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WSU fires Nick Rolovich for cause

Failure to comply with the state’s Covid vaccination mandate results in his firing.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Rolovich has been fired as the coach of the Washington State Cougars because of his failure to comply with the governor’s Covid vaccination mandate for state employees, the school has confirmed.

The news was first reported by John Canzano of The Oregonian.

Rolovich — a state employee who made $3 million per year — had been seeking a religious exemption with accommodations. WSU athletics director Pat Chun said that Rolovich’s accommodation had been denied, and that he indeed was fired for cause, saying in a news conference this evening, “Nick is not eligible to be employed” by WSU because he is not in compliance.

That’s an important point of clarification, because it would mean WSU would not owe Rolovich any of the remainder of his contract. Had he been fired without cause, he’d have been owed 60% of his base salary of $2 million for the next three and a half years — or, $4.2 million. By not getting vaccinated, Rolovich left $10.5 million in total compensation on the table.

The school also announced that defensive coordinator Jake Dickert has been named the interim coach and will lead the team for the final five games of the season (pending bowl eligibility). That news was first reported by ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura.

WSU also announced that assistants Ricky Logo (defensive line), John Richardson (cornerbacks), Craig Stutzmann (quarterbacks/co-offensive coordinator) and Mark Weber (offensive line) also have been fired. Chun said in his news conference that it has not yet been decided how the five vacant coaching positions would be filled out, and that contingency plans had been discussed for the last couple of weeks — suggesting Rolovich and the other coaches could have remained employed by getting vaccinated at any point in the last two weeks. Chun said Rolovich gave some input into how the new staff might be made up.

Rolovich and his assistants were five of only 50 people across the entire WSU system — more than 10,000 employees — to be fired for non-compliance, according to WSU president Kirk Schulz. He said 90% of WSU employees are vaccinated, and 97% of students are also vaccinated. He noted that Pullman currently has only seven active Covid cases on its campus.

A question about whether any other WSU coaches in any other programs were losing their jobs wasn’t answered clearly.

“This is a disheartening day for our football program,” athletics director Pat Chun said, via news release. “Our priority has been and will continue to be the health and well-being of the young men on our team. The leadership on our football team is filled with young men of character, selflessness and resiliency and we are confident these same attributes will help guide this program as we move forward.”

WSU president Kirk Schulz, meanwhile, chose not to focus on Rolovich, but instead on the school’s continuing vaccination efforts without mentioning the former coach.

“While much has been made of the relatively small number of university employees who are not complying with the Governor’s mandate, we are immensely gratified that nearly 90 percent of WSU employees and 97 percent of our students are now vaccinated,” Schulz said, via news release. “WSU students, faculty, and staff understand the importance of getting vaccinated and wearing masks so that we can safely return to in-person learning and activities. I am proud of all those members of our community who have set the example and taken the steps to protect not just themselves, but their fellow Cougs.”

Ever since Rolovich announced in late July that he was electing to not be vaccinated against Covid, the coach and his employers — who clearly were not supportive of his decision — have been on a crash course.

That confrontation escalated when Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, announced in August that all state employees had until October 18 to either receive all doses of one of three vaccines or receive a religious or medical exemption with accommodations that allowed the employee to continue to do their job.

It culminated today with Rolovich being terminated before the end of his second season with a 5-6 overall record, tying him for the second shortest tenure in school history. Jackie Sherrill and Warren Powers also each only lasted 11 games.

Of course, Rolovich’s 11 games spanned two seasons, underscoring the bizarre end to this bizarre journey brought about by the planet’s first major pandemic in a century.

Rolovich was hired away from Hawaii after the end of the 2019 season, following Mike Leach’s departure for Mississippi State after eight successful seasons in Pullman. The move was roundly praised, as Rolovich was considered a bright offensive mind who was poised to build on the foundation left by Leach, who had led WSU to five consecutive bowl games — an unprecedented run in school history.

The turmoil for Rolovich started almost immediately — some of it out of his control, but most of it within — and would last through the entirety of his brief tenure.

Rolovich made a great first impression, buying beers for fans and connecting with them in a way that felt very ... WSU. But before Rolovich even made it to his first spring practice, Covid reached the shores of the United States and resulted in an unprecedented pause of American life. He navigated the shutdown as best he could, doing his best to recruit creatively and supporting local businesses with large-scale food purchases.

As what would have been his first season approached, WSU remained in a holding pattern with the rest of the Pac-12, which delayed the beginning of its season. But Rolovich found himself in the news in an unfortunate way: Wide receiver Kassidy Woods recorded a call with Rolovich in which the coach appeared to threaten the player if he continued to align himself with a player-empowerment movement. Woods transferred and has since filed a lawsuit.

Once the season finally started, things didn’t go much better. He debuted with an encouraging victory over Oregon State, but he got testy with a reporter who asked if the massive absences on the team for that game were related to Covid, stating, “No corona, ok?” It would foreshadow his attitude regarding Covid going forward.

The rest of the “season” would feature three more losses — including two in which the team blew halftime leads — interspersed with cancellations because of positive Covid tests and contact tracing. Additionally, a number of key players transferred out of the program, either before or during the season.

Still, there was a sense that the circumstances of the season were so unique, that there just wasn’t much to be read into the results. Many fans were optimistic about the team’s chances, pointing to exciting offensive talent led by promising young quarterback Jayden de Laura.

Then July 22 arrived, and Rolovich announced via Twitter that he had chosen not to be vaccinated for personal reasons and had been barred from attending Pac-12 media day in California. He was the only one of the 36 participating coaches and players to be forced to attend remotely via Zoom because of his vaccination status.

Rolovich’s announcement was left to stand for hours without a response from WSU’s administration, and when their terse statements eventually were released, it quickly became clear how at odds Rolovich and his employer were.

Asked to elaborate on his decision at media day, he declined, something that would become a recurring theme as everyone inched toward October 18. He would be asked about it countless times, and each time he would politely but firmly decline to comment.

The performance of the team on the field did him no favors out of the gate: The Cougars would lose three of their first four games, beating only FCS Portland State while coughing up leads to Utah State and USC. The loss to Utah State was particularly galling; beyond the fact that the Aggies are a Mountain West team, Rolovich made the call to start Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano over de Laura, a decision that, in retrospect, was disastrously wrong.

With pressure mounting, the Cougs suddenly turned it around with three consecutive wins over Cal, Oregon State, and Stanford — three teams WSU has regularly beaten over the years, but also three teams it appeared were headed for walkovers against the Cougars. The offense we had been promised was finally taking flight, and the defense was making big strides. Along the way, the players expressed their support for Rolovich, taking a familiar Cougs Vs. Everybody attitude.

Now those players are left to pick up the scraps, and try to make one final push toward a sixth consecutive bowl game without their coach.

“They don’t deserve this,” Chun said. “That is a real point of heartbreak.”