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When Nick Rolovich walked out of the Washington State football building Monday night, embarking on a new life of anti-vaccine martyrdom, he left behind more than a $3 million per year contract to coach a Power Five college program.
Despite how much Rolovich professed to love his players, his unceremonious exit along with four unvaccinated assistant coaches creates a massive and unprecedented mess for those who came to or stayed at Washington State primarily to play for him.
After beating Stanford on Saturday, the Cougars were riding a three-game winning streak and within reach of bowl eligibility at 4-3. Now, they’ll have to finish out a desultory season with a makeshift coaching staff and no clear path for the future of their program.
“It’s a tough day for Washington State football,” athletics director Pat Chun said Monday. “Nobody wants to be here. I have a lot of empathy for the young men in that locker room and those upperclassmen have been through a lot in my time here. Two teammate deaths, a pandemic, three coaching changes. This is a lot and it’s a tough day for everybody here.”
Rolovich’s refusal to comply with the state of Washington’s mandate for public employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 didn’t merely cost him his job, it will have consequences for dozens of people, including several assistant coaches who just recently uprooted their families from places as far away as Hawaii and will now have to look for new jobs.
They didn’t ask for this. They didn't deserve it. And yet, they’re the ones who will have to deal with the fallout over the next six weeks just to get to the end of this season.
"If you look where we are as a football program, it’s been fun to watch our team play over the last several weeks,” university president Kirk Schulz said. “I was hopeful all along that maybe after a month or two there would be a change of heart and Pat would call and say, ‘I know it’s been a little tough on the university but those individuals elected to get the vaccine.’ That just didn’t take place.”
As a result, Washington State is embarking on something that has never really occurred in college football. It’s commonplace these days for a head coach or an assistant to be fired mid-season, but programs usually have enough capable staff in the building to fill those roles rather seamlessly.
In this situation, the Cougars have to move forward with five of their 10 full-time, on-field staff members departing in the middle of a game week against BYU.
For several days leading up to Monday’s decision, Washington State has been reaching out to people within the industry to see if any out-of-work or retired coaches might be interested in flying up to Pullman to finish out the season. But even if Chun and interim head coach Jake Dickert are able to fill out the staff quickly, it’s a huge competitive disadvantage and a total disservice to the players for new people to come into the building and get acclimated to the personnel, to the playbook and the opponents they have to gameplan for.
There’s just not enough time for any of that to take place with five games remaining between now and the end of the season on Nov. 26.
“It’s problematic,” Chun said. “We’ve been working on contingency plans. (Rolovich) did give us some input on those contingency plans. We’ll work with the staff to decide who we can get in here to start helping out. The challenge with the offense is it’s a very detailed intricate offense, the ‘run-and-shoot,’ and to get the right coaches who can help assist there aren’t a lot of people on the streets right now.”
In the bigger picture, Washington State can recover from this. Though it’s never ideal to start over, Chun will be able to get into coaching search mode now and perhaps come up with a permanent replacement in early December with enough time to salvage something of the Cougars’ recruiting efforts. For the remaining assistant coaches now in limbo, the uncertainty about where they’ll be next season is unfortunate but also inherent to the profession they chose.
But the real victims here are the players who will never know what their team might have become had Rolovich simply complied with the mandate. As Chun referenced, this is a group of players that had to be exceptionally resilient in the face of tragedy after quarterback Tyler Hilinski took his own life in January of 2018 and again in March of 2020 when defensive back Bryce Beekman died of a drug overdose. In September, receiver Brandon Gray was shot and seriously injured at an off-campus party. Through it all, Washington State found a way to improve this year after a 1-3 start, including a loss to Utah State and getting blown at home by 31 points against Southern Cal. Now, it’s impossible to say how they’ll react.
“This 2021 team and this upper class, unfortunately for them, they have tons of experience persevering through adversity,” Chun said. “Unfortunately for them, they’ll have to find another way to persevere through this adversity.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nick Rolovich's firing at Washington State leaves program in disarray