This is the next installment in our series of stories previewing the 2022 Washington State Cougars football season. Other installments can be found here.
It’s been nine months since Jake Dickert was promoted from interim coach to the 20th head football coach in WSU history, so I figure enough time has passed that I can now unleash my scorching hot take on his hiring.
I didn’t love it!
I ... also didn’t hate it?
(Feel free to run for your fire extinguishers.)
I found myself underwhelmed, even as I understood all the obvious reasons he got the job: An anti-Rolovich in just about every way imaginable, Dickert held the whole enterprise together while the circus continued around him, helping guide the team to a bowl game. I think we all can agree that was no small feat for the team, and worthy of admiration.
But also ...
The team he inherited was 4-3, on a three-game winning streak, and clearly talented enough to win at least two of its final five games. Most programs that end up with an interim coach have squads that are already circling the drain; this was not that. While winning three of those final five was a feather in his cap, let’s be honest: while the win against ASU was undeniably impressive, it wasn’t exactly a feat of epic proportions to beat Arizona (historically bad) and Washington (gave up on the Apple Cup before it ever began when their own interim coach started Sam Huard at QB).
And that group of seniors. Whew. They went through a lot. Deaths — plural — of teammates ... Covid ... two coaching changes ... I’m inclined to believe the bulk of the success the team had last season was due to a lot more to them and their teammates’ resiliency and leadership and a lot less attributable to the people who were coaching them.
Look: It was a good finish to the season. But was it the kind of finish that makes it a no brainer to hire a 38-year-old who had never run his own program and only even been a coordinator for a few years? The job of an an interim coach is not the same as a head coach; it’s one thing to get behind the wheel of a school bus that’s already cruising down the road and make sure you keep it between the lines, but it’s quite another to assume the command of an aircraft carrier with it’s 86,000 moving parts and take it into the open sea.
Mostly, I had hoped our program had moved past the kind of hire that seemed to be made out of convenience or penny pinching. Handing the keys to Dickert, to me, had the look of both of those things — there clearly was never a real search, even though Nick Rolovich handed the university a Get Out Of Jail Free card and Dickert almost certainly would have been there in the end if Pat Chun still thought he was the best guy.
But in the nine months that have passed, I have found that most of my biggest fears have already been assuaged.
I don’t know if Dickert will be successful in the end, but I do think he’s done a heck of a lot of things right since he was hired.
One of my primary concerns, from a football standpoint, was simply the act of hiring a defense-forward coach.
WSU has always been at its best when it has a wide-open offensive attack — I truly believe it’s part of our identity as a program — and I know what usually happens when a defensive coach takes the reigns and starts preaching about physicality, controlling the line of scrimmage, etc. I had visions of Cal and Texas Tech pivoting away from their offensive roots and floundering.
And it didn’t inspire confidence that the team’s pass ratio dropped after Dickert took over; not alarmingly so, but it was definitely noticeable.
That said, Dickert earned a lot of equity with me when he identified Eric Morris as the guy he wanted running his offense. Morris’s Air Raid is certainly more multiple and run-heavy than Leach’s dogmatic attack, but it’s still an Air Raid — we’re still talking about, at minimum, 60-40 pass/run splits for the season.
And when I think back on those games he was in charge, it didn’t feel like a guy trying to put his fingers on every aspect of the team, demanding that it conform to his vision of football. At the time, I chalked it up to him being an interim coach and not wanting to rock the boat, but the decisions he’s made since then indicate to me that it’s more likely that he’s actually just quite pragmatic, interested above all in the best way to win football games.
And he’s clearly done his homework on what’s won football games at WSU.
Getting a “multiple” Air Raid offense says to me that Dickert wants his offense to be able to do whatever it is that it needs to do to win any given game. Are there times we’ll need to throw it around the yard to win? For sure. We’re going to be outgunned, talent-wise, in a fair number of games. But there also will be games where running it 35 times is the best path to victory.
