“Nick is not eligible to be employed at Washington State University, through noncompliance,” Athletic Director Pat Chun summarized Monday night.
Four assistants — Ricky Logo (defensive tackles), John Richardson (assistant head coach/cornerbacks), Craig Stutzmann (co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks) and Mark Weber (offensive line) — also lost their jobs, the school said. Defensive coordinator Jake Dickert will serve as acting head coach as Washington State prepares to welcome BYU on Saturday.
Rolovich, 42, a former Hawaii quarterback who later played arena football, had reached the midstream of his second season in Pullman after four years helming Hawaii, the last of which saw him win 2019 coach of the year honors in the Mountain West. He went 1-3 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, then 4-3 this year, including a third straight win Saturday night — after which, oddly, some of his players gave him a Gatorade bath often reserved for season-ending championships.
“I don’t think this is in my hands,” he said after the 34-31 win over visiting Stanford. He said he hoped it would “work out the right way” for him, but said: “If that’s not what [Chun] wants, then I guess I’ve got to move on. But I like being here. I like being the coach here. I love these kids. I’ve just got faith in it.”
A committee had been slated to review his request for a religious exemption, a request he had kept silent until a mentor, retired coach June Jones, revealed it in an interview with USA Today this month. The outcome of Rolovich’s request was uncertain; even if the committee had cleared him for the exemption, he would have faced more arduous mandate hurdles, including the need to demonstrate he worked in a job without extensive up-close human interaction.
“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,” WSU President Kirk Schulz said in Monday’s announcement. “... 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.”
Chun, in a statement, called it “a disheartening day for our football program.”
Later, Chun and Schulz emphasized that the situation had entailed months of conversation and preparation for possible outcomes, especially after Rolovich’s stance became public in midsummer when he did not travel to Los Angeles for Pac-12 media day, which required vaccination. Said Chun: “We’ve had conversations that date back months. He was resolute in his stance. He’s entitled to make a choice; that choice did not put him in compliance.”
“People had a choice, and they had months to make that choice,” Schulz said. “This wasn’t something that just all of a sudden popped up.” He said that at a university with a medical school and a bent for science, he had listened to “a lot of frustration with such a prominent employee refusing to be vaccinated,” and he said of the various science departments on campus, “That particular group has been pretty strident.” He noted that Washington State had been the first Washington school with its own vaccine mandate, including one for students set in April. He said “certainly less than 50” of all Washington State employees had made choices similar to those of Rolovich and his coaches “out of an employee base of 10,000.”
He also noted Rolovich’s good fit with the Washington State culture and said, “We thought this could be where he retires from.” Chun said: “We didn’t hire Nick to be here for a midseason change. Our student-athletes are the biggest loser in this when it’s all said and done.” Schulz said, “I was hopeful all along that maybe after a month or two, there would be a change of heart and Pat would call and say, ‘Hey ...’ ”
Chun said he met Sunday with the football team’s 22-member leadership council, explaining the possibilities. He met Monday afternoon with Rolovich, who “left as soon as we met,” Chun said. He confirmed that the firings happened “for cause,” which has buyout implications. Chun met with the team later in the afternoon and said, “They handled it maturely, but without a doubt there’s a lot of disappointment, sadness, anger.” Now Washington State faces a midseason coaching situation Chun called “problematic,” with “a very detailed, intricate offense” to be taught still, just as “there just aren’t enough [available] people on the streets right now.”
Rolovich opened his Washington State tenure in 2020 with uncommon charm during a recruiting trip to Seattle. He tweeted an invitation for fans to join him to chat at a pub, a gesture almost unheard-of in the insulated world of college football coaching. He won further adoration during the pandemic when he supported local restaurants by buying dinners and offering them to the public.
He also took heat when a former player, wide receiver Kassidy Woods, recorded a phone conversation with Rolovich in which the player wished to opt out of the 2020 season out of coronavirus concerns and the Dallas Morning News reported that the coach, while endorsing that, said there would be “an issue if you align” with players’ rights groups. (Woods transferred to Northern Colorado.) Of late, Rolovich never explained his refusal of vaccination as the public wondered about the reason and the fan base argued over the issue.
Rolovich’s unvaccinated status started getting attention just before the Pac-12 media sessions in Los Angeles. The conference’s 11 other coaches appeared from the podium without masks, but Rolovich spoke by video from Pullman. Two of his players, linebacker Jahad Woods and running back Max Borghi, traveled to Los Angeles.
As Rolovich spoke by video, he began by extolling his strength coach, reeling in the news of a player injury, reveling in “a ton of excitement for Utah State, our first game,” expressing gratefulness for having had a spring practice, noting “about 18 starters returning this season” and praising the “unwavering commitment from the players in our program,” saying he had been “impressed with their mental strength, with their focus on health and safety.”
Later, he added: “Now I have prepared a few written remarks to briefly address my statement regarding my decision not to receive a vaccination up to this point. The reasons for my individual choice will remain private. However, I want to make it clear I respect, I support all the work being done by the state of Washington, who as a state has one of the highest percentages of vaccinations in the country. ...
“As I go forward, I plan on adhering to all policies that are implemented for the unvaccinated at the state, local, campus, conference level. I’m not against vaccinations. I wholeheartedly support those who choose to be vaccinated, including our players, staff, coaches.”
Asked if his decision might discourage Washington State fans from getting vaccinated, Rolovich said: “No, I hope everyone makes their own decision and listens to everybody they need to listen to. That was not my intention at all.” He added, “I don’t mean to cause any heartache to this university or this athletic department or this state.”
Days later on Aug. 9, Inslee issued the mandate, which required “all employees, on-site independent contractors, volunteers, goods and services provides, and appointees of designated state agencies to be fully vaccinated against covid-19 on or before October 18, 2021.” In a statement that day, the governor said, “Getting vaccinated against covid is a public good. We have come so close to defeating this deadly disease. We have the tool — the vaccine — to get this era behind us.”