It took Nick Rolovich nearly two decades to climb from high school assistant to Washington State Cougars head football coach. That’s a lot of grinding, a lot of recruiting, a lot of film study.
The reward was a $3 million-a-year salary, a chance at the big-time of the Pac-12 and the promise of even better jobs and better pay ahead. In just his second season, Rolovich had the Cougars (4-3) on a three-game winning streak, after all. His program in Pullman, Washington, was starting to look a lot like his previous one at Hawaii, which won its conference.
The 42-year-old can coach. There has never been any denying that.
He just isn’t a coach right now and may never be a major college head coach again.
On Monday, WSU terminated Rolovich for not getting the COVID-19 vaccine that the state of Washington mandates of every public employee. Four of Rolovich’s assistants were shown the door as well.
That decision is within Rolovich’s rights. This is a free country. Or it should be. If he doesn’t want the vaccine, he shouldn’t have to get it.
At the same time, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has the power to require the government’s employees to get the shot or lose their job. The order has already withstood dozens of court challenges.
So it’s all good, at least in a vacuum. Rolovich is free to make his own decisions, just as the government is free to make its rules.
The coach isn’t guaranteed employment, though. Every action brings a reaction. Every decision has a fallout; be it good or bad.
To give up on such a dream opportunity, to give up on a chance to compete at the highest level, to walk away from players, families and staff that he convinced to follow him to rural eastern Washington couldn’t have been easy.
Rolovich hasn’t said that, of course. He hasn’t said much of anything. Even as this deadline approached and this controversy simmered, he mostly dodged questions and played it coy. It’s too bad. Whatever stand he is trying to make would be aided by an explanation.
He certainly won’t be the only person who quits a job or bails on a career or leaves people who trusted in them because of these mandates. Being a coach isn’t just any old job, of course. But in the end, he’s one of many. They just won’t be as high profile.
That’s how firmly Rolovich felt about this. Agree or disagree, the depth of the conviction here is notable.
Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving isn’t with his team right now, either, due to a similar anti-vaxx stance. Irving is giving up a $34.9 million salary, a $186.6 million extension and a chance to team up with Kevin Durant and James Harden and win the NBA title.
Still, Irving could always get the vaccine and return almost immediately. The Nets will gladly play and pay him. He already made hundreds of millions of dollars and won an NBA championship. He’s established.
It’s unlikely Rolovich will have such easy options. Washington State has moved on, promoting vaccinated assistant Jack Dickert to interim head coach. Even if Rolovich suddenly changed his mind and got jabbed, it’s probably too late. And not just at Washington State.
The idea of a coach leaving the team for any preventable reason would terrify athletic directors, let alone recruits.
Certainly, there are some in the locker room who agree with his stance on the vaccine. But this isn’t what anyone wanted out of an exciting season, especially with a good BYU team arriving for what should have been a major showdown. No one wants the coach to implode the place. It’s supposed to be the team, the team, the team.
“This is a disheartening day for our football program,” WSU athletic director Pat Chun said.
It has to be. There was a lot of momentum at Washington State.
It’s gone now.
That’s how much Rolovich rejected the mandate. That’s how much he opposed the vaccine.
No one – not his players, not his bosses, not the governor – was going to tell him what to do. He stuck to his guns, be it fearless or foolish.
It cost him his job, his team and maybe his career. But that’s America too. Whatever happens, happens.