Washington State has fired football coach Nick Rolovich after he declined to get vaccinated against COVID-19 despite a state mandate that required it unless he was approved for an exemption.
The university confirmed it Monday evening and said four assistant coaches also were being fired for not being in compliance with the mandate: defensive tackles coach Ricky Logo, assistant head coach John Richardson, co-offensive coordinator Craig Stutzmann and offensive line coach Mark Weber.
They and other state employees all faced a deadline Monday to save their jobs — either be fully vaccinated or obtain approval for an exemption. Defensive coordinator Jake Dickert, who is vaccinated, now becomes interim head coach of a team that has five regular-season games remaining, including Saturday against Brigham Young.
"To be at this juncture today is unacceptable on so many levels and is antithetical to the WSU experience our student-athletes so richly deserve," WSU athletics director Pat Chun said Monday. "I'm saddened for our football alumni and to all the proud Cougs all over the world for the fracturing that has transpired over the past few months. We need to infuse compassion, empathy and unity back into our WSU community, and that healing process needs to be begin immediately."
To be in compliance with the mandate, Rolovich had made a request for a religious exemption. He first confirmed on Oct. 9 that he was seeking such an exemption after USA TODAY Sports revealed he had filed an application for it and was not vaccinated, according to June Jones, his former coach at the University of Hawaii. Jones told USA TODAY Sports he had pleaded with Rolovich to get vaccinated for the sake of his job and others.
Instead, Rolovich rejected that advice and now is no longer employed, culminating a bizarre, self-inflicted career nosedive, less than two years after he arrived with promise on the Palouse in eastern Washington. After finishing 1-3 in first season during the pandemic last year, his team is 4-3 this season after winning its last three games, including a 34-31 win Saturday against Stanford.
His contract at WSU ran through June 2025 and included terms about how he could be fired for legal cause, such as failing to follow university rules. Chun said at a news conference Monday that Rolovich was fired "for cause." "He’s not eligible to work here now" because of the mandate, Chun said.
Rolovich, 42, did not elaborate on his religious reasons for not being vaccinated. He even declined to publicly confirm whether he identifies as Catholic after coming from a Catholic family background and attending a Catholic high school. Chun said Rolovich was "resolute" in his stance against vaccination despite attempts to educate him and other employees about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.
"I was hopeful all along that maybe after a month or two there would be a change of heart," said university president Kirk Schulz, who noted that more than 90% of WSU employees are vaccinated.
— Jacob Dickert (@CoachDickert) May 7, 2021
Meanwhile, Rolovich's vaccination status became a growing national news story after he announced on Twitter in July that he had elected not to get vaccinated, making him the only major college head football coach to say so publicly. After that announcement, he then declined to discuss his vaccination status despite frequent questions about it amid a state mandate that put his high-profile job at risk during a public health crisis.
In the end, it’s not clear whose decision at WSU ultimately ousted him. According to university protocol, religious exemption requests are considered by a committee that determines whether to grant them without knowing the identity of the applicants.
If the committee denied such a request, the applicant then could be fired. But even if the committee approved such a request, the applicant then faced another hurdle: The applicant's supervisor had to determine whether the unvaccinated employee would be able to perform his or her duties without risking the health of the community. If the answer to that was no, the applicant could be fired in that case, too.
If Rolovich’s application reached this stage, the decision-maker ostensibly would have been Chun, possibly in consultation with Schulz.
Asked who made the decision, Chun declined to say, citing privacy laws, though Schulz appeared to address the matter earlier when he said there has been a mixed reaction to the news of Rolovich's firing, including those who supported the decision.
He said he heard from some "that did not feel that the decision that I made, or Pat and I made, was the right one."
The university had been dogged by the public-relations headache that Rolovich’s vaccination status had become. Now it needs to find coaches to replace the fired five as the Cougars prepare to face BYU. Chun said contingency plans have been in motion, and he hopes to have some replacements lined up soon.
After he addressed the team with the news Monday, he said he saw a range of emotions, including anger and sadness.
The players "don’t’ deserve this," Chun said. "That is a real point of heartbreak."
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nick Rolovich fired as Washington State coach after refusing vaccine