If it feels like the college football universe is sending mixed messages to the Pac-12, your instincts might be right.
In a year where the sport’s chief decision makers, i.e. the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, decided the Pac-12 wasn’t worthy of inclusion in this year’s tournament, the rest of the country has had little problem coming in and courting its coaches.
Over the last few weeks, Pac-12 assistants have been heavily plundered for head coaching jobs. Among them, ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell (Memphis), Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost (UCF), Oregon State defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake (BYU) and Washington defensive line coach and special teams coordinator Jeff Choate (Montana State).
Usually when we see Pac-12 coordinators become head coaches, it’s because of in-house hires. David Shaw was next in line at Stanford after Jim Harbaugh went to the NFL. Oregon followed suit, promoting Mark Helfrich when Chip Kelly left for the Eagles. USC kept with that trend earlier this month, pulling the trigger on Clay Helton -- some might say prematurely -- and bumping him from offensive coordinator to interim head coach to head of Troy.
Counting Helton, that would be five new head coaches who started 2015 as Pac-12 assistants.
“I think that it just shows the quality of coaching that there is in the league,” Norvell said. “For my four years, I loved being able to coach in the Pac-12 and being able to know that every week going into a game, no matter who we were playing, it was going to be a challenge athletically and schematically.”
Norvell was a guy that ASU coach Todd Graham knew would be gone sooner than later. Graham did everything he could, from pay raises to title bumps, to keep Norvell onboard as long as possible. But when Memphis called, it was too good of an opportunity for Norvell to pass up.
“When you see people grabbing assistants for head coaching jobs, it’s a great compliment to the program and I think it sends a lot of respect to the conference as a whole,” Graham said. “There’s a lot of good coaching and player development going on in this league.”
The last Pac-12 coordinator to leave the league for a head coaching gig was Stanford’s Derek Mason, who was hired by Vanderbilt. Outside of that, there really hasn’t been a lot of movement. So to see five coordinators/assistants take head coaching jobs -- four at the FBS level -- in the last few weeks may seem jolting. But ultimately, it’s not surprising.
“Top to bottom, the coaching in this league is excellent,” said Washington coach Chris Petersen. “It’s as competitive a conference as I’ve ever seen in college football. And that played out the way everyone thought it would with all of us knocking each other off. And to see all of those assistants going somewhere else to become head coaches, I think that speaks for itself.”
And let’s not forget that Cal head coach Sonny Dykes tested the waters in Missouri and Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez either was or wasn’t (depending on who you believe) offered the head coaching job at South Carolina before opting to stay in Tucson.
“There are a lot of talented guys in this league at all levels of coaching,” said Helton. “Offensively and defensively, this is one of the premier leagues in college football for a reason. And I think over the last three or four years you’ve really seen the league propel itself into the spotlight and a lot of that has to do with the quality of coaching.
“Every game in this league is tough and if you don’t bring your A-game, you’re going to get beat because the best coaches in the country are in this league.”
Most of the hires have been met with relative optimism. Norvell takes over a pretty good spot at Memphis. Frost inherits an 0-12 team, but many are curious to see how the Oregon system translates. Sitake became the go-to-guy for BYU after Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo passed on the job. And Helton has some heavy expectations to live up to with USC.
And yet the league has no team participating in the College Football Playoff and just one team in an NY6 game. The Pac-12’s coaches might be respected, but the lack of a single premier team has left the league as a spectator on New Year’s Eve.
“This is exactly what I thought was going to go on,” Petersen said. “Right from the start when everyone was saying how deep the Pac-12 was -- we all knew it was that good. That was the fear that parity every single week would knock us out of the tournament and that’s what happened.
“That’s what happens when you have really good players and really good coaches from top to bottom.”