Chris Petersen, in 14 seasons as a head coach, went 147-38, and that included five top-10 seasons and nine in the top 20. Petersen spent three decades in coaching before he stunned many when he decided to step down as coach at Washington a little more than a year ago. Petersen sat down with The Athletic to share his perspective on, among many other things, why he decided to walk away from coaching; what he’s been doing since; and what he’s learned about work-life balance in college football.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What has been your journey since you announced you were stepping down at Washington?
Chris Petersen: The first thing is, you step out of it, and then COVID-19 hits. I’m getting a bunch of phone calls, people saying, ‘This is brilliant! How did you know? This is the perfect time to get out.’ I’m thinking, wait a minute. Everybody’s coaching from home, and if you do have games, there’s going to be no fans, I can probably do this … jokingly. I was like — ooof! — that was another lucky decision that I made, because that obviously upended everything, and just where I was mentally, when I said at my news conference why I was getting out of this, is because I just need to figure some things out, and I need to figure out why I wasn’t enjoying it like I needed to enjoy it.
I knew I wasn’t operating at my best, and that’s always going to affect your team, for sure. Before COVID, I really had some plans to travel and vacation with my wife, and also go see some people and talk to a bunch of coaches and leaders and just learn more. Then, you get locked down. But in hindsight, I’d say that was probably a blessing for me, because it really did just slow me down. I still was able to read a lot and talk to a lot of people and reflect and figure some things out.
If there is such a thing for a football coach — I feel like there kind of is, and some people are better at compartmentalizing where they are in the calendar — but I felt like you were different. Were you in a much better place mentally in the offseasons because you can kind of search and ponder and experience some of those things that you’re probably looking for? Or is it just still football clouding everything?
I think in the offseason, things do slow down a bit so that you can catch your breath and have a chance to think about your program and your staff and your players. I always liked that part of the season. Just trying to figure out how to tweak things and how to make things better. When you get into the season, you’re in such a tight schedule; it’s just one thing to the next. It’s very hard to have philosophical or big changes during the season. It’s just tweaking here and there. I probably like the offseason better, but the problem with coaching in college football is there’s just no downtime. When you are in the offseason, recruiting has ramped up so dramatically that you just always feel like you’re behind. There’s always another guy somebody wants you to talk to. And then you got 120 guys, so there’s always a bunch of issues going on with your team. It’s just a different set of problems.