Washington State fired football coach Nick Rolovich and four of his assistants on Monday for refusing a state mandate that all employees get vaccinated against COVID-19, making him the first major college coach to lose his job over vaccination status.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, had set a deadline of Monday for thousands of state employees, including the Cougars’ coach, to be vaccinated. Rolovich applied for a religious exemption, which was denied Monday, Washington State athletic director Pat Chun said.
Defensive coordinator Jake Dickert will be elevated to acting coach and his first game in charge will be Saturday at home against BYU.
“This is a tough day for Washington State football,” Chun said at a news conference. “Nobody wants to be here."
Also fired for refusing vaccination were assistant coaches Ricky Logo, John Richardson, Craig Stutzmann and Mark Weber. Chun said there may be no precedent for a team losing its head coach and so many assistants in the middle of a season.
“Our student-athletes are the biggest losers in this,” he said.
Rolovich was not immediately available for comment.
The 42-year-old 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 wouldn't specify his reasons. He was the only unvaccinated head coach in the Pac-12 and had worn a mask during games.
Rolovich was fired for cause, which means the university does not have to honor the rest of his contract, although lawsuits over the decision are likely. The Washington State athletic department is currently facing a shortfall of more than $30 million.
Around the country, many college football coaches have publicly advocated for vaccination, including Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Alabama’s Nick Saban. Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin said not getting vaccinated would be irresponsible and bragged about his team being 100% vaccinated.
Many coaches have talked about their teams’ high vaccination rates, though schools are not under any obligation to share those numbers.
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 COVID-19 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. He finishes with a 5-6 record at the Pullman campus in southeastern Washington.
Rolovich revealed in July that he would not get vaccinated and couldn’t attend Pac-12 media day in person because of it.
He said in mid-August that he intended to follow the new mandate requiring vaccinations for every state employee but repeatedly declined to say how.
After refusing for weeks to reveal his plans, Rolovich on Oct. 9 confirmed he was seeking a religious exemption to the mandate. He has not specified his religious beliefs.
Chun said he met with Rolovich over a period of several months, but could not change the coach's mind.
“He was resolute in his stance,” Chun said.
Rolovich needed to prove a sincerely held religious belief that prevented him from getting vaccinated in his exemption application. The application was put before a committee that reviewed the requests without knowing names of the applicants.
To continue coaching, Rolovich needed to receive the religious exemption and also to have Chun determine that Rolovich could do his job while keeping the public safe. In addition to his work as a coach, Rolovich oversaw a youth football program and participated in promotional and fundraising events.
Dickert is in his second season as Washington State’s defensive coordinator and came to Pullman after three seasons at Wyoming. He has not previously been a head coach.
Chun said the school is looking to hire assistants immediately to fill the vacancies on the staff.
Washington State President Kirk Schulz said nearly 90% of WSU employees and 97% of students had been vaccinated. Fewer than 50 of some 10,000 employees have sought exemptions, Schulz said.
The vaccine issue has percolated all season, dividing Washington State fans and providing a continual distraction.
“There was a lot of frustration with such a prominent employee choosing to be unvaccinated,” Schulz said.
Players stood up for their coach as the season progressed. Quarterback Jayden de Laura told a sideline reporter after Saturday’s win: “Stop hating on Rolo. We love him.”
Wide receiver Travell Harris commended Rolovich after the game for being a “players’ coach.”
“He’s a coach we all love to play for,” Harris said.
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report.