PULLMAN, Wash. (AP) — Pat Chun’s job as the athletic director at a Power Five school calls for publicly exuding optimism.
When Washington State was forced to replace its football coach midseason in 2021, some of that optimism waned.
"There was a likelihood we weren’t going to win another game the rest of the year,” Chun said, recalling the 2021 season.
What Chun didn’t know at the time was that the interim coach he chose to take over in a time of upheaval would be able to unite the Cougars. The season ended with growing momentum buoyed by victories and a clear choice for the team's next leader, Jake Dickert.
“It’s been really refreshing to be a part of, but really inspiring,” Chun said. “Anytime you watch anybody persevere and thrive in adverse situations, it’s really inspiring to watch and I think a lot of us are really optimistic about what could happen this season just because of what we’ve been able to see.”
Dickert’s first full season as a head coach gets underway Saturday when the Cougars host Idaho. But for the 39-year-old, it’s about more than that. It’s about certainty in a life as a coaching nomad. It’s about stability for a football program that’s faced turbulence the past five years.
It’s about the chance to build a new foundation.
“We need to reestablish ourselves and this isn’t a one-year journey. That’s success to me and just providing stability to our program,” Dickert said. “That’s a player’s thing, and it’s a coach’s thing, and as we keep establishing ourselves of how we want to do it, I think that’s the biggest thing coming out of year one.”
Dickert, who entered last season as the defensive coordinator, was never a head coach until he was asked to take over when Nick Rolovich was fired for failing to comply with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for state employees. There were those who supported Rolovich and those who didn’t.
Dickert found a way to be a unifying force. The Cougars went 3-2 after Dickert took over, with one of those losses coming by two points to a ranked BYU team the week Rolovich was fired.
“After that BYU game, when we lost by an extra point, that locker room changed,” Dickert said. “They were like, ‘This is all we need. We got everything to be successful and finish this year out.'"
That was the start of an ongoing audition that eventually landed Dickert the job. His credentials, while notable, never would have landed him on Chun's radar in a traditional coaching search.
He put the finishing touch on his application when the Cougar flag — Ol' Crimson — was planted in the turf of Husky Stadium after the largest margin of victory for Washington State in the history of the Apple Cup. That, combined with a vision for how to move the program forward, was enough for Chun.
“I walked away from that game, just saying whatever happens, I’ve done everything I possibly could and if it doesn’t happen, I can walk away being really proud of the work that that group did,” Dickert said.
Stability is a big deal for Dickert and his family, and the Palouse fits with his Wisconsin background. He happily talks about the ability to leave work and be at an event involving one of his three kids in five minutes, be there and present, and go back to work later if needed.
One of the lasting images from his introductory news conference last December was Dickert’s daughter Rylee giving him a hug with a look of excitement and relief on her face.
“She’s got a big heart and when I got a chance to tell her that we’re gonna stay it was emotional for our whole family,” Dickert said. “Just to know, ‘I don’t have to change schools. I don’t have to make new friends.’ Because she’s at that age, that 10-year-old age, where she gets it. So that was a culmination of that moment.”
Maintaining the desired stability means building on Washington State’s run of seven bowl games over the past nine seasons. It means being near the top of the conference standings going into the final weeks on a regular basis. It means more than just one Apple Cup win.
“One of the things the last three years taught me is that fit is so incredibly important. Fit in place and fit in people,” Dickert said. “When you’re making the climb, you’re just a young guy, you’re like, ’I’ll do anything to get there.' And then you realize how important those other two factors are."
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