That was the recipe last season, when the Cougs averaged nearly 40 rushes in those three victories against ASU, Arizona, and UW. I don’t think the staff came into those games with a target of 40; instead, I think an opportunity to run it presented itself and it was a useful weapon. It seems to me that that is what Dickert is aiming for. If we can pull it off, I can get behind that, because we all know there were times under Leach where the run game was not a particularly useful weapon and it was a hindrance against certain opponents — particularly those dressed in purple.
And if the running attack isn’t working — as it might not be this year with an inexperienced offensive line and running backs? I just don’t think Dickert is going to demand that his offensive coordinator continue to bang his head against the wall in pursuit of some sort of high-minded philosophy at the expense of trying to win games.
Additionally, there’s precedent for defensive coaches blending their viewpoint with explosive/innovative offenses — Bob Stoops did it to great effect at Oklahoma, and Nick Saban has come around on it at Alabama. WSU is (obviously) not Oklahoma or Alabama, but I think it can work here, too, if the coach is committed to letting the offense do its thing.
The other thing that worried me about Dickert, as a guy with limited FBS experience, was how he would fill out his staff. Who a head coach can get to work for him determines so much of his success, and so much of his ability to do that comes from the network he’s developed along the way — something we’ve watched play out in very different ways at WSU.
Mike Leach, with his deep connections from a long coaching career, loaded up his staff with experienced Power 5 assistants who were ready to tackle the tough job ahead in Pullman. By contrast, Paul Wulff — with zero FBS coaching experience himself — brought most of his staff from Eastern Washington. We all know how each of those tenures turned out.
But here, too, Dickert has pleasantly surprised me. When it comes to Morris, I’m not just excited about his offensive vision, I’m also comforted by his experience: before he was head coach at FCS Incarnate Word, Morris was the offensive coordinator at Texas Tech for five years, and before that, he was coaching wide receivers with Leach for a year at WSU, and before that, he was with Kevin Sumlin at Houston.
Morris knows his way around this landscape, and the same can be said of many of the other new hires.
- Defensive coordinator Brian Ward comes from two years as defensive coordinator at Nevada after four years in the same position at Syracuse.
- Offensive line coach Clay McGuire is well known to Coug fans as someone who developed some elite offensive linemen under Leach; he has made stops at USC and Texas Tech since leaving Pullman after the 2017 season.
- Running backs coach Mark Atuaia spent the last six seasons at Virginia, and was at BYU before that.
- Outside receivers coach Joel Filani spent the past few seasons at Texas Tech; he was at North Texas before that, and was a quality control assistant at WSU before that.
- Defensive line coach Pete Kaligis was a strength coach at Washington (where he was a 12-game starter at offensive line on their 1991 co-national champs) before moving on to a 13-year career at Wyoming under two different coaches.
I won’t pretend to have any legitimate insight into how effective this particular staff actually will be, but — at the very least — I don’t have to worry about it being a staff that’s immediately in over its head in a Power 5 environment. That’s a low bar, I know, but it’s not one that WSU has always cleared.
Projecting whether a coach ultimately will work out is a fool’s errand, given the myriad factors that go into whether they succeed. Heck, I was the moron who wondered if — after compiling a 14-27 record in his first three-plus seasons — Leach was the right guy for WSU, after all.
But we do have a lot of data to draw from when we look at who has succeed here and who has not, and Dickert’s deeds and words give me a lot of optimism for his tenure.
On top of the satisfactory football moves, he just seems like a good guy. Being a “good guy” is not reason enough to get a head coaching job, but it’s a nice side benefit after the last guy we hired.
It’s not just that Dickert says all the right things about the job and about Pullman (which he does), it’s not just that he comes off as very wholesome and Head Football Coach-ey (which he does), it’s not just that he talks about things such as servant leadership that really resonate with me (which it does). It’s that it all actually seems authentic.
I’ve gone from believing he probably was saying what he needed to say to get the job to believing that it’s probably legit. So many young, energetic coaches give off the vibe of a snake oil salesman, but the one time Dickert (nervously) tried to make a (cringy) catchy phrase happen after he was made interim coach, he quickly ditched it and just went back to being himself — a guy who sure seems like someone you can root for.
I have no idea how this will end up. But I’m now excited to find out.