Nick Rolovich is only 42 years old, but he’s running out of time. For a college football coach with bad ideas, ham-handed tactics and a sense of self-importance that far exceeds his accomplishments, he’d have to be the greatest thing since Bear Bryant to be worth the trouble.
What Rolovich is — or, at least, the way he’s presented himself publicly over the last 12 months — is a science-denying, player-bullying embarrassment to Washington State University who isn’t merely in over his head running a Power Five program but the kind of coach who will soon be extinct in a new era of player empowerment and social responsibility.
At this point, the question isn’t whether Washington State has to fire him; it’s how long and at what cost they will allow Rolovich’s self-immolation to continue.
The latest, and potentially most explosive strike against Rolovich’s credibility came in the form of a federal lawsuit filed Aug. 20 by former player Kassidy Woods.
The central allegation of the lawsuit is that Rolovich took punitive measures to separate Woods from the team and ultimately forced him out of the program because of his involvement with a group of Pac-12 athletes who were advocating for social and racial justice and threatening to boycott the season if the league did not address their concerns, some of which related to how COVID-19 was being handled within programs.
Much of that story was known last year when Woods went public with a phone call he had recorded between himself and Rolovich, but the lawsuit goes even deeper on the issues at Washington State. Woods, who opted out of the 2020 season due to health concerns, alleges that the program instructed athletes not to discuss positive COVID-19 cases — even within the team.
Woods, who has sickle cell trait and was thus considered more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19, said his roommate informed him upon arrival back to campus that he had been exposed two days earlier to someone who had been infected. Woods alleges that by September, 60 members of the team had tested positive for COVID-19.
“These cases occurred during the time that WSU was ordering athletes to conceal the truth or otherwise face retaliation, and to abstain from support of the #WeAreUnited movement that questioned this very activity and demanded change,” the lawsuit states.
To be clear, Woods’ lawsuit only tells one side of the story. Washington State, which declined to comment on Wednesday, will have the opportunity at some point to present its own case.
But the recorded phone call in which Rolovich told Woods there would be consequences if he was part of the advocacy group paints an unmistakable picture of a control freak coach who uses threats to secure conformity and submission. And given Rolovich’s public track record on COVID-19, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if his program had a lax attitude toward curbing the number of infections.
It’s not a coincidence that the best coaches in the country, whether it’s Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Ryan Day or Brian Kelly, have aggressively promoted vaccination and gotten all but a handful of their players to take it. Not only is that the right thing to do given their responsibility to look out for their players’ health, it’s also a competitive advantage.
Meanwhile, Washington State is stuck with a coach whose refusal to get vaccinated has turned him into a spectacle of ignorance and mocked the efforts of the people he works for.
It was bad enough that Rolovich was barred from attending Pac-12 Media Days in person alongside his 11 colleagues because he’s the only head coach in the league who was unvaccinated. But his response when the state of Washington decided that all university system students and employees must be vaccinated was arguably worse.
Every time Rolovich has been asked about the policy, his only comment is that he’s “gonna follow the mandate.” That could mean he’s going to get the vaccine — which, if that were the case, he could just say it in plain English and make the issue go away. But it could also mean he’s shopping for some doctor or religious person to help him concoct a case to get an exemption.
Rolovich clearly doesn’t want us to know for sure, which lends itself to the more cynical explanation. Or maybe he’s just being stubborn, a $3 million per year child who’d rather sulk himself to sleep at the dinner table than eat his green beans.
Either way, Rolovich has made himself the story going into the season, which isn’t a comfortable place to be for a guy whose record at the school is 1-3. Kirk Schulz, the Washington State president and a chemical engineer, can’t be thrilled that his university is now synonymous with an anti-vaxxer dolt.
But the double-whammy of COVID-19 and the empowerment of college athletes through social justice initiatives and new economic rights has put more scrutiny than ever on how coaches treat their players and what core values are important in their programs.
This is an era of empathy over intimidation, facts over propaganda, inspiring players to buy in rather than forcing conformity. Coaches who understand that are thriving despite the challenges of the last couple years. Coaches who don’t get caught on taped phone calls trying to bully their players into capitulation.
Washington State may not have realized it when they hired Rolovich, who did some nice work in relative obscurity at Hawaii, but now must certainly understand that his ideas and his methods are out of step with what is required of major college head coaches in 2021.
Rolovich may be young by age, but guys like him are yesterday’s news. Until Washington State cuts the cord, though, he’s going to be their everyday problem.