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Ranking Pac-12 coaching hires, Part Three: Winning Forev...most of the time

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Which coaches made their ADs really happy?

NCAA FOOTBALL: NOV 07 Oregon at Stanford Photo by Bob Stanton/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to the third and final installment of our completely scientific and not at all arbitrary ranking of Pac-10/12 coaching hires over the last couple decades. Last week we ranked the guys who were just kind of there, neither good enough or terrible enough to be truly memorable. This list has one or two of those guys as well, but those near the top definitely left a mark on their respective programs.

As I previously mentioned, I didn’t necessarily rank the coaches purely on results, so to repeat: There are a handful of instances where the hire was viewed as tremendous, only to have very a poor outcome. Others were roundly criticized (Ahem, #1), yet worked out quite well. I took that sentiment into consideration, and gave credit (or downgrades) for degree of difficulty. In this edition, some coaches’ records do not do justice to the tremendous job they did during their tenures. If you want to catch up, you can read Part One here and Part Two here.

So here you have it, the best football coach hires in the Pac-10/12 since 2000. Let’s go.

13. Mark Helfrich, Oregon Ducks (2013-2016)

Vitals: 37-16 / 24-12 / 2014 (13-2) / 2016 (4-8)

Comment: Here we have the “well I guess somebody has to be in the top-third” portion of the list. In 2013, Helfrich was handed the keys to a Lamborghini. By 2016, he’d turned it into an AMC Pacer. He gets credit for being just “not bad” enough to get the Ducks into the first ever CFP title game, but it didn’t take long to prove that Helfrich was Gene Chizik 2.0. How big was the drop? In 2013, Oregon beat Washington and WSU by an average margin of 22.5 points. In 2016, Washington and WSU beat Oregon by an average of 33.5 points. Yikes

If this hire were a song:

12. Jim Mora, UCLA Bruins (2012-2017)

Vitals: 47-31 / 29-24 / 2014 (10-3) / 2016 (4-8)

Comment: Give credit to Mora for raising UCLA’s profile after the Neuheisel grease fire, as the Bruins won the Pac-12 South in Mora’s first season, and won at least eight games in each of Mora’s first four years. But they never finished better than 6-3, and things caved in rather quickly. A lot of that was due to Josh Rosen’s injury in 2016, but most of it probably had to do with the fact that Mora’s personality quickly started to wear on people once the wins stopped coming.

If this hire were a song:

11. Todd Graham, Arizona State Sun Devils (2012-2017)

Vitals: 46-32 / 31-23 / 2013 (10-4) / 2016 (5-7)

Comment: Graham and Mora have a lot of similarities. Both were hired in 2012, both lasted six seasons, both finished in the top two of the Pac-12 South in their first three years, and both had some lousy QB injury luck toward the end of their tenures. Graham gets the nod because, while the results eroded over the last few years, he still managed to finish 6-3 in the conference shortly before he got the axe. All that said, he’s still a tool.

If this hire were a song:

10. Clay Helton, USC Trojans (2015-Present)

Vitals: 44-23 / 36-12 / 2016 (10-3) / 2018 (5-7)

Comment: This is a tough one, because Helton has had a couple really good seasons. But the further we get from 2016 and 2017, the more it looks like Sam Darnold deserves most of the credit. Helton’s elevation after the Sarkisian disaster seemed fine for the remainder of 2015, but it’s becoming apparent that USC probably should’ve looked elsewhere afterward. Then again, this is USC we’re talking about, so good decision-making on the part of athletic department leadership wasn’t really a thing for many years. Ladies and gentlemen, one more round of applause for Haden and Swann! It’s pretty clear, to yours truly anyway, that USC has little more than a razor-thin chance of regaining past glory with Helton in charge of the program.

If this hire were a song:

9. Mario Cristobal (2018-Present)

Vitals: 25-10 / 16-7 / 2019 (12-2) / 2018 (9-4)

Comment: There is no question that Cristobal has met the elevated expectations of Oregon’s program, and much remains to be seen since he has only coached two full seasons. He has absolutely raised the bar in terms of recruiting, and seems to be one of the rare cases where player advocacy for a coach’s hiring turned out to be a good move. But, I don’t know, he just doesn’t impress me when it comes to on-field/game day acumen. There are many time where it seems his team isn’t well-prepared, and only prevails out of a decided talent advantage. Obviously I could be proven colossally off base if Oregon achieves the heights it did under Chip Kelly.

If this hire were a song:

This was tough, but Mario seems like he’d be a Metallica fan.

