Don van Lierop had a problem. Although he finally wrangled his first Greater Spokane League basketball head coaching job in the fall of 1993, now he needed players to round out his North Central High School roster.
"I was teaching at Ferris at the time, so I didn't know anybody at NC," van Lierop recalls. "I did know we could use some more athletes."
So he started hanging around when the football team would come in to lift weights. Finally, he asked one of the assistant coaches, Bill Shepherd.
"Hey Bill, anybody out there who hasn't played basketball who might want to?"
Shepherd didn't even think about it, answering immediately.
"You need to talk to Jimmy."
"Who's Jimmy," van Lierop called out as Shepherd walked by.
Of course, college football knows all about Jimmy Lake now. He's the scrappy overachiever who played his way into a football scholarship at Eastern Washington University. Then became the defensive-minded up-and-coming assistant football coach at his alma mater. Tough enough to withstand a Jon Gruden grilling to win an NFL assistant job. Insightful enough to choose to leave the NFL to join the staff of innovator Chris Petersen at Boise State. And, most recently, great enough at his job to be promoted to Top Dawg, aka head coach of the University of Washington Huskies.
Not bad for a kid from North Central in Spokane, which is located in Eastern Washington. The location is only pertinent because some find that Seattle, in particular, and the West Side in general can be, let's say, dismissive toward the Dry Side of the state. So, Western Washington, Seattle and Husky fans everywhere, guess what? Jimmy Lake and his Eastern Washington bona fides are at your service.
Of course Jimmy Lake joined van Lierop's squad. Despite the sport being new to him, he was soon starting and voted team captain.
"Every game, I'd just put him on the other team's best player," recalls van Lierop. "He'd just get down in that stance — he loved playing defense."
Lake made an impression, not just for the way he played, but for the kind of kid he was, says van Lierop.
"To be new to a sport, then be elected captain by your teammates, those qualities are why he is where he is right now."
Van Lierop later became head coach at Ferris, where he led the Saxons to back-to-back undefeated seasons. When van Lierop and his wife, Amy, had their second child, Reece, the middle name came easy: James.
Basketball was just part of the story at North Central. Lake was a great center fielder in baseball and a safety in football — key defensive positions. In both cases, he played alongside his twin brother, Jayson, who played left field and was the other safety on defense.
He impressed his coaches at every stop, but in recollecting Jimmy Lake they often talk about things besides his physical skills.
"Here is the first thing I have to say about Jimmy," says Tim Rypien, who was his football and baseball coach and has taught and coached at North Central for 31 years. "He's been my favorite kid, by far, that I've ever coached."
Rypien has been around big-time sports his whole life, as a pro baseball prospect himself, brother to Super Bowl MVP Mark, and father to Boise State quarterback and current Denver Bronco Brett.
FROM NC TO UW: JIMMY'S JOURNEY
NORTH CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL, BASKETBALL & BASEBALL
Young Jimmy Lake was coached by Jerry McCullough, Tim Rypien and Don Van Lierop, among others.
EASTERN WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY FOOTBALL, STRONG SAFETY
Won a scholarship after getting noticed for his strong play during the East-West All-Star Summer Classic and practices in Spokane; played strong safety all four years for Head Coach Mike Kramer, logging 160 tackles, three sacks and an interception; got hurt and missed the last half of his senior year; was teammates with current EWU Head Coach Aaron Best.
EWU GRADUATE ASSISTANT
Given a coaching internship while he finished his degree, Lake helped coach student athletes he had just finished playing with the year before.
EWU ASSISTANT COACH, DEFENSE
Almost hired to a full-time position by Bobby Brett and Brett Sports, but instead took an offer from new EWU Head Coach Paul Wulff, who replaced Kramer and later led the Cougs for four seasons; Lake coached both linebackers and defensive backs.
