Oregon coach Chip Kelly was baffled in a phone interview before the Rose Bowl. How the heck could little-old-him be important to a reporter?
"The big story," he said conspiratorially,"is all these new coaches."
Well, it's the big story now as the Pac-12 turns its attention away from the 2011 season and toward 2012 spring practices. And, of course, Kelly is part of a reason there are four new coaches in the conference. Mike Stoops, Dennis Erickson, Rick Neuheisel and Paul Wulff -- fired at Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Washington State, respectively -- never beat Kelly and, in fact, came within double digits of his Ducks only once (Arizona, with a 44-41 loss in 2009).
But the story isn't just four new coaches. It's four new coaches whom folks have heard of, each of whom is getting a big-boy salary that would fit in among the SEC or Big Ten. Big salaries are the new normal in the Pac-12 after the conference signed a $3 billion TV deal with ESPN and Fox.
So out goes Stoops and his $1,456,000 salary, and in comes Rich Rodriguez and his $1,910,000 paycheck. Out goes Erickson and his $1,503,000 salary, and in comes Todd Graham and his $2 million tab. Out goes Neuheisel and his $1,285,000 salary, and in comes Jim Mora and his $2.4 million annual take. Out goes Wulff and his $600,000 salary, and in comes Mike Leach and his $2,250,000 price tag.
The chief idea is obvious: Pac-12 schools are paying for an upgrade in coaching talent, and there are high expectations for getting their money's worth. And, by the way, there's an added bonus for each hire: Each new coach has a chip on his shoulder and something to prove.
In 2010, Rodriguez was ingloriously dispatched at Michigan after three tumultuous and unsuccessful years. Athletic director Greg Byrne is betting that Rodriguez is far closer to the highly successful coach he was at West Virginia than the one who got run out of Ann Arbor, and Rodriguez surely wants that impression to be his legacy. It helps that he got his man, Jeff Casteel, to run the Wildcats' defense, which he failed to do at Michigan.
Graham took a lot of heat from a pandering, sanctimonious media and a whiny Pittsburgh fan base for how he left the Panthers. "He didn't even say goodbye," they collectively sobbed. "Waaah." Of course, Graham does have an unfortunate habit of describing every job as his "dream job." All that stuff is mostly hogwash, though. What matters is winning, and if Graham does that, the media will all come down en masse to Tempe pretending they didn't trash Graham's character for taking a better job, in a better conference, in a better place to live while making his family happy in the process.
Mora was fired in 2009 after only one season with the Seattle Seahawks, and he's bided his time looking for another head-coaching job. Seeing that he was two or three names down UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero's coaching list -- Chris Petersen! Kevin Sumlin! -- some Bruins fans reacted with disappointed smirks to Mora's hiring. Then Mora hired an outstanding staff. Then he reeled in an outstanding recruiting class. Some of those frowns are turning upside down.
Leach was fired at Texas Tech in 2009. He's one of the best offensive minds in the nation, and the almost universal reaction is athletic director Bill Moos hit a home run with this big-name hire. The Pirate Captain looks like the perfect match for Pullman and the Cougs, and he'll be plenty motivated to prove his critics wrong and erase the bad ending in Lubbock.
It's fair to say these four hirings have generated positive momentum for these programs, though, of course, to varying degrees. There's a hope among the fan bases that these four can create quick turnarounds.
And that also leads into another major coaching story entering the spring: The Pac-12's most senior coaches, California's Jeff Tedford and Oregon State's Mike Riley, sit on the hottest seats.
Tedford enters his 11th season in Berkeley having followed up his first losing campaign -- 5-7 in 2010 -- with a middling 7-6 finish in 2011. Riley, the man deserving the most credit for making one of the worst programs in college football respectable, enters his 12th year in Corvallis -- two tenures wrapped around an ill-fated stint with the San Diego Chargers -- burdened by consecutive losing seasons, including a 3-9 finish that felt so 1987.
Spring practices for Tedford and Riley will be about setting up turnaround season that give their frustrated fan bases hope -- and keep their athletic directors from issuing dreaded votes of confidence while checking their coaching Rolodexes.
Meanwhile, Kelly and USC's Lane Kiffin, still relative coaching newbies in the conference, enter spring likely trying to tone down the positive hype. Both will begin the 2012 season ranked in the top 10. USC could be preseason No. 1. Both are overwhelming favorites in the North and South Divisions. And their meeting on Nov. 3 in L.A. could have national title implications.
But that's looking ahead.
The big story this spring in the Pac-12 is newness and rebirth. One-third of the conference's teams hope that newness at the top of their programs will create a rebirth in the Pac-12 standings.