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Pac-12 Confidential

Bud Withers offers an inside look at the Pac-12 Conference and the national college scene.

December 15, 2011 at 1:08 PM

The new hiring template, and rating the Pac-12’s latest ones

I plunged into researching when the Pac-12/10 has had more football coaching turnover in league history than the recent foursome, and although I haven’t completed the effort, I was surprised to find that the offseason of 2002-2003 actually saw five head coaches change jobs, if you include Utah and Colorado in the mix.

That was the year Urban Meyer took over at Utah (not to a lot of fanfare, I might add). The rest of the traditional Pac-10 hires included Keith Gilbertson at Washington (an emergency choice after the turmoil left by the Rick Neuheisel basketball-pool scandal), Bill Doba at Washington State, Karl Dorrell at UCLA and Mike Riley, who was named to his second tenure at Oregon State.

Meanwhile, you may have noticed a difference in the latest conference hires. They all have considerable head-coaching experience (although Jim Mora’s is at the NFL level).

By contrast, throw out the latest batch of hires and take a look at the path each of the 12 schools picked in its last choice of head coaches: No fewer than seven of the 12 named assistant coaches to the jobs (and an eighth, Paul Wulff, was a head coach at the FCS level). The seven are Arizona (Mike Stoops), Cal (Jeff Tedford), Colorado (Jon Embree), Oregon (Chip Kelly), Stanford (David Shaw), Utah (Kyle Whittingham) and Washington (Steve Sarkisian).

Obviously, some of those assistants have done very well. Kelly has had Oregon in three BCS bowls, Whittingham’s teams have been consistently good over seven seasons and Sarkisian seems to have the Huskies on the right track. So this isn’t to say that assistants can’t succeed famously, just that in theory, you’re getting a more proven product when you hire a sitting head coach.

The inescapable conclusion is that the money about to sprayed around the league with the new ESPN/Fox TV contracts starting in 2012-13 is already having a huge effect. The going rate for a Pac-12 head coach is now something in excess of $2 million annually, and you’re generally not going to pay that to an assistant coach.

My grade on the four newbies:

Arizona — Rich Rodriguez.

What’s to like — Rodriguez was eminently successful at West Virginia before a three-year downer at Michigan, where he simply wasn’t a great fit. Arizona should be much more of a comfort zone.

Downside — At Michigan, he ran afoul of NCAA rules governing the mandatory 20-hour limit for athletes, so you’d assume Arizona will be keeping close tabs on that. And it’s not as though Pac-12 defenses, at wit’s end to defend Oregon in recent years, haven’t seen his offense.

Grade — A.

Washington State — Mike Leach.

What’s to like — In an unconventional way, Leach was consistently successful at Texas Tech, winning 84 games in 10 years and never missing a bowl game. His offense will also put people in the seats, and he’s enough of a national story that the Cougars will get added publicity. Bill Moos, the WSU AD, gets high marks for the expediency of the move after firing Wulff. My hunch is that with the ending he sustained at Texas Tech, Leach will attack this new challenge with a renewed vigor.

Downside — His lawsuits against Texas Tech and ESPN are still pending. And there’s some concern that his concentration on offense makes for problems in a commitment to defense.

Grade — A-minus.

UCLA — Jim Mora.

What’s to like — Mora has experience coaching two NFL franchises, so it should be easy for him to sell recruits on what it will take to get to the league. He has an irrepressible personality that should play well in recruiting. And he clearly has a lot of chops on the defensive side of the ball.

Downside — This could be a grand-slam or a foul pop; only as a student assistant in 1984 has Mora been around college coaching. There’s bound to be a learning curve regarding NCAA recruiting rules, restrictions on the time commitment by players, etc. He also has an impetuous side; witness the KJR radio interview that got him in trouble a few years ago and his ill-timed comments on Seahawks kicker Olindo Mare after a bad game. And what happens if the Washington job opens up in a couple of years?

Grade — B.

Arizona State — Todd Graham.

What’s to like — Graham had some ridiculously prolific offenses at Tulsa in his four years there, and he has deep roots in Texas, a recruiting ground that ASU should try to plumb. He’s worked at three different head-coaching jobs.

Downside — He’s worked at three different head-coaching jobs. It may be hard for Graham to sell the notion of commitment when he bolted both Rice and Pitt after a season each. Then there was the laborious ASU search, which hardly inspired confidence among boosters. “Our door was beaten down by people who wanted to be a Sun Devil,” insisted Michael Crow, the ASU president, at the Graham hiring. Yeah, but some of them must not have been football coaches.

Grade — B-minus.

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