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON DEFENSIVE BACKS COACH
Went to work for Head Coach Keith Gilbertson in one of the worst Husky seasons ever (1-10); moving from the Spokane/Cheney area for the first time in his adult life, Lake was impressed with Seattle, as was his wife, Michele.
MONTANA STATE UNIVERSITY DEFENSIVE BACKS COACH
After Gilbertson resigned, Lake was on his own looking for a new job; after almost taking a job at Idaho State, he got hired by his old mentor Mike Kramer to go to Bozeman; Pete Kwiatkowski, whom Lake knew from EWU, was on the Bobcat staff, too, and they'd coach together again later at both Boise State and UW.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS ASSISTANT COACH, DEFENSIVE BACKS
Hired by one of the NFL's most intense characters, Jon Gruden, who had won a Super Bowl three years earlier; shared the sidelines with Gruden and fellow coaching greats Raheem Morris, Monte Kiffin and Gus Bradley; Lake was younger than star player Ronde Barber when he helped coach him.
DETROIT LIONS DEFENSIVE BACKS COACH
His first shot at running an NFL defensive backfield came in the Motor City under Rod Marinelli, but the team went 0-16 and he was out of football for a year afterwards.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSIVE BACKS COACH
With his old colleague Raheem Morris now the head coach, Lake went back to Tampa Bay as the leader of the D-backs; after a 4-12 season in 2011, Morris, Lake and other coaches were let go.
BOISE STATE UNIVERSITY DEFENSIVE BACKS COACH
Jumped back into college football under the highly successful Head Coach Chris Petersen, who had been with the Broncos since 2001; in Boise, he started his coaching partnership with Bob Gregory, also a Spokane/Eastern Washington native (Gonzaga Prep Class of '82).
UW HEAD COACH
Petersen was hired by UW and brought almost his entire coaching staff with him, including Lake, Kwiatkowski (now defensive coordinator at the University of Texas), Gregory (now DC at UW) and Jonathan Smith (now head coach at Oregon State); Lake went from defensive backs coach to co-defensive coordinator to defensive coordinator. In 2019, just after Petersen announced he was stepping down and only days before turning 43, Lake was named head coach of the University of Washington Huskies.
"One day I remember thinking Jimmy was going to be a coach," Rypien recalls. "He was just different — so mature for his age, he absorbed everything. Everything you said, he just would look you straight in the eye and listen. He was quiet but intense."
Turns out, Jimmy Lake was listening. Just days before the 2021 UW kickoff against the University of Montana, Lake took a break between practices to reflect on his Spokane and Cheney days. He remembers one day in particular, during football practice at North Central.
"Coaches would always say to hustle, and that really helped me," Lake recalls. "One day, freshman year, I remember winning all the conditioning drills, you know, using my hustle. And Coach Rypien noticed. He pulled me aside and told me, 'If you keep up that work ethic, you can accomplish anything in life.'
"That," Lake says, "has stuck with me ever since. There are a lot of memories like that from North Central."
There are tastes that have stuck with him, too: "Every time I see a Zip's, I think of the fries — that has to be the best tartar sauce in the world," he says with a laugh. "Pizza Pipeline, that was another one, we'd all go down there for slices all the time."
Another really big thing happened at North Central; it's where Lake first met Michele Taylor — now his wife, and mother of their three kids. (Michele has a twin, too — a sister.)
Lake's focus made him one of the top students in the school as well. For two years, he was the student assistant to Mick Miller, then an administrator at NC and now an assistant superintendent at ESD 101. Essentially, he was helping Miller manage school logistics.
"He spent an hour with me every day for two years," says Miller. "He did a lot of tasks for me in activities, in the athletic department. You couldn't not like Jimmy Lake. He had just this incredible smile.
"But," Miller adds, echoing what others confirm, "before you talk about Jimmy, you have to talk about the entire Lake family. The brothers, his mom. They were all just terrific."