8. Mike Riley, Oregon State Beavers (2003-2014)

Vitals: 93-80 / 58-63 / 2006 (10-4) / 2011 (3-9)

Comment: After leading OSU to two innocuous seasons and then bolting for the NFL, Riley went back and spent 12 another seasons leading the Beavers, winning 93 games and taking Oregon State to eight bowls. In the 31 seasons that preceded Riley’s second tenure in Corvallis (including Riley’s two), Oregon State won a total of 91 games and went to three bowls (none between 1964 and 1999). While he only hit the 10-win mark once over those 12 seasons, Riley did a pretty damn great job with Oregon State. Given how things have gone since he left, it’s even more plain to see why Riley got a second chance in Corvallis.

If this hire were a song:

7: Jeff Tedford, California Golden Bears (2002-2012)

Vitals: 82-57 / 50-45 / 2004 (10-2) / 2012 (3-9)

Comment: Tedford inherited a Cal team that had gone 3-8/1-10 in its previous two seasons. The Golden Bears didn’t win fewer than seven games for the next eight seasons. Tedford’s 2004 team should have beaten a USC team that went on to win the national championship, and he led Cal to three straight Top 25 finishes at one point. Given the fact that his university doesn’t exactly prioritize football, what Tedford did in Berkeley was pretty remarkable.

If this hire were a song:

6. Chris Petersen, Washington Huskies (2003-2004)

Vitals: 55-26 / 34-20 / 2016 (12-2) / 2015 (7-6)

Comment: I vacillated on spots five and six for a while, but ultimately decided to put Peterson here. Before I get to my rationale, I will say this: Petersen is a Hall of Fame coach, and he raised the standard at Washington far above what it had been for nearly a quarter century. A model of consistency, Petersen’s teams never finished .500 or worse, and Washington is one of only two Pac-12 teams to make the CFP. Pretty good! But still, shouldn’t Washington fans have expected more?

In his eight seasons in Boise, Petersen finished in the Top 10 four times, the Top 25 six times, and went 8-4 against ranked opponents. In six seasons at Washington, Petersen’s teams finished in the Top 10 once, the Top 25 three times, and went 10-15 against ranked opponents. Against Power Five opponents, Petersen’s BSU teams were 9-4 and beat the likes of Oklahoma, Georgia and Virginia Tech. At Washington he went 3-5. Take away Big Ten bottom feeders Illinois and Rutgers and that record is 0-5. OH AND FIVE. The biggest regular season game of Petersen’s UW tenure came in 2016, and his Huskies were doubled up at home by USC (who was actually the best team in the conference by the end of that year). Did Petersen own Mike Leach? Absolutely, but there’s more to it than head-to-head. For a program that wants to pretend that it’s among the elite of college football, Petersen’s teams didn’t measure up when it came to the on-field results.

If this hire were a song:

5. Mike Leach, Washington State Cougars (2012-2019)

Vitals: 55-47 / 36-36 / 2018 (11-2) / 2012 (3-9)

Comment: Here is where the degree of difficulty really made a difference. While Petersen inherited six Top 44 NFL draft picks, Mike Leach inherited what was mostly an FCS program. Yes, there were some really bad stretches in the first few years, but Leach had WSU a missed field goal away from the conference title game by season four, and led WSU to its most consistent stretch of success in program history. He did all of this while maneuvering through one of the most resource-constrained programs in the Power Five.

One also must recall the baggage that accompanied Leach to Pullman, as he spent two years in Key West exile after a disastrous falling out with Texas Tech, amid a cloud of (largely debunked) abuse allegations and an active lawsuit against his former employer which is still in litigation. After hiring a less-than-high level set of assistants, Leach showed a pretty deft touch at re-modeling his staff over the years despite lacking the resources to retain many when other schools came calling. The beauty of this hire is that it could have gone one of two ways, great success or unmitigated disaster. After some initial signs that it may end in the latter, Leach’s hiring turned out to be much closer to the former.

If this hire were a song:

4. David Shaw, Stanford Cardinal (2011-Present)

Vitals: 90-36 / 62-24 / 2015 (12-2) / 2019 (4-8)

Comment: If this ranking gave more weight to program trajectory, Shaw probably wouldn’t be this high, as it’s clear that whatever mojo he had early on is largely gone now. But we consider the entirety of the tenure, and Shaw’s run at Stanford has been outstanding. Yes, he inherited a solid program from Jim Harbaugh, but Shaw kept it humming on The Farm, winning 10+ games, three Pac-12 championships and two Rose Bowls over his first five seasons. Stanford finished in the Top 20 six times in seven seasons, with the only hiccup in 2014 when it still went 8-5.

