Recent years have seen the Pac-12 upgrade the quality of coaches in the league and, as a result, the conference seems to be on an upward trajectory.
Additions such as Jim L. Mora (UCLA), Mike Leach (Washington State), Rich Rodriguez (Arizona) and Todd Graham (Arizona State) made an immediate impact last year. Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly left his post to take over the Philadelphia Eagles, leaving the league without a no-brainer at No. 1.
Here is our list:
1. David Shaw, Stanford
All Shaw has done in two seasons at Stanford is lead the program to a 23-4 record, a Pac-12 title and two trips to BCS bowl games. Yet asterisks remain. Detractors say this is the team Jim Harbaugh recruited (though it should be noted that prize QB Kevin Hogan signed under Shaw). Whether you want to credit Harbaugh or not, Shaw’s ability to maintain the program’s standing in the Pac-12 shows he is not to be underrated as a coach. Shaw was a lifelong NFL coach until he joined Harbaugh’s staff at the University of San Diego. He then followed Harbaugh to Stanford, where he served as offensive coordinator for four seasons.
2. Mike Riley, Oregon State
Few coaches have done more with less than what Riley has accomplished in Corvallis. Despite playing in the shadow of now-giant Oregon, the Beavers have managed eight-plus wins in five of seven seasons with at least nine wins in four of seven. For all the success Riley has enjoyed at Oregon State, however, he has been unable to turn it into conference championships or BCS appearances. Riley has also gone just 52-51 in conference games. Admittedly, that worse-than-expected mark is partially a product of going 2-14 through his first two seasons. Only Washington State and Utah paid their coaching staffs less in the Pac-12 and Riley’s staff continues to vastly outperform better-paid coaches.
3. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
Figuring out where to place Rodriguez on this list largely hinges on determining what to do with his three-year debacle at Michigan. Previously winning four Big East championships at West Virginia, though, helps overshadow that woeful stint in Ann Arbor. It should also be noted that Rodriguez helped stockpile enough talent at Michigan to allow new coach Brady Hoke to lead the Wolverines to the Sugar Bowl in 2011 and a 6-2 conference record in 2012. Year 1 at Arizona proved a moderate success for Rodriguez, who utilized his offense to turn QB Matt Scott and RB Ka’Deem Carey into superstars. While offense has always been Rodriguez’ calling card, how well he can develop a defense will ultimately determine how good his program can become.
4. Jim L. Mora, UCLA
The former NFL head coach made no secret of his intentions clear upon getting to UCLA – he wanted to win Los Angeles away from resident bully on the block USC. Mora accomplished just that, beating USC and guiding the Bruins to the Pac-12 South title. The season didn’t end the way Mora and UCLA would have liked, with the Bruins dropping their last three games including the Holiday Bowl. Mora was a fairly successful NFL coach with the Atlanta Falcons, though his one season with the Seattle Seahawks was not nearly as strong. His debut lands him toward the top of this list. What Mora does as an encore will dictate whether he falls or rises in the coming years.
5. Mike Leach, Washington State
There’s a reason why excitement mounted when Washington announced Leach was taking his swashbuckling ways to Pullman. The man has won at Texas Tech and – just as importantly – has done so with offensive pizzazz rarely found. In 10 seasons, Leach led the Red Raiders to an 84-43 record and bowl games each year. The knock on Leach is that he never fielded a strong enough defense to elevate his program into a championship-caliber squad. Although, in fairness, when an offense runs the style Leach prefers, it can make a defense’s life misery. For all Leach’s successes in Lubbock, he elevated Tech to a divisional split just once (in 2008). Last season proved tough on Leach, who managed just a 3-9 record and only one Pac-12 win – a season finale victory over Washington. The Cougars could be in line for a step forward during Leach’s second season. If they don’t, it will take more of the bloom off Leach’s reputation.
6. Todd Graham, Arizona State
A former high school coach, Graham has quickly climbed the ranks in the coaching profession by attracting strong talent – especially at the offensive coordinator position. Previous offensive coordinators include Major Applewhite (now at Texas) and Gus Malzahn (current head coach at Auburn). Graham has never been afraid of making the next move. He has served one-year stints at both Rice and Pittsburgh with a three-year stay at Tulsa in between. With the exception of the 2011 Pitt team, Graham has found ways to get the most of his talent. For instance, in 2006 – his lone season at Rice – Graham led the Owls to their first bowl game since 1961. He backed that success with back-to-back trips to the Conference USA Championship Game, though his team lost both times. Last year Graham helped the Sun Devils surpass expectations and come within a game – and a last-second field goal from UCLA, really – of playing for a Pac-12 title.
7. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Since taking over for Urban Meyer, Whittingham has guided the Utes to a 71-32 record in nine seasons. The highlight came during a perfect 13-0 campaign in 2008 capped by a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. While Whittingham has compiled a nice record, life in the Pac-12 has proven difficult for Utah. The Utes are 13-12 through two seasons and have gone 7-11 in conference games. Last year, the three Utah league wins came against Colorado, Washington State and California – hardly the SEC West of trios. There are questions about whether Whittingham must attract better talent to Salt Lake City in order to field a competitive program in the Pac-12.
8. Steve Sarkisian, Washington
Give this much to Sarkisian: He’s nothing if not consistent. After a 5-7 initial campaign at Washington, Sarkisian has guided the Huskies to three consecutive 7-6 seasons. While that might not sound impressive, fans should be reminded what a dumpster fire he inherited from Tyrone Willingham in 2008 when the team went 0-12. Each 7-6 record came along with identical 5-4 marks in the Pac-12. Inconsistency has marred Sarkisian’s first four seasons. For every seeming landmark victory – such as those over eventual conference champ Stanford (2012), at USC (2010) and at home against USC (2009) – his team suffers a crushing defeat. No loss has been worse for the program than last year’s season-finale setback at Washington State. Sarkisian enters the 2013 season on the hot seat and will need his team to break the chain of mediocrity to return next year.
9. Lane Kiffin, USC
Last season’s disappointment makes Kiffin an easy punching bag. The Trojans opened last year as No. 1 only to finish 7-6 with a loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. It’s easy to forget that Kiffin’s team had high expectations in 2012 for a reason – it returned the bulk of a group that went 10-2 the previous season. Many believed USC, which was ineligible for postseason play, to be among the best teams in the nation by the end of 2011. In many ways, Kiffin is the spoiled 16-year-old handed the keys to a new Porsche the day he receives his license – and then crashing the Porsche, getting a new one, another new one and another new one. He has coached the Oakland Raiders, where he went 5-15. He then got the job at Tennessee. During his lone season, Kiffin ruffled feathers and won slightly more games than he lost, going 7-6. Continuing to move upward, Kiffin took over for Pete Carroll at USC. He has gone 25-13 in three seasons.
10. Sonny Dykes, California
Dykes took advantage of a strong 2012, parlaying the best of his three seasons at Louisiana Tech into a sweeter gig. He has the bloodlines, if not the track record, of a strong head coach as the son of former Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes. The younger Dykes is largely known for the prolific offense he brings to the table with offensive coordinator Tony Franklin. Last year Dykes led the Bulldogs to a 9-3 record after winning the WAC the previous season. Despite coming from a WAC program, Dykes has recruited the highest levels, having served on staffs at Kentucky, Texas Tech and Arizona. He carries a career record of 22-15 with him to Berkeley.
11. Mark Helfrich, Oregon
The biggest knock against Helfrich is his non-existent head-coaching experience. Then again, Chip Kelly didn’t have any at the FBS level either until he took over at Oregon. That worked out pretty nicely for the program. With no head-coaching resume, the only way to judge Helfrich is based on what he did as a coordinator. Whether or not Kelly left, Helfrich was on the verge of becoming one of the most sought-after coordinators in the nation because of his offense’s proficiency. Of course the question will surround how much credit Helfrich deserves in comparison to Kelly. The most recent similar hires seem to lean toward Helfrich succeeding with both Dan Mullen and Chris Petersen performing adequately and flourishing, respectively.
12. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado
Last season MacIntyre helped turn San Jose State around into a primary contender in the WAC. During his third year at the helm, MacIntyre guided the Spartans to a second-place finish in the league. He then immediately struck when the iron was hot. It’s hard to blame MacIntyre, who had gone 6-19 over his first two seasons. In fairness, MacIntyre inherited a team that went 1-12 (and 0-8 in the WAC) during his first season and he helped San Jose State improve to 5-7 in Year 2. Winning in the WAC doesn’t necessarily translate to winning at Colorado. Ask Dan Hawkins, the architect of the Boise State program, about that. MacIntyre has shown the ability to recruit the mid-major level but will need to attract different levels of talent to succeed in the conference’s biggest rebuilding project.
Topics: Arizona Sun Devils, Arizona Wildcats, California Golden Bears, Colorado Buffaloes, Oregon Ducks, Oregon State Beavers, PAC-12, Stanford Cardinal, UCLA Bruins, USC Trojans, Utah Utes, Washington Huskies, Washington State Cougars