Lake's mom, Julie Clark, still beams about all her kids — successful in whatever path they chose. Jayson is a boat dealer in Clearwater, Florida. Cory, the oldest brother, worked for Nike and is now a brand manager in California for Pelican recreational gear. Justin, their cousin who was adopted by the Lake family and raised as their son, is an electrician in Spokane. She was their biggest superfan every step of the way.
"One time, I was late to a game out at Albi, coming home from a business trip," Julie recalls from her North Spokane home. "After the game, I told Jimmy and Jayson that I didn't arrive until the third quarter, and they said, 'Yeah, we know, we could hear you yelling when you got here.'"
Jimmy and Jayson went to kindergarten at Fairchild Air Force Base, where their dad, Leon Lake, was stationed. After that, the family embarked on an international adventure, with four years at a NATO base in Turkey and four more at an American base in the Philippines. Julie jumped right in, coaching the swim team in Turkey. The boys started tackle football in the Philippines — they even got to choose their team name: The Seahawks.
"With all our moving, we had to meet friends very, very quickly," recalls Jimmy Lake. "We had to integrate into a new area. That has helped me to this day with recruiting, with building relationships, talking to families and forging these new relationships quickly.
"Looking back on it, for sure I'm extremely grateful to live in a country like the United States of America," he adds. "We learned so much. It's a big world, very diverse and extraordinary. The cultures that are out there around the world and how beautiful they are."
The family moved back to Spokane in May of 1990, just before Jimmy and Jayson would enter the eighth grade at Salk Middle School. Leon, a chief master sergeant, was still active-duty Air Force, but the family decided to put down roots for the kids' benefit. He'd continue his hectic travel schedule out of Spokane, serving his country but missing many of their games along the way.
Julie says Spokane was a great place for her family to land, but it took some getting used to.
"It's not as diverse as we saw in the services, and that was something we needed to get used to," she says. "I had a mixed-race marriage; my family is mixed race. But we never had any problems. I can't say enough about North Central. It was fabulous."
The adjustments could be funny, too. One day near the end of their year at Salk Middle School, the twins came home excited.
"Mom, Mom, we need our passports!"
The family was used to needing passports as they toured around different countries when they lived overseas.
"Why? What's going on?" Julie asked.
"We're going across the border... They gave us tickets... We're going to Silverwood!"
The Lakes were a busy couple. Leon was on the road a lot, sent to bases all over the world, even serving a full tour stationed in South Korea, a hot spot where his family was not allowed to follow. Julie became a nurse, and later went into public administration, via military-provided college courses. She shuttled the kids around to sports, keeping them squared away with schoolwork, all while she was making new friends across the North Side.
"They grew up in a house where we were both serious about our jobs, about our careers, and about getting our education," Julie recalls. "And after all our travel, they grew up knowing they had a different worldview, too."
But they had a terrible secret, too.
"Leon wanted to be a pilot, and of course the Air Force gives rigorous physicals for that," recalls Clark. "They found a congenital heart defect, and they told us he wouldn't live past 40. We found out when we were still in our 20s."
In 2000, while on a Department of Defense assignment, Leon Lake's diagnosis finally caught up with him at the age of 53.
"We lived with that for so long, but that didn't make it any easier," says Julie. "When it happened, it was a shock."
Leon Lake did outlive his doctors' prediction by more than a decade; his son's coaching career had just barely started.
"My dad had a huge impact on me," says Lake. "A lot of the things I do today, at home and at my job, are because of him. He was very organized, very disciplined, very detailed. He was an extremely hard worker and always made sure his family was in good shape."
Julie later married Jerry Lee Clark, who died in 2017. She's retired now but continues volunteering at the VA in Spokane while looking after her sprawling family. She's excited to make the trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the Husky game Sept. 11 — one of the biggest road games in recent UW football history.
At the end of 1995, after high school graduation, Jimmy Lake was all set to play football at Western Washington University, even winning a couple academic scholarships. Then opportunity came knocking, and the legend of Jimmy Lake kicked into gear.
