Washington State University fired its football coach, Nick Rolovich, and four of his assistants on Monday for failing to comply with the state’s Covid-19 vaccination mandate. He became one of the nation’s highest-profile employees to lose a job because of a refusal to be vaccinated.
Defensive coordinator Jake Dickert has been named the interim coach.
Rolovich, the state’s highest-paid employee, applied for a religious exemption this month from the mandate, among the strictest in the country. The status of the exemption request was unclear when the firings occurred.
Monday was the deadline Gov. Jay Inslee set for state workers to be fully vaccinated or to receive a religious or medical exemption allowing them to keep their jobs. A state agency report from earlier this month showed that about 90 percent of state employees who would be affected by the mandate had already been vaccinated.
Earlier in the day, a Superior Court judge rejected a request by hundreds of Washington State Patrol troopers, corrections officers, ferry workers and other public employees for a temporary injunction to block Inslee’s mandate, though the lawsuit they have filed can still go forward.
Rolovich, who was in the second year of a five-year, $15.6 million contract, had become the public face of the showdown with Inslee, who repeatedly said there would be no exceptions. Rolovich was counseled by June Jones, whom he played quarterback for and coached under at Hawaii, to get vaccinated. And Jack Thompson, a Washington State star quarterback from the late 1970s, had several heart-to-heart talks with him.
Rolovich’s resistance frustrated campus leaders, including President Kirk Schulz, who has strongly encouraged students to get vaccinated. Fans at the last two home games have been required to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus test in order to be admitted, a policy the school developed in conjunction with the University of Washington and the Seattle Seahawks.
Also, Washington State students who are unvaccinated by next month will not be allowed to register for classes in the spring semester.
As Monday approached, the drama around the deadline intensified — fueled in part by the Cougars’ three-game winning streak, which gave them a 4-3 overall record with five games left and kept them in contention for the Pac-12 Conference North Division title. Players have firmly backed Rolovich, particularly quarterback Jayden de Laura, who gave an impassioned defense of his coach. Several Cougars doused Rolovich with a vat of sports drink after a stirring comeback win Saturday night against Stanford.
“Overall, we have no problem with Rolo,” de Laura said after a win over Oregon State. “I love him. I love him to death. I’d do anything for him.”
The players were informed of the firings Monday night, when they were summoned to a mandatory meeting by Athletic Director Pat Chun. Also losing their jobs were offensive line coach Mark Weber, defensive line coach Ricky Logo, cornerbacks coach John Richardson and quarterbacks coach Craig Stutzmann. Stutzmann’s brother, Billy Ray, was fired as an assistant coach at Navy last month for refusing to get vaccinated. Richardson is Washington State’s recruiting coordinator.
“This is a disheartening day for our football program,” Chun said in a statement. “Our priority has been and will continue to be the health and well-being of the young men on our team.”
With five coaches gone, it was not immediately clear if they would all be replaced.
Rolovich said in July that he would not get vaccinated, calling it a personal decision and declining repeatedly over the past three months to elaborate on his decision.
He maintained his stance even after Inslee, a Democrat serving his third term as governor, issued his decree in mid-August, giving state workers nearly two months to comply. After the Cougars beat Oregon State on Oct. 9, Rolovich confirmed a USA Today report that he had applied for a religious exemption.
Asked then if the approaching mandate deadline made him uncomfortable, Rolovich said: “You think it’s been a fun time? Of course it’s been difficult for everybody. Players are going through some of the same things. I think it’s an incredible stress, especially the young people. For them to be able to keep their focus and continue to give to each other, and to this program has been pretty special.”