Shaw did so with the same philosophy as his predecessor, that of pounding the opponent into submission with outstanding line play. Recruiting has waned of late, and Stanford just hasn’t been able to find the consistency at quarterback that it had for the better part of Shaw’s tenure. But that only detracts a little from what Shaw has accomplished. While he’s had several chances to move on to other pastures, Shaw has thus far resisted them all, remaining at his alma mater despite chances to make more money elsewhere.

If this hire were a song:

3. Chip Kelly, Oregon Ducks (2009-2012)

Vitals: 46-7 / 33-3 / 2010 (12-1) / 2009 (10-3)

Comment: If there’s a more inauspicious coaching debut than the one Kelly had in Boise, I’ve never seen it. His supposedly high octane offense mustered only eight points and his star running back punched an opponent in the face. Not good! All Oregon did after that was win 10 of its next 11 games, including a 47-20 thumping of USC, and go on to the Rose Bowl. That was just the start, as Kelly had the Ducks a shaky elbow away from a possible national title the next season (with Darron Thomas at quarterback!), and finished his tenure in Eugene with three straight Top Four finishes, three conference titles and a Rose Bowl win.

Before all that, this was a pretty shrewd hire by Oregon. They brought Kelly in as offensive coordinator in 2007, and his new look squad absolutely shredded the Michigan Wolverines on national television. By the end of 2008, it was quite clear that Kelly was headed for bigger things. So despite posting a 10-3 record, Rob Mullens basically launched Mike Bellotti into a staff role via catapult so Kelly would remain in Eugene. It was a wise decision.

If this hire were a song:

2: Jim Harbaugh, Stanford Cardinal (2007-2010)

Vitals: 29-21 / 21-15 / 2010 (12-1) / 2007 (4-8)

Comment: This is a huge outlier in terms of overall record, and given the success of Stanford’s program over the last decade, it’s hard to remember that they were a joke of a program for several years. Then they hired a guy whose only sideline experience was a couple years as Quarterbacks Coach for the Raiders and three seasons coaching the University of San Diego. Stanford gave Harbaugh his first big shot, and he did not disappoint. While the Cardinal were pretty lousy in his first season, Harbaugh led what may be the greatest upset in college football history when he took the 41-point underdog Cardinal into the LA Coliseum and beat second-ranked USC, who would have gone to the BCS title game if it hadn’t lost that game.

I think my favorite part about Harbaugh’s stint on The Farm is that HE REDSHIRTED ANDREW LUCK. That seems unfathomable now. In a rare display of linear improvement, Harbaugh’s first team went 4-8, and his fourth went 12-1, winning the Orange Bowl and finishing 4th in the nation. Two Pac-10 teams in the Top Four that season also seems unfathomable! Another thing that sets Harbaugh apart is the philosophy he used to turn Stanford into a great program. While the game was increasingly going to the spread/hurry-up no-huddle, Harbaugh went the other way, bludgeoning teams to death with huge linemen and bruising running backs. Stanford was the epitome of physicality for several years, coining the term intellectual brutality.

If this hire were a song:

1. Pete Carroll, USC Trojans (2001-2009)

Vitals: 97-19 / 63-14 / 2004 (13-0) / 2001 (6-6)

Comment: Let’s start with the road that led to Carroll’s tenure at USC. The twice-fired NFL head coach had never had a head job in college, and hadn’t been on a college sideline since 1984. Before finally hiring Carroll, AD Mike Garrett tried to get Dennis Erickson and Mike Bellotti, who both obviously said “we’ll just use this leverage to get more cash out of our current employers, but thanks!” It was then down to three finalists, Mike Riley (Chargers coach at the time), Sonny Lubick and Carroll. Sonny Lubick. 63 year-old Sunny Lubick! Can you imagine??!!

We all know the rest, as Carroll had one mediocre season in 2001, and then began to slash and burn his way through the conference for the next seven years. Between 2002 and 2008, USC either tied for first in the Pac-10 or won it outright, taking home four Rose Bowl trophies and coming within a bizarre Reggie Bush lateral of winning three straight national championships. Speaking of Mr. Bush, his improprieties began to erode the Carroll magic, and Pete beat the posse out of town following a less-than-stellar 2009 season. But man oh man, what a run he had. Carroll’s hiring also spawned one of most lava-hot takes in human history.

If this hire were a song:

So there you have it, the best coaching hires of the Pac-10/12’s last 20+ years. I hope y’all enjoyed this hot-takey trip down memory lane. Cheers.