Cougs’ quest overshadowed by coach’s quandary

Some are confused by Washington State coach Nick Rolovich’s decision not to get vaccinated. Others applaud the move. One thing is for sure: people certainly are talking about it throughout the state.

When it comes to the precarious and unprecedented situation involving Washington State’s football coach these days, Scott Pelluer and Jim Walden agree on at least one thing.

Everybody’s talking about it.

As the Cougars (3-3, 2-2) prepare for a game at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Gesa Field against Stanford, coach Nick Rolovich is awaiting a verdict from the school on whether he’ll be employed moving forward. And the verdict has nothing to do with his coaching ability.

The deadline is Monday for state employees to be fully vaccinated for the coronavirus or receive an exemption on medical or religious grounds. Rolovich, 42, who has refused to be vaccinated, has applied to WSU for a religious exemption, and he said Wednesday he still was waiting to hear back.

Washington State players have said the issue hasn’t been a big distraction, but water-cooler discussions throughout the state this week surely have focused more on Rolovich’s state of limbo than on the Cougs’ chances against Stanford (3-3, 2-2).

Pelluer, a former Cougar linebacker and the father of recent WSU star Peyton Pelluer, called Rolovich’s refusal to be vaccinated “bizarre.”

“Is it a fireable offense? I have no idea,” said Pelluer, who lives in western Washington. “But I know it’s a huge black mark on WSU, and the fans are ticked off. Everybody I talk to — all my former teammates — are like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

Walden, the Cougars’ head coach for nine years through 1986, said he resents vaccination mandates and he lauded Rolovich’s performance since taking the WSU job shortly before the pandemic shut down the sports world in March 2020.

As for this season, “He beat Oregon State, he beat Cal,” Walden said during a phone interview from his cabin near Coeur d’Alene of the Cougars’ two most recent games. “And yet all people can talk about, especially the west-side talking heads, is the damn COVID — instead of watching this guy coach his brains out. He’s doing a helluva job.”

At WSU, staff requests for religious exemptions are being judged by a team of reviewers from the human resources department who don’t have access to the applicants’ names or departments. The reviewing team for each application must include at least two people.

For the applicants, the first step in the process is filling out a form that includes such requests as “Briefly explain how your sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with WSU’s COVID-vaccination requirement.”

Rolovich hails from a Catholic background but hasn’t publicly specified the religious beliefs relative to his application.

In the weeks after Gov. Jay Inslee issued his state vaccination mandate for education workers in August, Rolovich said repeatedly he would comply with the edict, but he declined to say how.

That changed this past Saturday when his former coach at Hawaii, June Jones, told USA Today Sports that Rolovich was seeking a religious exemption. The WSU coach confirmed it later in the day.

The application process includes two phases, the second less anonymous than the first. So even if Rolovich is granted an exemption, he still would need to convince WSU athletic director Pat Chun and president Kirk Schulz that he can perform his duties without risk of exposing others to the virus.

That would be a cut-and-dried decision, Chun implied to the New York Times.

“I don’t think it’s a judgment call,” he said.

A week ago, WSU said it had received more than 1,250 requests for medical and religious exemptions from staff and students, and almost 800 had been approved. But the success rate appears to be much lower for religious exemptions. The Times reported Sunday the school had received 437 requests in that category but granted only 98.

The numbers rapidly are changing as reviewers move toward the Monday deadline, according to Phil Weiler, WSU vice president of marketing and communications.

“Literally the teams are working every day, all day long,” he said. “Ideally they want to be able to get this done in advance of Monday.”

But there’s no guarantee. It’s unknown when Rolovich submitted his request and how many applicants are ahead of him. But the deadline is considered hard and fast. It may be possible he’d initially be suspended while awaiting a decision. It’s also possible his request is denied and he takes a vacation or an unpaid leave of absence, meanwhile getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccination so he could be back in the saddle in two weeks.

But he has remained so terse throughout the whole process that much of this is conjecture.

Rolovich’s contract with WSU, which calls for $3 million per year plus incentives, extends through the 2024 season. But if he’s fired for not complying with a state mandate, the school probably would consider the dismissal to be with cause, meaning it wouldn’t need to keep paying him.

Pelluer agreed with Walden that Rolovich has been impressive in his Cougar coaching role so far. To him, that makes the situation even more puzzling.

“It’s almost like he’s willing to throw it all away so he doesn’t have to get vaccinated,” Pelluer said. “Which is the most bizarre thing of all.”

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