Chris Petersen can see a bridge across Lake Washington from his office in the west end of Husky Stadium.
The Washington Huskies football coach drives across that bridge twice a day for an easy 9-minute commute between his Bellevue home and the stadium — and that’s nearly all he has seen of his surroundings in the 17 months since he left Boise State.
An avid boater, Petersen says he still needs to figure out how to take advantage of the ever-present water in his new hometown. His boat remains stored in McCall.
He has been preoccupied with trying to return the former powerhouse Huskies program to the national limelight, a project that has progressed this year but still is in the early stages. The Huskies, who wrapped spring ball Saturday, open the 2015 season Sept. 4 at Albertsons Stadium against Petersen’s former Boise State team.
Half of last year’s Huskies starters are gone, including three first-team All-American defenders.
“This is going to be young — really young,” Petersen said.
Yet he feels better about his team this spring than he did a year ago, when he faced the uncomfortable task of overhauling the program’s culture. His predecessor, USC coach Steve Sarkisian, operated in a much different way. Players have admitted they butted heads with Petersen and his band of former Boise State assistants (eight out of nine full-timers were Broncos coaches at some point), and that was clear through significant disciplinary issues. Last year’s starting quarterback, Cyler Miles, just missed his second straight spring, and NFL-bound cornerback Marcus Peters was dismissed from the team last fall.
The Huskies finished 8-6 in Petersen’s first year, including an 0-5 mark against ranked teams and a loss to Oklahoma State in the Cactus Bowl.
They’ll be hard-pressed to contend in the Pac-12 North again this year because the foundation of the program is the 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes, players who will be freshmen and sophomores.
Patience, Petersen said, is a necessity.
“There’s no other way,” he said. “It’s really hard on everybody. But you can’t make culture happen in months. You can’t make guys get better by the snap of your fingers. It just takes time. It is what it is and nobody likes it, and timelines get shorter and shorter. But all you can do is set your process, know it’s the right way, stick to it. It’s going to take a little bit of time, but you know when the infrastructure is being set the right way. And if you don’t deviate from it, you know what can happen, in a good way.”
Petersen learned the value of program building, and the benefits that can ensue, as part of three of the most successful programs in recent college football history. He played and coached at UC Davis, which won 18 consecutive conference championships; coached at Oregon during the Ducks’ rise toward powerhouse status; and coached for 13 years at Boise State (five as offensive coordinator, eight as head coach) as the Broncos went from unknowns to national title contenders.
He left Boise in December 2013 with a 92-12 record, two Fiesta Bowl championships and two Bear Bryant national coach of the year awards.
Expectations were high for his first year at Washington because Sarkisian’s Huskies were on the rise, winning nine games in 2013. Even Petersen thought the transition would go more quickly and smoothly than it did.
He was told the culture change could take 18-24 months. A year into the project, he realized that advice was true.
Now well into his second year, he gets a much different vibe at practice.
The Huskies flashed some reasons for optimism Saturday in their spring preview, which was half practice and half scrimmage. Junior quarterback Jeff Lindquist, who produced little offense in his spot start last year at Hawaii, was 13-for-16 for 237 yards and two touchdowns, including a 71-yarder to true sophomore wide receiver Dante Pettis. Senior Jaydon Mickens, junior John Ross and Pettis give the Huskies a potentially potent trio on the outside. The tight end group has several playmakers, and tailback Dwayne Washington, who was purposefully limited Saturday, showed big-play talent late last season.
Lindquist is the most veteran of three quarterbacks who competed in spring ball. Redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels and true freshman Jake Browning are the others. It’s unclear whether Miles will rejoin the team in the fall.
The defense only returns four starters off a unit that produced 52 sacks and 29 turnovers last year. The scrimmage standouts included sophomore cornerback Darren Gardenhire, who grabbed his ninth interception of the spring, and sophomore defensive lineman Will Dissly (a former Boise State commit), who recorded two sacks and three tackles for loss.
“It’s going to be a collective effort from whichever 11 guys are out there on the field,” said defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, a former All-American and longtime assistant coach at Boise State. “... Most of them are redshirt freshmen and sophomores.”
The good news for the coaches is those young players either were trained by them from the start or already have spent more time under this staff than the preceding one. Less than one-third of the roster will be juniors or seniors by fall camp.
The coaches have moved past the transition and onto the building phase.
“We know what makes (the players) tick,” Kwiatkowski said. “Last year, they were trying to figure us out, and we were trying to figure them out. This year is much smoother.”
Petersen knew little but smooth as a head coach until 2013, his final season in Boise. The Broncos went 8-4 during that regular season and lost the bowl game after he left.
Petersen has lost 10 of his past 26 games after a torrid start to his career as a head coach.
“That’s real football,” he said. “... You can’t do this for this many years and not have a hard season. And even when you’re winning, it’s hard. It’s just part of the deal. It’s hard, but it’s part of the deal.”
The route to more trophies runs through days like Saturday, when the Huskies made plenty of mistakes but also gave coaches some reasons to smile.
“All you can do is get the process right and worry about what we can fix right now and keep evaluating it,” Petersen said, “and eventually the product will look like it’s supposed to.”