Introduced as the Washington football coach in December 2013, Chris Petersen showed up with a game plan that was well thought out. He stepped to the podium, made eye contact with the people gathered before him and paid homage to the recently deceased Don James before saying anything else.
“I grew up in the Don James era,” he said. “I’ve admired this place so long.”
Three years later, Petersen is firmly established as the Washington leader and displays many of the same attributes that people identify with James, the Pac-12 school’s most legendary coach. One set of rules. Obsession to detail. Wry sense of humor. Conference champion.
Yet as he prepares his team for the College Football Playoff semifinals in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome on New Year’s Eve, Petersen has a chance to set himself apart from the Washington dynasty-builder. He can accomplish something that forever eluded James. He has an opportunity — at least in the annals of Husky football — to do the impossible.
As good as he was, James couldn’t pull off this feat in three tries (Washington is 0-4 overall against the Crimson Tide). He came close once at Husky Stadium, losing 20-17 in 1978. He dropped another to Alabama in the postseason, falling 28-6 at the 1986 Sun Bowl. He got absolutely crushed the first time out in Tuscaloosa — suffering the worst defeat of his 18 seasons at Washington.
In his fifth game on the job in 1975, James took the Huskies into the 85-degree Alabama heat and was embarrassed 52-0. He had future pros sprinkled throughout the Washington lineup, including eventual NFL Hall of Famer Warren Moon at quarterback, but they were sorely outplayed in every phase of the game. Alabama had a 21-0 lead before the Huskies registered a first down. Eleven Crimson Tide runners rolled up 404 yards rushing. It was an awful mismatch.
“For a moment we gave Bear Bryant quite a scare — he thought he killed us,” James wisecracked.
The Huskies leader actually was so disturbed by the outcome, he changed his coaching routine the following week. James started putting in longer hours and sleeping on the couch in his office rather than heading home after practice. He was dressed in a bathrobe and clutching a toothbrush when he surprised a janitor in the hallway on his way to the restroom. Word got back to the players that the coach wasn’t giving up on them, that he had stepped up the search for ways to make them successful. The Huskies responded by beating USC and UCLA. James turned disaster into a legacy.
With his own budding reputation, Petersen will face the Crimson Tide in the College Football playoff semifinals, in the Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 31, in his first meeting with college football’s most dominant program. He’s been opportunistic on a big stage before, leading underdog Boise State to stirring victories over Oklahoma and TCU in bowl games. His former team even upset Georgia 35-21 to open the 2011 season at the Georgia Dome.
Petersen, however, fully understands that the stakes are much higher for his 12-1 Huskies in facing 13-0 Alabama in the semifinals.
“It’ll be the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced as coaches and players,” he conceded.
Logic would dictate that an overly talented Alabama team should have its way with the Huskies at the Georgia Dome. However, the presence of Petersen, an impatient 7-6 and 8-6 in first two seasons in Seattle, leaves the door ajar just enough to keep everyone wondering how things might turn out. No matter what happens, he won’t have to sleep on any couch afterward — his Husky Stadium office comes outfitted with a bed.
“From the minute we came here, I think everybody really envisioned being good,” Petersen said. “It took us a minute to get there, and that was about as frustrating as anything a lot of us have been through, but that was part of the process.”