Chris Petersen’s first job as a major-college assistant coach also came with the first home he would share with his new wife, Barb.
The year was 1992, and the setting was Pittsburgh. Paul Hackett, then the head coach of the Pitt Panthers, had offered the 27-year-old Petersen the job as quarterbacks coach, with a couple of conditions:
First, Chris and Barb’s wedding date that spring conflicted with a football camp, so Hackett asked if they would be willing to move it. Barb agreed, and they wed instead on June 13, 1992 in their native northern California.
Second, Chris and Barb were invited to live at Hackett’s home — in the loft above the garage — but they would have to share a wall with Hackett’s 12-year-old son, Nathaniel. More than 22 years later, as Petersen sat on a leather couch in his office at Husky Stadium on a recent summer afternoon, he chuckled at the memories of his one season with Barb in Pittsburgh.
There were challenges for the young couple living far away from home. Being back east, Petersen said, “felt like we were on Mars.” It was a foreign feeling on the field for Petersen, too, as Pitt went 3-8 during that 1992 season, leading to Hackett’s firing. It was the first, and to date, only losing season Petersen has experienced in football.
The loft they lived in was cramped, with room for a couch and a TV but little else. “It was the smallest thing ever,” Petersen said.
But the families grew close, and Barb would babysit Nathaniel from time to time.
Nathaniel Hackett, now 34, is entering his second season as the offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills.
As for Petersen, he would go on to become one of the most respected coaches in college football, twice named national coach of the year while piling up 92 wins in his eight seasons at Boise State. He remains friends with the Hacketts, having built with them the kind of bond and trust he prioritizes in his football program, too.
He is intensely driven and hypercompetitive, but it’s Petersen’s personal connection with his team that separates him as a head coach, according to those close to him.
“A lot of people who don’t know him that well probably don’t realize how compassionate he is to other people,” UW offensive line coach Chris Strausser said. “He’s going to drive you very, very hard, but he also cares about you a great deal.”
John Lok / The Seattle Times
Chris Petersen prefers his domain tidy, his team tight, his staff tightest.
Earlier this year, UW senior Hau’oli Kikaha was stunned to see Petersen kneeling down in the locker room and picking up tiny sunflower seeds. Yes, Coach Pete is a perfectionist.
“More than anyone I’ve ever met,” Strausser said.
Petersen, just days away from his debut season as the Huskies’ coach, could not be more different than his predecessor at UW, Steve Sarkisian, in personality and in approach to team-building. Whereas Sarkisian seemed to take pride in having a team that played fast and had fun, Petersen is a teacher at heart. He is more methodical and more technical — “no detail is too small” — and he is resolute in his way.
And his way is the pursuit of perfection. Husky fans, he can sense, have similarly high expectations.
“Expectations get so out of whack,” he said, “and there’s no timeline for anything. The timeline is right now.
“I mean, I get it. I get it,” he added. “I think we can do some really good things here, but you know — I don’t know. I haven’t been with this team (very long); we haven’t played a game. The roster’s not exactly how we want it to look; I don’t know that any coach has that. But in this competitive league that we play, it can be scary at times.”
UW’s uncertain quarterback situation is Petersen’s biggest hurdle in his first season in Seattle. And yet, as a former star quarterback at UC Davis, Petersen isn’t micromanaging the situation, or his staff. He plays the role of a CEO and lets his assistants coach players in practice, while Petersen can go for long stretches on the field without being noticed to the casual observer.
Petersen, who owns a master’s degree in educational psychology, doesn’t curse at players, but he’s more demanding than a swim across Lake Washington.
At the end of each practice inside Husky Stadium, as UW players jog to the “W” at midfield and circle around the head coach, they are all expected, at the same time, to take a knee and clap together. If it’s not done in perfect unison, Petersen makes them return to the sideline, run back to midfield and repeat the process.
“One heartbeat all the time,” Petersen preaches.
An avid runner, Petersen has a habit of talking to himself as he’s jogging on the Burke-Gilman Trail or across the Montlake Bridge. The jogs are an outlet for body and mind. Petersen brings with him a recorder to capture the ideas he needs to verbalize, lest he forget them by the time he gets back to his office.
“I’ve done it for years,” he said. “I always think of things and it just frees my mind. If I don’t take (the recorder), I’m frustrated. … It jiggles things from my mind. So when I get back, I write them down so I can get them done.”
Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times
Chris and Barb met while attending UC Davis, and they have two sons, Jack and Sam. Jack, as the son of a football coach, was lucky. His parents moved from Eugene, Ore., to Boise, Idaho, when he was in kindergarten. They didn’t decide to leave Boise until a few months after he had already left for Santa Clara University.
In Petersen’s profession, a 13-year run in one place is rare — and especially rare if it’s as successful as Boise State was in Petersen’s time there. So it wasn’t a surprise when Sam, now 16, was initially upset at having to move to Seattle and start over.
“He had a really good life in Boise,” Petersen said. “ … I think we have been blessed not to have to move a bunch of times.”
Petersen also says that the family feels blessed with Sam, who, at just 13 months old, had a cancerous tumor removed from his brain during a seven-hour surgery. The cancer had spread to his spine and he needed heavy doses of chemotherapy.
“It was a long time ago, but in some ways it was just yesterday,” Petersen said. “It completely changed our outlook on so many things. And I think it’s why we’ve stayed in certain places for long periods of time rather than chasing things around. I think it put a renewed focus on priorities and what’s important.”
Sam remains cancer-free. He’s an occasional visitor at UW practices and spends time on Twitter (when his dad hasn’t banned him), plays video games and in July began the process of getting his driver’s license.
Petersen’s ultra-competitive nature surfaces in just about any activity. Growing up, his mom worked at the tennis club in their neighborhood in small-town Yuba City, Calif., and Chris would battle his dad on the courts there.
Petersen became quite competitive in tennis, and other activities, with a friend back then, Bill Stevens.
“I remember playing flag football with Chris when we were maybe 8 or 9,” Stevens said. “To me, he always had a very quiet confidence in his ability and in whatever he did. He was a very focused, driven person, and that came through from an early age.”
By the time they entered Yuba City High together, Petersen gravitated toward basketball and football, with “Billy,” as Chris called him, sticking with tennis. Petersen would go on to set records as the two-year starting quarterback at UC Davis, leading the Aggies to a 19-3 record in that stretch. Stevens went on to play tennis for four years at Washington State, where he is now the associate athletic director/sports information director overseeing football.
No, Stevens said, Mike Leach hasn’t picked his brain on how to beat Chris Petersen.
Chris Butler / Idaho Statesman
Pete Kwiatkowski was a star defensive lineman for Boise State in the ’80s, a member of the school’s Hall of Fame and he spent 16 years on the coaching staff there. But he said he didn’t hesitate, nor did his family, to follow Petersen to Seattle when he was offered UW’s defensive coordinator post in December.
“I came here because of Coach Petersen,” he said.
“We love football and we love doing it,” he added, “but when you’re working with dudes you consider friends, that’s where it’s special, and you hope that rubs off on the team. For me, it was an easy decision.”
Eight of UW’s nine assistant coaches had worked with Petersen previously in Boise State (tight ends coach Jordan Paopao was the lone holdover from Sarkisian’s staff).
Coaches are expected to be out of the UW’s football offices by 10 p.m., as mandated by Petersen. With an efficient schedule each day, there’s no reason, Petersen said, for coaches to stay too late in the office.
“My thing is that you need to have some sort of balance, otherwise it works against you,” said Petersen, who tries to get at least six hours of sleep per night during the season.
Petersen turns 50 on Oct. 13. Five days later, he will lead the Huskies into Autzen Stadium, where UW will try to end a 10-year losing skid against Oregon.
Some birthday gift.
“I’m going to definitely let it fly by, like I do all the birthdays,” he said. “Fifty’s weird. That just sounds old.”
The Petersens settled on a house in Bellevue, near the lake. Even living in a metropolitan area, Petersen said he can still sense a community around UW. He likes that cozy, tight-knit feeling.
Petersen continues to say he’s found the right fit in Seattle. UW is the one coaching opportunity that finally pulled him and his family away from the comforts of Boise, after building a nice life and a sterling 92-12 record there.
Now, the pressure is on, and Petersen can feel it.
“They care so much about football here,” he said. “When the Seahawks won (the Super Bowl), you could see the passion. So I just totally like to be a part of that, that they like football. We have to take care of business here. Wherever you are, you have to do well. And then they’ll be here and be supportive.”
For many hungry Huskies fans, the demands are indeed high right now. For Petersen, and for his pursuit of perfection, that feels like the only way.
He should feel right at home.