WSU football

Washington State coach Jake Dickert hugs a player after the Cougs' Apple Cup victory Friday against Washington at Husky Stadium in Seattle.

It was a bit like watching an actor receiving the “lights, camera, action” directive and magically assuming the mien of his character.

That's how quickly Jake Dickert, in his first Zoom news conference as Washington State defensive coordinator in October 2020, stopped fidgeting with his wedding ring (for the most part) and began answering questions.

He described, first of all, the importance of the nickelback position in his 4-2-5 schemes, noting in particular how well a junior from Spokane named Armani Marsh theoretically embodied it.

It was just a theory because this was several months into the show-stopping phase of the pandemic. Although Dickert had been hired nine months earlier, he still hadn't seen much of his players in action, and this basically was his first public appearance since landing the job.

He looked young and, yes, fidgety. Before the questions began, it wasn't entirely clear who this person was. I thought maybe he was a video technician.

Then, on cue, he transformed into a football coach who'd obviously studied his craft on multiple levels. He seemed prepared for every question, and his answers struck a balance between technical explication and hazier concepts.

He later would call himself an “amped-up guy,” but he's apparently learned to convert that trait into an imploring, up-tempo coaching persona and an effortless rapport with the media. During that first interview, when he was asked to compare Cougar Gold to its renowned counterparts of his native Wisconsin, he smiled widely and declared it “the best.”  

If Dickert was playing a role that day, it was one he had thoroughly internalized. He showed the savvy and fluency you expect of a unit coordinator – and then some. Was it the savvy and fluency you expect of a head coach? Yes, as a matter of fact, but it was way too soon to think in those terms.

Thirteen months later, remarkably, it's no longer too soon.

A day after the Cougars' 40-13 defeat of rival Washington in Seattle, in which Marsh made two interceptions from his nickel position, Wazzu removed the “interim” tag from Dickert's job title Saturday and named him its 34th head coach. At age 38.

The move seemed at once inevitable and paranormally amazing, coming just six weeks after Nick Rolovich and four of his assistants were fired for failing to comply with a state vaccination mandate. Dickert, who'd never previously been a head coach and had served only three-plus seasons as a coordinator, was handed the interim keys to the car.

To the casual fan, the appointment might have been surprising, since the WSU staff included several more experienced coaches, including respected offensive coordinator Brian Smith. To others, the news came across as logical, if only because Dickert exudes the type of youthful energy that's valued in interim coaches by administrators worried about player morale.

The situation was full of delicate lines that everyone, including Dickert, needed to observe.

In May, long before Rolovich had gone public with his vow to duck the jab, Dickert had tweeted a photo of himself receiving his second vaccination, making no reference to his colleagues but pointing out that widespread inoculation would be the best way to put Cougar fans back in their seats for the 2021 season.

That's where they've been, and they've seen a good show, before and after the rupture of Oct. 18.

Once the rupture occurred, Dickert needed to downplay his personal stake in the matter and emphasize the needs of a confused group of players, many of whom had developed a deep affection for Rolovich. At the same time, the interim coach needed to state clearly his interest in the permanent job if he expected to be taken seriously.

Then there was the football part of the equation. Dickert and administrators quickly replaced the departed coaches, new lines of communication were established, and Dickert, working in unison and empathy with veteran players like Marsh, kept the team's psychic structure from collapsing. The Cougars became bowl eligible in Game 11 and came within an eyelash of the Pac-12 North Division title this past week in snapping a seven-game losing streak in the Apple Cup.

Dickert's profile doesn't closely resemble those of other recent WSU coaches. At this offense-minded school, only one other head coach since the mid-1980s, Bill Doba, hailed from a predominantly defensive coaching background.  

And although Dickert is quick to smile and laugh, he doesn't project any of the varied forms of comic showmanship that several of his predecessors did: Jim Sweeney, Jim Walden, Mike Price, Bill Doba and Mike Leach, followed by the amusing but ultimately awkward case of Rolovich.

At one point during what Dickert called his six-week “interview” for the job, he said, “The only person I know how to be is Jake Dickert.”

That's exactly whom he needed to be.

Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2290.