No other team in college football history has faced a situation quite like this.
After winning three straight games to improve to 4-3, the Washington State Cougars now must rebuild their coaching staff in the middle of the season after five coaches were fired Monday over their refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
That includes head coach Nick Rolovich, who was hired at WSU less than two years ago after a stint as Hawaii’s head coach.
Here’s a look at how this happened and where it’s headed with five regular-season games remaining, including a home game Saturday against Brigham Young on Saturday:
Why they didn’t get vaccinated
Rolovich, 42, never publicly has explained this after announcing in July that he had elected not to get vaccinated. He then applied for a religious exemption from a state mandate that required state employees to be fully vaccinated by Monday unless they obtained approval for an exemption. His exemption request was denied, and now he’s unemployed because he’s ineligible to work at WSU under the mandate.
WSU athletics director Pat Chun said Rolovich was “resolute” in his stance and wouldn’t change his mind.
“That’s a question only Nick can answer, but I know we offered and actually had multiple education sessions for all our staff, our coaches, relative to the vaccine, its efficacy and the vaccination process,” Chun said Monday.
Rolovich comes from a Catholic family background and attended a Catholic high school but recently declined to say if he identifies as Catholic. His former coach at the University of Hawaii, June Jones, told USA TODAY Sports earlier this month that Rolovich “believes that he doesn’t need to take it and doesn’t want to take it, and he doesn’t want somebody to telling him what to do.”
He was the only head coach in major college football to publicly say he wouldn’t get vaccinated.
How the players responded
Chun indicated Rolovich was not given an opportunity to say goodbye to his players Monday after he was informed that he was being terminated.
“We met this afternoon, and he left as soon as we met,” Chun said.
Chun then addressed the players along with interim head coach Jake Dickert, the team’s defensive coordinator.
Asked if any players indicated they didn’t want to play Saturday because of this decision, Chun said, “Not that I’m aware of.” He said the players reacted with sadness, anger and disappointment.
Quarterback Jayden de Laura addressed the matter with a statement he posted on Twitter.
“Words cannot express our profound sadness and disappointment in the termination of our Coach, Nick Rolovich,” de Laura said. The QB said “we strongly disagree with today’s decision. But we also understand that Cougar Football has always been bigger than any one person.”
He then called on fans to “pack the house on Saturday, and show this entire nation the special bond we all have as WSU Cougars.”
Rolovich’s contract status
If Rolovich were fired “without cause,” such as for losing too many games, he would be owed about $4.4 million at this point to buy out the remainder of his contract through June 2025. However, Chun said Rolovich and the other coaches are being fired “for cause” because they are no longer eligible to work there under the mandate. That means he doesn’t get that buyout and instead enters a process that gives him the right to appeal the decision within 15 days.
“Employee’s right to receive any payment under this Agreement … shall cease the day following the issuance of the decision to terminate for Just Cause,” his contract states.
Rolovich can try to fight it legally, perhaps leading to a settlement. Any appeal he makes would be heard by university president Kirk Schulz or his designee. Schulz appeared with Chun at a news conference Monday and supports the firing.
Who made the decision?
Schulz even indicated he made the decision to fire Rolovich in conjunction with Chun. According to WSU protocol, requests for religious exemptions are considered by a committee that is “blinded” from the identities of the applicants. If the committee denied the request, the applicant could be terminated. But even if the committee granted the request, the applicant then faced another hurdle: The applicant’s supervisor then must determine if the unvaccinated employee could do his or her job without posing a risk to community health. Chun was Rolovich’s supervisor.
Asked who made the decision, Chun declined to say, citing privacy laws. But Schulz gave a different account earlier when he said the decision got a mixed reaction.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people today that said, `Hey this was the right decision to make from the university,’” Schulz said. “I’ve also heard from several others that did not feel that the decision that I made, or Pat and I made, was the right one.”
He said he heard from one alum who said that “because of our decision, he was tonight going to make a donation … in support of Washington State University.”
Schulz noted that more than 90% of WSU employees and 97% of students are vaccinated.
The coaching staff
Also fired Monday were defensive tackles coach Ricky Logo, assistant head coach John Richardson, co-offensive coordinator Craig Stutzmann and offensive line coach Mark Weber. Stutzmann also is the quarterbacks coach and recently had called plays for the Cougars’ run-and-shoot offense – a system that doesn’t have many teachers available to move to Pullman on a temporary basis at midseason.
Chun acknowledged this and said he’s been preparing for it.
“Nick did give us some input on some of those contingency plans,” Chun said. He added that he hoped to make some hiring announcements this week.
Chun noted how he believed Rolovich was a “perfect fit and long-term solution” for the Cougars when he hired him in January 2020. Then came the pandemic. His team finished 1-3 last year and started with the same record this year before winning three consecutively.
“It is disheartening to be here today,” Chun said. “Our football team is hurting. Our WSU community is fractured. Today will have a lasting impact on the young men on our team and the remaining coaches and staff.”
Dickert succeeds Rolovich on an interim basis and has made his vaccination stance clear. In May, he posted a photo on Twitter that showed himself getting vaccinated.
“We all have a choice, but I am Proud to do my part to #StopThe Spread and can’t wait to see fans at Martin Stadium this fall,” he wrote then.