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Wilner Hotline – Five names for the job of the Washington Huskies

The Jimmy Lake era, which lasted 713 days, a pandemic, a division title, an incident on the field, an endless number of three-and-outs, a suspension and so many baffling decisions, is over.

At some point in the next six weeks, Washington will hire the 30th head coach in the program’s history.

Let’s take a look at various aspects of the process and take a look at a list of names that make sense to UW.

*** Pressure

At a press conference on Sunday night, athletic director Jen Cohen took responsibility for hiring Lake in December 2019, following the abrupt departure of Chris Petersen.

In truth, Cohen had little choice. At the time, Lake was extremely popular internally and highly coveted externally as a defensive coordinator or budding head coach. He reportedly turned down offers from many schools, including Alabama. He produced NFL-caliber defensive backs like no one else, and he owned Washington State.

Had the Huskies ruled out Lake and conducted a national search, the repercussions in the locker room, on campus and in Seattle would have been thunderous, especially – and rightly so – within the black community.

Nonetheless, Cohen must “own” this location (his word). She’s the boss, and the boss takes the heat.

Cohen also hired basketball coach Mike Hopkins, whose schedule is in freefall. Considering the twin UW Moneymakers fainting spells, Cohen is under significant pressure to get this hire right.

Universities often feel pressured to identify football and basketball coaches who “win the press conference” and are instantly acceptable to fans and the media. Hot names, in other words. Cohen can’t worry about it.

“If I’m Jen, to hell with the press conference,” an industry source told the Hotline. “I have to hire the best coach I can find.”

*** The competition

Washington is a nationwide elite job, with the resources, donor support, facilities, recruiting base, and tradition to compete for the Pac-12 Championships and college football playoff spots.

It’s one of only two Pac-12 teams to advance to the playoffs and has recently competed in the New Year’s Big Bowls for three consecutive years.

But Washington isn’t USC or LSU, and both schools are looking for a head coach. Nor is Florida, which could have a vacancy by early December. Huskies therefore need to be smart about their targets.

They don’t want to be played by agents who raise prices.

They don’t want to spend vital time chasing coaches with no real interest in the job.

And they certainly don’t want to be lured into a search company to hire a trainer that isn’t for them.

(UW is expected to hire a research firm to help them with the process, but the “scope” of their involvement has not been determined, Cohen said.)

*** The advisers

Cohen plans to rely on a small group of advisers. We’re assuming Chris Petersen will be at the top of this list. Jeff Tedford, the former Cal and Fresno State coach who worked on UW staff in 2016, may also be involved. They’re damn good starting points – two of the best minds in West Coast football of the past quarter century.

Renting Lake two years ago was a question of continuity. This research is on a new beginning. It’s about setting the stage for the style of play and the recruiting philosophy.

Do the Huskies want to become an air raid team? Do they want a coach who, like Mario Cristobal of Oregon, is recruiting with fervor for the SEC? To what extent should they rely on the transfer portal for the constitution of the list? Would they prefer someone with close ties to the Pacific Northwest? Are they interested in a current NFL assistant or coordinator?

These are all pieces of the puzzle that the Huskies must solve to identify a pool of candidates.

*** Challenges

The research results will set the course for Husky football over the next three to five years. This could have an impact on Cohen’s future at school. And that’s also crucial for the Pac-12 – not nearly as big as the USC hiring, maybe, but close.

Combine the expansion of the playoffs, planning for clashes with the Big Ten and the ACC (through their alliance), the next round of Pac-12 media rights negotiations, evolving economic opportunities for players and , potentially, another wave of conference realignment, and this three to five year period presents an unprecedented opportunity for schools and the conference as a whole.

In other words: two of the top three Pac-12 football brands have vacancies at the same time, and it’s a period unlike any other in the history of the sport.

Both schools need to get it right.

It’s a colossal month for the conference …

The following list of potential UW candidates is purely speculative and does not include coordinators or assistants, only seated head coaches.

A newbie comes with extra risk, and Huskies are not in a position to take extra risk.

Dave Aranda: Baylor head coach and LSU defense architect in 2019 national championship race will be one of the most coveted coaches around – to the point that he could spark serious interest from Florida , LSU or USC. The Huskies should be careful to avoid being played, but Aranda, who just beat Oklahoma, is too good to ignore. He’s from Southern California and has a thoughtful personality – much like Petersen – that Cohen might find attractive. (Aranda and Petersen trained against each other in Mountain West.) Given Aranda’s mastery of defense, UW’s message to voters would be clear: It’s 1991 again from this side of the fray. And if he brought offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes with him, so much the better for UW.

Billy Napier: We’re not convinced that successful Louisiana coach Ragin ‘Cajuns is ready to leave his current role, or that he would turn down an LSU offer (should it materialize). Additionally, industry sources believe Napier’s coveted job is the state of Arizona. (He spent a season at Tempe as an offensive coordinator under former coach Todd Graham.) The Sun Devils currently have no vacancies, but that could change quickly if Herm Edwards retires or is forced to resign. Finally, we have no idea if Napier would benefit from relocating to the Pacific Northwest. In fact, he probably doesn’t. But UW should find out.

Kalani Sitake: Sitake’s work early in his six-year tenure at Brigham Young was not impressive, but the quality of his product over the past two seasons speaks for itself. The Cougars are 4-0 this fall against the Pac-12 with a rookie quarterback, they are physical on the line of scrimmage and they are playing in line for Sitake. The BYU alum spent seven seasons in Utah under the direction of Kyle Whittingham. His strong recruiting ties to the Polynesian communities of the West and the Pacific Islands would allow the Huskies to rebuild their lines of scrimmage, which have weakened in recent years. According to industry sources, Sitake should be considered a betting favorite.

Jonathan Smith: We have no idea if Smith would leave his alma mater, Oregon state, after just four seasons, but Washington would be remiss if he didn’t do a behind-the-scenes investigation. No introduction would be necessary given that Smith was UW’s offensive coordinator in the 2016 playoffs. (The offense hasn’t been the same since leaving.) Smith’s temperament and coaching style live up to Washington’s culture and recruiting base. His judging skills are superb and he beat Oregon last season with a third of the talent. A potential problem: Could the Pasadena native wait for a concert closer to home?

Justin Wilcox: Now in his fifth season at Cal, Wilcox has worked for Tedford (at Berkeley) and Petersen (at Boise) and for Paul Chryst of Wisconsin, one of the sport’s most respected coaches. He also led the defense of Washington during the Steve Sarkissian era. He had Cal on the verge of going up north when COVID hit – and it hit the Bears harder than any other program. Wilcox is a much better trainer than his record indicates, and we assume Petersen and Tedford would vouch for him. (Given his defensive background, he would need a detailed plan to fix UW’s offense.) Fans of other Pac-12 teams have no idea how difficult it is to regularly win at Cal. And after his latest frustrations with COVID protocols, maybe Wilcox would be good to go.


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