The East-West Summer Classic — Washington state's high school football all-star game — was going to be in Spokane. North Central football was not on anybody's radar that season, so even though Lake was a great player, he'd have to watch from the stands like everybody else. Then, a couple guys had to drop out — one for basic training before starting at West Point, the other after a nasty mountain bike spill. Lake got the call to join the East squad.
"The first thing I remember is the practices," says Lake of that week. "Ken Emmil, the coach at Colville, was one of the assistants, and he was the one who saw how physical I was, and how I was picking up everything very quickly. That was how the ball began to roll for me."
In fact, during the game itself, Lake deflected what looked sure to be a touchdown pass between Brock Huard and Dane Looker, both soon to become Husky greats.
EWU Head Coach Mike Kramer had one scholarship to offer at the time, and he was hanging around the practices, even though most players were already committed to a college program.
"I remember, we were sitting around just before dinner one night," says Kramer, "and Ken comes up to me and says, 'Hey man, there's this guy from Spokane you guys should get.'"
"And I said, 'Yeah, we are trying to get that kid, the one from U-High.'
"And he said, 'No, not that kid!'
And I said, 'Who?'
"I remember later, up in my house on Skyview Drive, I dug up his phone number, talked to his mom, then spent an hour sitting on my kitchen floor talking to Jimmy. I gave him my best pitch and, sight unseen, I offered him right there."
Lake's plans changed. Bellingham was out; Cheney was in. He'd spend the next nine years on the West Plains, cutting his teeth as a player and a coach.
Current EWU Head Coach Aaron Best played with and coached with Lake at Eastern. He believes that he and Lake were both prototypical Eags — overlooked players with something to prove.
"I know Jimmy was like that here," says Best. "We had that same type of mindset. We studied more. Our football IQ had to be higher. We were nastier. We exceeded in a lot of the things we could control. You just tend to roll your sleeves up that much higher."
"Jimmy was driven," says the now-retired Kramer, who hired him as a grad assistant just after his playing days. "And that's the lifeblood of Eastern, players who are driven."
"Part of what all of Eastern Washington is about in athletics is we have the underdog mentality," says Keith Osso, now sports director at KXLY-TV but who represented Spokane's West Valley for the East in that 1995 all-star game. "When we do get our chance, we want to prove it. And that's Jimmy Lake, too."
College and professional football coaching is one of those scrums of a career path, like Ivy Leaguers clawing and scratching their way to the top of Wall Street. It's a game of Survivor, where you can be voted off the island after a lopsided ball happens to bounce the wrong way. Many want to reach the top of the heap, for there lies success, fame and fortune. But there's not much room up that high.
Lake has had a lot of success, being an architect of some truly great defensive teams over the years. But at every fork in the road, he made the most of the opportunities that came his way. When he had the chance at an assistant coaching job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they flew him down for an interview. His mom recalls even helping him with the PowerPoint he was going to present, like he was back in 10th grade doing a science project. He was greeted by the intimidating sight of the entire coaching staff staring at him, led by the notorious Jon Gruden. He got through only part of his PowerPoint before they all got up and left the room. The coaches came back in, perhaps getting the same feeling old Mike Kramer got on his kitchen floor that night.
They offered him the job on the spot.
But physics tells us there are both ups and downs. When the head coach you work for stumbles, most of the time you're going down, too. When Lake jumped at the chance to move from EWU to an assistant coaching job at the University of Washington under Keith Gilbertson, going 1-10 was not part of the plan. Later, he coached under Rod Marinelli at the Detroit Lions; the team won all its preseason games, then went 0-16. Lake was out of coaching for a year after that.
"Coaches get fired," says Kramer, "and it's not because they've personally done anything wrong. It's a gut-wrenching experience. You never, ever lose the feel of that. It's just that in America, we value winning."
