Photo depicting Washington State University's Martin Stadium field.

OPINION: WSU Moves On From Cougar Coach Vaccine Embarrassment

by Enrique Cerna

At Washington State University (WSU), it will be long remembered as Black Monday. 

Monday, Oct. 18, the day state employees were required to meet a state mandate to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. It was also the day that football coach Nick Rolovich and four assistants were terminated for failing to meet the mandate. It was a painful day, not only for the coaches who lost their jobs, but also for the players, university administrators, students, and alumni.

I graduated from WSU in 1975. I love the place. I received an excellent education, made great friendships, and will always feel great appreciation for the people that made it possible for me to have a 40-plus career in broadcast journalism. I am an annoying Coug fan and proud of it!

As I watched the news conference where Athletics director Pat Chun and WSU President Kirk Schulz announced the termination of the football coaches, I felt sadness. I was sad that as we battle a global pandemic, there is so much divisiveness over wearing a mask and taking a vaccine that has and will save lives. I was sad that so many people are willing to risk lives and their livelihood because they do not want anyone to tell them what to do. I was sad that all of this has been politicized. I was sad that misinformation overwhelmed common sense.

In late July, when Nick Rolovich announced he would not get vaccinated, I expressed my displeasure to Pat Chun and Kirk Schulz. It was personal for me. In June 2020, I lost my 98-year-old uncle Fausto Cruz to COVID-19. Friends and former work colleagues also succumbed to the virus. When the vaccine became available, I looked forward to getting the shot. As I write this column, I am two days away from receiving the COVID booster shot. For me, a diehard WSU alumnus, beating the pandemic is bigger than beating the Huskies in the Apple Cup. Since, we have not defeated UW in that game in eight years, you know that is big!

Even more important is my deep concern for the Latino community and other Communities of Color. Public Health data in King County revealed racial disparities in coronavirus cases and deaths. Latinos have died at a rate two and half times higher than that of white people. Latinos, Black, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander groups have been infected and hospitalized at significantly higher rates in King County than white people. 

It was hard to understand why Nick Rolovich took such a hardline against vaccination because he never explained himself. When he first announced that he would not get vaccinated, he would only say “for reasons that remain private.” His lack of candor became annoying. He was the only head football coach in the Pac-12 that refused to get vaccinated. 

Eventually, he sought a religious exemption but still refused publicly to fully explain himself. Would that have made a difference? Maybe not. But when you are the highest paid state employee and you are in a leadership position at a major university, I think that taxpayers have a right to know.

Nick Rolovich brought embarrassment to the university. This ordeal drew plenty of press attention, along with negative commentary and editorials that criticized the university administration. It was frustrating that it overshadowed the important actions by the university to protect students against contracting COVID-19. WSU was the first university in the country to require that students get vaccinated before returning to campus this year. Ninetyseven percent of WSU students and 90% of WSU employees are now vaccinated. Many are diligent about wearing masks on and off campus.

During a recent podcast interview with me, former WSU and NFL quarterback Jack Thompson said that he tried to talk Rolovich into getting vaccinated. He told Rolovich no one is bigger than the university. The now former coach thought otherwise.

Thompson, known as the Throwin’ Samoan from his record setting WSU days, is close to the Polynesian players on the team, among them current WSU starting quarterback Jayden de Laura, who treats him with great respect. Thompson knows what it is like to lose a coach and to have your football program shaken by his departure. During his years at WSU in the late ’70s, he had four head coaches. 

Thompson wants the players to understand what happened is highly unusual. He says they have a right to be upset, angry, and confused. But he counsels them that this is life, so learn from the experience and move on.  

I am not sure if we will ever know why Nick Rolovich was willing to give up a $3 million salary and a job he must have loved because of a vaccine mandate. I hope he and his family do not contract the COVID-19 virus. I do not want anyone to become ill or die from it.

To those who are still on the fence about getting vaccinated, especially those in Communities of Color, I hope you will do so as soon as possible, not only for yourself but for the sake of your family and friends. It is not worth losing a job or your life.

Finally, let us respond to a plea from Jack Thompson to Cougar nation and fans everywhere to support the players. They were caught in the middle of a difficult and highly unusual situation. They have an opportunity to respond with greatness on and off the field. I will be there to root for them. I hope you will join me. Even if you are a Husky.

Go Cougs!

Enrique Cerna is a cohost of Chino Y Chicano and a longtime Seattle broadcast journalist who managed to survive the television business for more than 40 years without getting fired.

📸 Featured image is attributed to Jeremy Segrott (under a Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0 license).

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