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O’Neil: Huskies are lucky to have Chris Petersen, even at the high price of keeping him

Chris Petersen's extension with UW reportedly makes him the Pac-12's top-paid coach at $4.9 million a year. (AP)

Washington lucked into the chance at hiring Chris Petersen.

Three years and one conference championship later, the Huskies appear to have hit the Lotto.

That may sound like a strange description given that Washington is the one that agreed to pay Petersen an average of $4.9 million – most of any football coach in the conference – under a new extension that was first reported by Sports Illustrated on Monday.

But the reality is that Washington is fortunate to have the chance at paying Petersen a single penny because not only did the Huskies get the better coach after USC took Steve Sarkisian off the their hands, but they got a guy in Petersen who isn’t in any hurry to get to his next job and might not want to leave at all.

Talk about the gift that keeps on giving. If Petersen was the kind of coach trying to climb as far as he could as fast as he could, he would’ve left Boise State long before the Huskies came calling. That’s a rarity in an industry where the only thing tougher than finding a great coach is keeping that coach. Not that there’s anything wrong with that ambition. It just makes things complicated. And tedious.

Washington found that out first-hand with the last coach who led the football team to a conference title: Rick Neuheisel. Notre Dame was reportedly interested in hiring Neuheisel the season after the Huskies won the Rose Bowl under him. Then there was Neuheisel’s interview with the San Francisco 49ers, which the coach initially denied and then was forced to admit to after a local columnist overheard a phone conversation in which Neuheisel described the interview while in the lobby of a Bay Area airport.

Yes, that actually happened, and as fun as it is to mock the truly absurd moments of Neuheisel’s Washington tenure and its aftermath, the truth is that things can get awfully weird awfully fast around a successful college coach when other suitors come calling.

Some of that has to do with the competitive nature of coaching. More of it has to do with the structure of college coaching contracts with the buyouts and escape clauses.

Almost every head coach’s contract in college can be bought out, meaning if that coach – or more accurately, his next employer – puts together a big enough pile of money, he can leave on the spot.

It’s not quite the working arrangement of a mercenary, but it’s closer than anything else in American sports, which makes it tough to take the length of an extension at face value.

Technically, Petersen is now under contract at Washington through 2023. More importantly, though, he has become the highest-paid coach in the conference without any drama and reported interest from other teams and programs, which coaches use to vault to a better-paying job or pry more money from their current employer.