In fact, Lake lost three NFL jobs before he went back to college to work for — and learn from — Chris Petersen at Boise State. That was the turning point that led him back to Seattle, where Petersen was hired in 2014 and brought his coaching staff with him.
"Those tough moments have been what shaped me into who I am today," Lake reflects. "Having to fight through adversity and climb through some really tough spots has formed my mentality and the way I go about my business every day. And there will be setbacks in the future, and those experiences will help me respond better — and help our team."
"You'd think Jimmy wouldn't fit in a world where it's so often just about the flash," says his old football and baseball coach Tim Rypien, "but he does. What Jimmy has, he has the ability to command the room and, at the same time have incredible personal relationships. He's genuine."
For proof, Rypien says that when his son Brett got a chance to start a game for the Broncos last year — and lead his team to a win — Lake was the first person to text him congratulations. And Tim and Julie's son didn't even play for Lake.
"He's just the same old Jimmy," adds Aaron Best, his old teammate who knew him way before he became coaching's next big thing. "But now he just does it with a whistle around his neck instead of a helmet on his head." ♦
With a little help from local football historians Paul Sorensen and Howie Stalwick, we delve into which side of the Cascade Curtain is producing the best football coachesIn the natural rivalry between the two Washingtons, it's easy to argue about which side of the state produces better players. Right there in that 1995 East-West All-Star Summer Classic, you could go make a good case for either side, with Peter Sirmon (Wenatchee) and Randy Jones (Ferris, Spokane) repping Eastern Washington, while Damon Huard and Dane Looker (both from Puyallup) led the West's roster.
But what about a debate over which side is producing better coaches? Now that Eastern Washington's own JIMMY LAKE has ascended to the pinnacle of the profession, it's worth a look.
Western Washington has produced some legendary coaches, like Seattle native DON CORYELL, who was so pass-happy his offenses were known as "Air Coryell." And DENNIS ERICKSON of Everett won two national championships at the University of Miami. In fact, the Everett/Snohomish area has been remarkably fertile, having also produced MIKE PRICE, KEITH GILBERTSON, TOM CABLE and JIM LAMBRIGHT. Tacoma has been catching up lately, with both AARON BEST (current EWU head coach) and BEAU BALDWIN (current Cal Poly head coach) coming out of Curtis High School.
But we've got our legends over here, too, even if they're from the early days of the sport. RAY FLAHERTY played and coached at Gonzaga University, later in the pros (where some say he invented the screen pass), and is in the Hall of Fame. Another Hall of Famer, TURK EDWARDS from Clarkston, played at Washington State College and led the Washington Football Team in D.C. for 17 years after World War II.
Like Lake, there are a lot of currently active football coaches at the college and pro levels from Eastern Washington making a big mark on the sport, including: KELLLEN MOORE (Prosser, Dallas Cowboys); JEFF SCHMEDDING (University High, Spokane, Auburn); PETER SIRMON (Wenatchee, Cal); BOB GREGORY (Gonzaga Prep, Spokane, UW); J.C. SHERRITT (Pullman, Cal Poly); SCOTT LINEHAN (Sunnyside, Mizzou); CHRIS TORMEY (Gonzaga Prep, Spokane, Ottawa Redblacks); and ETI ENA (Inchelium, EWU, whose brothers Justin and Packy are also successful coaches).
Other coaches of note from the Dry Side include Blaine Bennett (Walla Walla); Shorty Bennett (North Central, Spokane, and Blaine's dad); Jerry Williams (North Central, Spokane); Mike Kramer (Colton); Ty Gregorak (West Valley, Spokane); Dan Cozzetto (Gonzaga Prep, Spokane); Bill Diedrick Jr. (North Central, Spokane); Zack Bruce (University High, Spokane); and Jody Sears (Pullman).
We know this is a partial list. If we missed your favorite Eastern Washington-bred coach, share their name at email@example.com, including where they're from and where they have coached, and we'll add it to this list that will live on inlander.com for future reference.