire offense and play-calling operation minus all the coaches experienced in the offense. (Only receivers coach Andre Allen remains with Smith on offense.)

“Brian has to wrap his arms around the entire offense,” Chun said. “Jake has to wrap his arms around the entire team now.”

Chun said to expect both elevations and additions to the staff in the upcoming days, pending background checks for the outside hires. He said some coaches have already arrived in town, but can’t yet coach until formally cleared.

Dickert set the tone for the team this week. After the first practice, he put up celebratory images to remind the team what has been accomplished and what could be. Multiple Cougars, including star quarterback Jayden de Laura, were outspoken in their disappointment about Rolovich’s firing

“We have the ability together to create new moments and new feelings,” Dickert said, explaining the messaging to the team after practice. He added that he told the team: “We’re here all the time. We’re in it with them.”

Dickert’s personality is distinctly different from the free-flowing Rolovich, who when at Hawaii famously brought a fortune teller, and Britney Spears and Elvis impersonators to Mountain West media days.

Dickert is more of a Midwestern square, with his crew cut a fitting metaphor for his straightforward personality. He’s the son of an educator, as his father worked as a superintendent, principal and teacher/coach in Wisconsin for years.

That trait carried over to Jake Dickert, who prides himself on the teaching aspect of coaching.

“He’s got great spirit, passion and energy to teach and mentor young people,” said Tim Polasek, Wyoming’s offensive coordinator who coached Dickert at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. “I’m not sure all of us coaches are the ultimate teachers. He takes great pride in being a teacher first.”

Polasek knew Dickert was wired different when at UW-Stevens Point, a transfer quarterback came in and beat out Dickert for the job. He didn’t gripe, moved to receiver and the transfer quarterback became one of his best friends. “At that moment, I said, ‘If this guy gets into coaching, he gets it,’” Polasek said.

There’s still a reasonable chance for Dickert to lead Washington State to a bowl game. The Cougars are 4-3, with a solid BYU team coming to Pullman this week. That’s followed by games against Arizona State, Oregon, Arizona and Washington. Considering the way the Cougars were playing, it’s not unreasonable to think a bowl game is attainable.

The variable will be how they respond to the staff shuffle and the emotion of losing a coach who was popular enough with his team that they doused him in Gatorade after the Stanford win.

The ability to send off this group of seniors with a bowl game is something Chun said would mean everything.

“I don’t know if happy is even a way to categorize it,” Chun said. “It’s more. There’s a fulfillment piece that has to come in when you put in this amount of work. When adversity hits, a lot is revealed. Unfortunately for these young men, they’ve faced a lot of adversity.”

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