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Sports >  NCAA

Pac-12 football: Ranking the coaching jobs, from easiest to most challenging

UPDATED: Mon., Jan. 11, 2021

Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich looks on during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Utah, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Salt Lake City.  (Associated Press)
Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich looks on during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Utah, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (Associated Press)
By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

On multiple occasions last month, the Pac-12 Hotline opined that the Arizona coaching job was one of the toughest in the Pac-12 because of the limited resources, modest tradition and small recruiting base – all cast against the Wildcats’ reputation as a basketball school.

During the multiweek coaching search that ended Dec. 23 with the hiring of Jedd Fisch, we wrote the following as part of our broader assessment of the Arizona program:

“It’s not quite as difficult to win consistently in Tucson as it is in Pullman or Corvallis. But for the foundational elements (resources, recruiting, tradition), Arizona football is closer to Washington State and Oregon State than to, for example, Arizona State, Utah and UCLA.”

That comment prompted a reader to request more context: How would we rank the coaching jobs in the conference?

Glad someone asked.

The breakdown below considers the challenges, advantages and prospects for success at each school under the guidance of a generic head coach.

We evaluated recruiting base, program tradition, facilities, staffing (the ability to hire and retain quality coaches) and institutional commitment.

Success was defined as two consecutive seasons of nine or more wins.

• Why set the bar at nine wins? Because it requires a vital extra step:

Eight victories could be obtained with three non-conference cupcakes and a 4-5 record in league play, plus a low-level bowl win.

But that combination, frankly, doesn’t feel special.

Set the victory bar at nine, and a winning record in conference play is required.

• Why use back-to-back seasons as the time frame?

Because of the potential for any program to produce an outlier year in which everything breaks right even if the foundational elements for success aren’t in place.

Winning at a high level in back-to-back seasons demands vastly more coaching acumen than good fortune.

So here we go:

The Pac-12 football coaching jobs in order of likelihood of success and based on current landscape with regard to budgets, facilities, admissions standards, etc …

1. USC. No surprise here, with the Trojans’ rich history and deep pipeline to the Trinity League, the most talented high school conference in the sport’s history (Mater Dei, Serra, St. John Bosco, Santa Margarita, etc.). Two things are equally true when it comes to roster building: USC has a greater advantage over its Pac-12 peers than any traditional power has over teams in its conference; and the job is more challenging now that it used to be institutionally. Not every corner of campus is hell-bent on winning championships.

2. Washington. We gave serious consideration to Oregon for this spot, but settled on UW because of the in-state talent pool and the benefits of metropolitan Seattle’s ascent. Envision parallel scenarios in which Coach X starts from scratch wearing purple and wearing green: The road to successive nine-win seasons is ever-so-slightly more manageable at UW, even though the school’s desire to become a top-50 academic institution makes being a top-10 football program more difficult. (Joking/not joking.)

3. Oregon. No program can match the Ducks when it comes to the campuswide commitment to football success. That culture – combined with Nike’s incalculable influence – fueled Oregon’s rise two decades ago and has continued to provide the backbone for success. The in-state talent pool, although improving, remains shallow compared to Washington, Utah and Arizona. However, the Ducks have used the virtuous circle of winning, branding and facilities to become a destination program for prospects.

4. UCLA. No football existence is more complex, or misunderstood, than UCLA’s. The admissions bar is substantial, the cost of living makes staffing problematic, and central campus doesn’t know if a football is inflated or stuffed. Heck, the Bruins’ reputation as a basketball school isn’t even a top-three challenge for the football coach. In our estimation, the job is markedly more difficult than Oregon or Washington. That said, the Southern California talent base supports a nine-win roster.

5. Stanford. The admissions bar remains a steep challenge but is partly offset by the unmatched campus, facilities and lure of post-graduate opportunities. (No school is more popular with the parents of recruits.) One ingredient is often overlooked when assessing the program: Stanford owns a recruiting advantage over every program in the conference (except USC) when it comes to quarterbacks and offensive linemen, because of its own history with those positions and the socioeconomics of the talent pools.

6. Arizona State. We were tempted to slot the program above Stanford because of the institutional support, improved facilities and momentous increase in Phoenix-area high school talent over the past decade. (The Sun Devils have struggled to secure that talent, but its mere existence is part of our calculation.) The drawbacks include limited tradition and a crowded marketplace, but make no mistake: ASU is squarely in the middle tier, with advantages that far exceed those of Arizona and Colorado.

7. Utah. It’s not easy to assess Utah’s degree of difficulty under a generic coach because the Utes have had the same coach for 15 years. The program’s complexities and advantages are fully integrated with Kyle Whittingham’s coaching style and recruiting philosophy. There is strong campus and community support, and the local talent level is stout, especially for linemen. But the reliance on out-of-state talent for the skill positions prevents Utah from being a top-tier job within the conference.

8. Colorado. Welcome to the third tier, where the talent acquisition and resource challenges make nine-win seasons more difficult to achieve. A case could be made for Cal in this spot, but our generic coach would encounter less campus resistance in Boulder than Berkeley. CU’s primary obstacle is the lack of in-state talent – especially in-state speed – and the heavy recruiting reliance on Southern California and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Many similarities to Oregon, but without the massive Nike influence.

9. Cal. If not for the location, Cal would be ranked even lower. The Bay Area is well stocked with players and flush with Cal alumni, and all that talent in Southern California is just a half-day drive away. (Like Stanford, the Bears are a natural recruiting fit for quarterbacks and offensive linemen.) But there are steep challenges with the budget and admissions, plus faculty and community resistance. No Pac-12 job requires more patience and a greater acceptance of football’s place in the campus hierarchy.

10. Arizona. Arizona is a much more difficult job than ASU, in part because of the contrasting university business models that support the athletic programs. However, there is hope for the Wildcats: The institution’s recent purchase of Ashford University, an online school based in San Diego, creates a new revenue stream that could provide trickle-down relief for the cash-strapped athletic department.

11. Washington State. No program punches above its weight class more often than WSU, which has eight seasons of at least nine wins over the past quarter-century. Although the level of in-state talent has increased, that rise is concentrated in the western half of the state. Our generic coach would be best served with a style of play that lends itself to niche recruiting. The institutional support is strong, but WSU qualifies as a trapdoor coaching job: The ascent is gradual, but the fall can be instantaneous.

12. Oregon State. We weighed OSU against WSU for this spot; there are numerous similarities, including the presence of a richer in-state rival. But the Cougars aren’t in Washington’s shadow physically and WSU currently has the edge in facilities. What’s more, OSU’s recruiting pool is extraordinarily limited, forcing a reliance on transfers and on discovering hidden gems.

Jon Wilner can be reached via email at pac12hotline@bayareanewsgroup.com

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