Wilner Hotline: Reaction to Rolovich Firing at Washington State

Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

Story by Jon Wilner

Washington State did not fire Nick Rolovich on Monday. The school was merely the vessel of dismissal, carrying out a state mandate designed to save lives and contain a pandemic.

In reality, Rolovich fired Rolovich.

He alone is responsible for his termination, halfway through his second season and with his team on the ascent.

He alone bears the burden for the mess in Pullman, for the massive disruption to the football program, for the immense embarrassment to the university and for the gut punch to Cougar constituents.

Why did Rolovich refuse the COVID vaccine? Was it really for religious reasons? Was it anti-vaccine politics? Was it ignorance?

All these months later, we still don’t know.

Rolovich, the university’s most public figure, never explained himself. His inability to provide a reasonable explanation — do anything but mumble through a response — compounded the problem.

There is nobody else to blame.

“This is a disheartening day for our football program,” athletic director Pat Chun said in a statement released by the university.

“Our priority has been and will continue to be the health and well-being of the young men on our team. The leadership on our football team is filled with young men of character, selflessness and resiliency and we are confident these same attributes will help guide this program as we move forward.”

As politically fraught as the issue has become, Washington State made the process as fair and objective as possible.

It worked with the state attorney general’s office to define the criteria for exemptions.

It established and trained a team of people to review the requests for religious and medical exemptions.

It used input from numerous arms of the university to determine whether accommodations could be made for Rolovich to keep the public safe while effectively carrying out his contractual duties.

Those duties extend far beyond watching film alone in his office and coaching on the sideline with a mask and headset.

He must engage with recruits, attend functions with alumni and donors and represent the university — the entire university — in public.

It was untenable and anyone with a shred of common sense knew it.

So what’s next?

Defensive coordinator Jake Dickert will serve as the interim coach of a team that has won three in a row and is in the race for the North division title.

There is plenty left for the players to achieve. With the issue resolved, the school can turn its full focus to the players, which is where it should have been all along but for the head coach who made it all about himself.

(Four assistants refused the vaccine and are being terminated, as well.)

Clearly, the players rallied around Rolovich. Since the loss at Utah, they have won three consecutive games against division opponents and are one game out in the loss column. That’s to their eternal credit.

Some players might have agreed with their head coach. Others might not have cared one way or another. And it doesn’t matter. They are kids who play football, not leaders of a society battling a pandemic that has raged for 19 months.

From the day in early August that Gov. Jay Inslee announced his mandate for state employees and Rolovich made it clear he would not get vaccinated, there was no other plausible end-game, folks.

He had to go.

In the highly politicized world of virus and vaccine, Rolovich’s stance was, in fact, a Rorschach test for the WSU community.

On one side, those who believe the mandate itself is wrong or the vaccine isn’t necessary, or both.

On the other, those who believe the vaccine limits the virus’ spread, reduces death and hospitalizations and restricts the potential for future variants to incubate.

The Hotline believes every aspect of Rolovich’s position was an abomination.

The recoiling from the burden of leadership.

The embrace of a selfish position.

The refusal by a public figure to hold himself publicly accountable.

The inability to do what was best for his team, for his players.

All of it — an absolute abomination.

As for Washington State’s position, well, that’s clear. As an R1 research institution (the highest level) that just built a medical school and employs a scientist as its president, the university took a stand.

Rolovich had the right to not get the vaccine.

The university had the right — no, it had the obligation — to show him the door.

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