WSU football coach Nick Rolovich fired after refusing to take COVID-19 vaccine – The Seattle Times

Nick Rolovich came to Washington State as a fun-loving coach, known nationally for his off-the-wall antics and an ability to win.   

Less than two years and 11 games later, Rolovich has been fired, and will be known nationally as the football coach who lost his job for refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Washington State announced Monday night that it had “initiated the separation process” with Rolovich and four of his assistant coaches for not complying with the state mandate that all state employees be fully vaccinated by Monday.

Defensive coordinator Jake Dickert has been named acting head coach.

“This is a disheartening day for our football program,” said WSU athletic director Pat Chun in a statement. “Our priority has been, and will continue to be, the health and well-being of the young men on our team.”

Defensive tackles coach Ricky Logo, cornerbacks coach John Richardson, quarterbacks coach Craig Stutzmann and offensive line coach Mark Weber are also being let go.

Rolovich had applied for a religious exemption to the mandate that all state employees be vaccinated by Oct. 18, but the statement from WSU did not address his exemption request.

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The Cougars were 5-6 during Rolovich’s 1½ seasons as WSU’s coach.  

But Rolovich’s tenure has been marked more by his polarizing stance on the vaccines than what happened on the field. His view was in stark contrast to the one held by his bosses, WSU President Kirk Schulz and Chun, who adhere to the science that the vaccines are a safe and effective way to prevent COVID-19. 

“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,” Schultz said Monday in a statement. “WSU students, faculty, and staff understand the importance of getting vaccinated and wearing masks so that we can safely return to in-person learning and activities.”

Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday that more than 90% of Washington state government workers have been verified as fully vaccinated — up from 68% a couple weeks ago.

Rolovich, the state’s highest-paid employee at $3.2 million a year, had the highest profile among the other 10%, who were at risk of losing their jobs by not following the mandate. 

Despite the drama surrounding Rolovich’s job status, the team has been rolling. Washington State won its third consecutive game Saturday — each as an underdog — with a dramatic 34-31 win over Stanford in which the Cougars scored the go-ahead touchdown with just over a minute left.   

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The Washington State players gave their coach a Gatorade shower in celebration, obviously aware that it might be his final game at Washington State.   

“It means a lot having a coach that, first of all, is a players’ coach and truly understands us,” slotback Travell Harris told reporters after the game. “He’s an outstanding coach. He’s a coach we all love to play for.” 

Now the team will look to continue its momentum without Rolovich.   

The perception of Rolovich changed forever when he made an announcement on Twitter on July 21 that he would not be attending Pac-12 media days in person because he would not meet the requirement that participants be vaccinated.  

In the statement, Rolovich said in part: “I have elected not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine for reasons which will remain private. … I will not comment further on my decision.”  

For the most part, Rolovich was true to his word that he would not comment further. He has declined to answer every question about the topic, even after Gov. Inslee announced Aug. 18 that everyone working in education must be vaccinated as a condition of employment, setting a deadline of Oct. 18.  

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But June Jones, who had coached Rolovich when he was a quarterback at Hawaii, did talk, revealing to USA Today that Rolovich had applied for a religious exemption to the state mandate.   

After Washington State’s 31-24 win over Oregon State on Oct. 9 — just hours after the story on what Jones said was published — Rolovich said this:   

“I’m not terribly happy with the way it happened. I hope no player that I coach has to wake up and feel the way I felt today. I don’t think it was malicious, but that wasn’t a great thing to wake up to, to be honest with you.”  

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That was the final thing Rolovich said on the topic until after Saturday night’s win over Stanford, when he was asked if he thought he would be able to keep his job.  

“I don’t think this is in my hands,” he said. “I’ve been settled for a long time on it. I believe it’s going to work out the right way. If that’s not what (Athletic Director Pat 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.”   

Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich answers question via video conference during the Pac-12 football Media Day Tuesday, July 27, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

No one could have predicted this ending when Washington State hired Rolovich on Jan. 14, 2020.   

The hire drew praise from around the nation. Rolovich, 40 at the time, had turned around a struggling Hawaii program in four years as the head coach at his alma mater.   

Hawaii had just finished a 10-5 season in 2019 with a victory in the Hawaii Bowl, and Rolovich was named Mountain West Conference coach of the year.   

He brought his run-and-shoot offense to Washington State, along with the reputation for doing some zany things to get his Hawaii program attention and to keep things light for his players.  

Rolovich seemed to nail it when it came to first impressions at WSU.   

He said winning the Apple Cup was a priority, and he wanted to improve recruiting on the west side of the state.   

Rolovich invited Cougar fans in the Seattle area to meet him at local bars, then picked up the tab. And he stepped up in the Pullman community during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, helping local restaurants by buying 20 meals a night that he then gave away.  

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The coronavirus ended up leading to the cancellation of spring practice in 2020, and the delay of the regular season. The Cougars played just four of seven scheduled games as three were canceled because of COVID-19 issues (two of the issues were WSU’s).  

The Cougars finished 1-3 last season and this year did not get off to a good start.   

WSU was 1-3 after a 24-13 loss to Utah, marking the third time the Cougars had blown a second-half lead in 2021.   

Then came the turnaround, starting with a 21-6 win at California that was followed by dramatic home wins over Oregon State and Stanford.   

But that is where Rolovich’s tenure at WSU ended.  

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This story will be updated.

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