PULLMAN, Wash. — Washington State fired football coach Nick Rolovich and four of his assistants on Monday after they refused to comply with a mandate that all state employees be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee had set a deadline of Monday for thousands of state employees, including the Cougars’ coaches, to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or risk losing their jobs.
“The non-compliance with this requirement renders [Rolovich] ineligible to be employed at Washington State University and therefore can longer fulfill the duties as a head coach of our football program effective immediately,” Washington State athletic director Pat Chun said during a Monday night news conference. “It is disheartening to be here today. 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.”
Also fired were assistant coaches Ricky Logo, John Richardson, Craig Stutzmann and Mark Weber after they did not comply with Inslee’s proclamation that was issued in August. Chun said there may be no precedent for a team losing its head coach and so many assistants in the middle of a season.
Defensive coordinator Jake Dickert has been elevated to interim head coach. His first game in charge will be Saturday at home against BYU.
Rolovich was the highest-paid state employee, with an annual salary of more than $3 million in a contract that runs through 2025. He had said he wouldn’t get vaccinated but has declined to provide clarity when asked repeatedly for weeks to expand upon the reasoning for his refusal. The university provided multiple educational sessions for its coaches and staff about the vaccine, its efficacy and the process.
Chun confirmed Rolovich’s departure will be characterized as a “for cause” separation due to his inability to meet the requirements outlined in his contact. As such, he will not continue to be paid as per the terms of his contract.
Rolovich, 42, initially said in mid-August he would comply with the vaccine mandate, but later confirmed he applied for a religious exemption. He has not specified his religious beliefs.
The university used a blind evaluation process, meaning the two-person committee that evaluated Rolovich’s request did not have access to any identifying information while making its determination.
The committee returned its ruling Monday, and while Chun did not explicitly confirm how the committee ruled, it can be inferred the religious exemption was granted at that stage of the process because Chun said Rolovich’s “accommodation request” was denied. The second step of the process, after the religious exemption was granted, would be for the supervisor — in this case Chun and likely other university leadership — to decide if accommodations could be made for him to fulfill all his contractual obligations.
Chun saying Rolovich’s “accommodation request” was denied indicates an evaluation was made beyond the initial exemption request.
Rolovich was informed of his dismissal by Chun on Monday afternoon and left immediately after their meeting concluded, without addressing the team, Chun said. After meeting with Rolovich, Chun addressed the players in a meeting that was met with mixed emotions.
“Their responses were what you would expect out of a bunch of college-age young people that lost their head coach and a bunch of position coaches as well,” Chun said. “That’s a very close-knit group. They handled it maturely, but without a doubt there’s a lot of disappointment, sadness, anger. It’s a room filled with over 120 young people, so it’s going to be the full spectrum of emotions. But they listened and they were all there.”
It’s unclear who will fill the five vacated spots on staff, which could be difficult considering the timing and that WSU’s run-and-shoot offense isn’t widely used (Rolovich, Stutzmann and Weber are offensive coaches).
“It’s a very detailed, intricate offense, this run-and-shoot, and to get the right coaches that can help assist — there just aren’t a lot of people on the streets right now,” Chun said. “We’ve been working on this for a couple weeks, just in case, and we’ll go forward with a couple of those.”
Rolovich revealed in July that he would not get vaccinated and couldn’t attend Pac-12 media day in person because of it. He was the only unvaccinated head coach in the Pac-12 and had worn a mask during games.
Unlike last season — when COVID-19 cases swept through major college football, postponing and canceling games weekly — no games have needed to be rescheduled because of a coronavirus outbreak.
Rolovich was hired from Hawaii two years ago, after Mike Leach left for Mississippi State, and led Washington State to a 1-3 record in the Pac-12 in a 2020 season cut short because of the pandemic. Washington State has won its past three games and is 4-3 this season, including a 34-31 win over Stanford last Saturday. Rolovich finishes with a 5-6 record at the Pullman campus in southeastern Washington.
Dickert is in his second season as Washington State’s defensive coordinator after three seasons at Wyoming. He has not previously been a head coach.
Washington State president Kirk Schulz said nearly 90% of WSU employees and 97% of students had been vaccinated.
Players stood up for Rolovich as the season progressed.
Cougars quarterback Jayden de Laura told a sideline reporter after Saturday’s victory: “Stop hating on Rolo. We love him.”
Wide receiver Travell Harris commended Rolovich following the game for being a “players’ coach.”
“He’s a coach we all love to play for,” Harris said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.