In 1998, an Eastern Washington senior defensive back named Jimmy Lake was pondering what to do with his business-management degree. All he knew, Lake told the Times two decades later, was that he wanted to “manage and make money.”
One of the Eagles’ assistant coaches set him on a path to do both.
“Coach K (Pete Kwiatkowski) and I go back to when I was at Eastern Washington. He was one of the coaches that talked me into not going into the business world and being a football coach,” Lake said in October. “So, Coach K is a close friend of mine, a dear friend of mine. I can’t say enough about him.
“I don’t want to get emotional right now this morning, because I love the guy. I love the guy to death. He’s a close friend of mine. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around, and I appreciate that he’s here on our staff.”
Although likely not for long.
The 55-year-old Kwiatkowski – who has served as either the defensive coordinator or co-defensive coordinator at Washington since 2014, and spent last season as the defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach – likely will join Steve Sarkisian’s staff at Texas in the same capacity, a source confirmed to the Times. The deal has yet to be announced.
Of course, Sarkisian, too, is no stranger to Seattle. The 46-year-old former Alabama offensive coordinator – who was announced as Tom Herman’s replacement at Texas on Jan. 2 – served as Washington’s head coach from 2009 to 2013, and is now attempting to pluck Kwiatkowski from his home for the past seven seasons.
Kwiatkowski was Chris Petersen’s defensive coordinator at Boise State from 2010 to 2013, before following his close friend west to Seattle. From 2010 to 2017, his defenses allowed the fewest points per game (18.7) of any coordinator in major college football.
Which makes what happened next even more remarkable. In 2018, Kwiatkowski voluntarily shifted from defensive coordinator to co-defensive coordinator and ceded play-calling duties to Lake, to keep his former pupil from potentially bolting for a bigger gig. When Lake was named head coach after Petersen stepped down last winter, Kwiatkowski reassumed defensive coordinator duties.
“I don’t know if it’s ever happened this way, and at the end of the day I don’t really care,” Kwiatkowski said in 2018, on the prospect of accepting a lesser role so a colleague can stay. “It’s not about my ego and my title. I know I’m a good coach and I know I have a big imprint on this defense. But I’m happy to do it to keep Jimmy around here and keep this thing rolling.”
Now, it might be Lake’s responsibility to keep things rolling without Kwiatkowski.
In four games last season, Washington ranked 39th nationally in scoring defense (25 points allowed per game) and 27th in total defense (346.3 yards allowed per game). The Huskies uncharacteristically struggled to stop the run – finishing fifth in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (161.25 yards per game) and seventh in opponent yards per carry (4.54), after standout defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike and outside linebacker Joe Tryon each opted out of the season. They also allowed opponents to convert 78.57% of their red-zone trips into touchdowns, which ranked 11th in the Pac-12 and 121st nationally.
From 2015 to 2018, UW led the Pac-12 in scoring defense and total defense for four consecutive seasons. Seventeen UW defensive players have been drafted in Kwiatkowski’s seven seasons in Seattle, with several more – including Onwuzurike, Tryon and defensive back Elijah Molden – set to join that group this spring.
The most highly paid assistant both at Washington and in the entire Pac-12, Kwiatkowski made $1 million in 2020 and was set to make $1.1 million in 2021. However, he ranked as just the 26th highest-paid assistant nationally, according to USA Today’s assistant coaches salary database – further proof of the financial gulf between the Pac-12 and its Power Five foes.
A Boise State defensive lineman from 1984 to 1987, Kwiatkowski has spent the entirety of his coaching career on the West Coast – at Boise State (1988-96, 2006-13), Snow College (1997), Eastern Washington (1998-99), Montana State (2000-05) and Washington (2014-20).
If/when Kwiatkowski’s UW departure becomes official, Lake will be tasked with replacing a coordinator for the second consecutive offseason. After he was elevated to head coach in December 2019, Lake chose not to retain second-year offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan and hired Jacksonville Jaguars assistant John Donovan instead.
The jury remains out on that particular hire – after the Huskies finished second in the Pac-12 in third-down conversions (48.2%), fifth in scoring offense (30.3 points per game), sixth in rushing offense (176.3 yards per game), sixth in pass efficiency rating (136.3), ninth in total offense (402.8 yards per game) and 11th in red-zone touchdown percentage (55.6%) in 2020. They did so after implementing a new scheme and replacing starters at nearly every offensive position.
The UW defense, meanwhile, could return as many as nine starters next fall.
But Lake likely will have to look for a new coordinator.
And, should that be the case, a number of names could potentially surface – including Montana State head coach Jeff Choate, Miami Dolphins defensive backs coach Gerald Alexander, California defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon, USC associate head coach and defensive pass game coordinator Donte Williams, Louisville co-defensive coordinator and UW alum Cort Dennison, Cal defensive backs coach Marcel Yates or Montana State defensive coordinator Kane Ioane. Lake also could assume a larger role with the defense while simultaneously promoting from within, placing co-defensive coordinator Ikaika Malloe in an elevated role.
Don’t forget, however, that Donovan – who served as an offensive assistant in Jacksonville for four seasons after being fired as the offensive coordinator at Penn State in 2015 – was not on anyone’s list of prospective candidates this time last year. Lake was unafraid to disregard more popular picks in favor of someone he perceived to be a better fit. So, in a sense, another surprise … should not come as a surprise.
Tuesday morning, UW redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui – who led the nation with 1.75 sacks per game last season, while working directly with Kwiatkowski – provided an accurate summation of the situation with a one-word tweet: