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John Blanchette: Jimmy Lake has always been ready to answer the call

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 3, 2019

Washington defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake speaks Tuesday about taking over the head coaching position from Chris Petersen. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
Washington defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake speaks Tuesday about taking over the head coaching position from Chris Petersen. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

SEATTLE – The call came on Saturday afternoon, sometime in the middle of Auburn-Alabama if Jimmy Lake recalls correctly.

He was relaxing at home, basking in the glow of yet another Apple Cup romp over Washington State the day before, flipping through games on TV. The house was full of family – his wife Michele and their four children, twin brother Jayson and his brood, older brother Cory and mother Julie.

When Lake’s cellphone buzzed, it showed the call coming from Jen Cohen, Washington’s athletic director – which Lake found a little odd, so he took it upstairs.

Where he was told that his boss, head football coach Chris Petersen, was stepping aside and that he’d be the replacement.

Then came the hard part: managing his emotions and keeping the secret from everybody but Michele.

“My older son, Jimmy Jr., I was kind of staring at him,” Lake said, “knowing I was going to be the next head football coach at Washington and he was, ‘Dad, what are you doing? What are you looking at me for?’ ‘Oh, nothing.’ They kind of knew something was going on, but they had no idea this was the news.”

He would risk no leaks. Regard for Petersen – his boss going back to 2012 at Boise State – was too great not to let him dictate the timeline.

Plus, you need to process the realization of a dream culminated, on your own time, before it can be shared.

There is a sense that Jimmy Lake has been preparing for this opportunity since he wore the black and red at North Central High School in Spokane or patrolled the secondary with uncorked fury at Eastern Washington, though he took a business degree and figured he’d run one of his own sometime.

Now after two decades that have taken him as an assistant coach from the Big Sky to the NFL and then to the stadium with its own boat dock, Lake has his own store at UW in a succession both startling for its timing and inevitable.

It was probably greased from the time Petersen elevated him to co-defensive coordinator with the more veteran Pete Kwiatkowski in 2015, or when he sent Lake off to Dallas for a symposium on making the jump to head coach around the same time. Petersen knew what he had on his staff – his successor – and accommodations in title, salary and eventually in Kwiatkowski stepping aside to let Lake call the defensive plays would be made to counter overtures from Alabama and others.

“But the reason I stayed,” Lake said, “was the culture he built.”

And the success it begat. If the Huskies win this year’s bowl game, their 40 victories over four years will be a school best. This would seem to be a daunting measuring stick.

But Lake is nobody’s caretaker.

This has been seen in both his defensive approach and his sometimes stinging assessments, usually in the wake of yearly Apple Cup stiflings of WSU’s potent offense. Indeed, as delighted as the Husky community seems to be with Lake’s promotion, that elation may be exceeded among Cougars who now have a rival coach they can truly despise in a manner even more intense than they did with, say, Rick Neuheisel. The downside: Lake’s been dead right every year.

He is, by his own account, assertive, aggressive, passionate about the X-and-O mechanics of the game, hypercompetitive. He’s also accessible and engaging, which accounts for his considerable recruiting successes.

Jimmy Lake would definitely win the job interview, had their been one. Cohen didn’t bother.

“He’d always been on my radar as a replacement should this day ever come,” Cohen said.

The one thing missing from his resume is head coaching experience, which doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker but is always handy for hedging bets. Cohen and the Huskies figure they don’t have to – and Lake certainly isn’t hedging, period. After the bowl game, he already envisions changes to UW’s offensive approach, for example.

“I know what I like facing,” he said. “I know what creates problems. I know what’s easy from a defensive standpoint. I know this: It’s going to be physical, it’s going to be bruising, it’s going to be attacking, it’s going to be aggressive.”

Lake’s sudden prominence in college football circles the past few years has masked some humble beginnings – his start as an Eastern assistant, for instance, and his decision to join Keith Gilbertson at UW in 2004 despite cautions from colleagues that the staff would be swept out in a year. Which it was.

“When we got fired, I remember to this day our family packing up the whole house, getting in a U-Haul and driving to Pocatello, Idaho – to go to work for free at Idaho State,” Lake said.

“I remember how tough and how resilient (Gilbertson) was through that tough season, and a lot of those things I’ll lean on. It’s not all just about being successful. It’s about how you deal with defeat, and how you lead a team.”

And how you prepare while you’re waiting for the call.

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