Chris Petersen doesn’t rage or rampage at work.
The fourth-year Washington Huskies football coach is the anti-Jim Harbaugh. There is no bluster or bravado to Petersen, but he’s not comatose. His is a controlled intensity.
Petersen believes that positive reinforcement is the most powerful motivator in a sport that feeds on emotion, and he will not hire assistant coaches who yank on face masks to hammer home a point.
Not that Petersen doesn’t yearn to compete. Washington on Wednesday was the preseason media pick to repeat as Pacific-12 Conference North champions, thanks in large part to third-year starter Jake Browning of Folsom, who passed for 3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns last season.
“Coach Petersen has made his mark,” said Browning, who said he would not play for a raging coach. “He coaches his way. It works.”
Petersen was coached and mentored at UC Davis by cerebral sorts: Jim Sochor, Bob Foster and Bob Biggs. From that Aggie foundation, Petersen molded Boise State and Washington, elevating programs to varying degrees of national prominence. One hearty pep talk and back slap after another.
“Yelling and screaming, it’s not who we are and what we do,” Petersen said in a discussion with The Bee during a quiet moment Wednesday, the first day of the Pac-12 media gathering. “The only time I can remember anyone really raising their voice at Davis when I was there (as a player in the mid-1980s and later as a coach) was coach Foster, and he’d get amped up. But it was positive. It wasn’t to unleash on a kid. We don’t adhere to that. If a kid is really into it, and he makes a mistake, it happens. We need to take a timeout and not take it out on the kid.
“But it’s hard not to get upset. It’s a frustrating game. You coach a certain way. It’s very challenging for me not to get upset sometimes. You’re trying to build confidence and self-esteem, to let them cut loose as players, but not be constantly on their heels.”
Petersen has constructed programs while boosting and nurturing self-esteem. He went 92-12 in eight seasons at Boise State, and he has resurrected Washington in short order. Petersen has gone 27-14 in three seasons in Seattle, including a 12-2 mark last season and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Some of Petersen’s best facial expressions come during preseason hype. He frowns on it. The Yuba City native also doesn’t admit to any added pressure, though there is since he signed a new seven-year contract in April for $34 million, making him the highest paid coach in the Pac-12.
Petersen said he isn’t so much obsessed with winning as he is with molding an entire program. Petersen teams have never been tied to recruiting violations, and they rarely have fielded players of suspect character and conduct.
“It would still boohoo all these expectations,” Petersen said with a laugh. “We do not reload. That’s not the mindset. You hear programs say they reload. We don’t. We rebuild, and this is a new team. We lost a lot of good players. If someone wants to anoint us as Pac-12 North champions, go ahead. It doesn’t make it any more fun for us. It can take the joy out of it. But this is the world we live in, and no one has higher expectations than what we have in our own building, so who cares what people say?”
Petersen, 52, didn’t anticipate a career on a sideline. He was ready to pursue advanced degrees in school psychology at UCD when his football mentors steered him to coaching, Foster especially. Then Petersen got hooked.
“Every time I talk to Foster, I tell him, ‘You’re the reason I’m doing this! I could be doing something less stressful!’ ” Petersen said. “Glad he did.”
Nick Aliotti has known Petersen for 25 years, coaching with and against him while on the Oregon staff. Aliotti, now with the Pac-12 Networks, is also a UCD graduate.
“Chris is an absolute winner, fair and firm, a really intelligent guy, and you put that whole package together and you’d be successful in anything, and he chose coaching,” Aliotti said. “How he treats people is how he’d want to be treated. That’s the message to get across. He knows how to handle and treat people.
“But trust me. There’s a fire burning inside CP. And when it comes to being competitive, you want that guy on your side.”