After spending the last week going conference-by-conference, team-by-team, it is time Crystal Ball Run to finally wrap up our look at the best head coaching jobs in college football. We’ve already broken down the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big XII and SEC, meaning it’s time to shift our focus to left coast, and the Pac-12.
Truthfully, of every conference, the Pac-12 might’ve been the most difficult to rank. Most everyone in the conference has access to the same recruits, in the same areas (unlike the SEC or Big XII, where each school recruits largely in their own state), and the one thing that once truly separated these schools- cold hard cash- is no longer an issue. With the Pac-12’s new TV deal, virtually every school in the conference is in the black financially or at least not nearly as far in the red as they once were.
Therefore, this list was more difficult than most. It truly is “beauty in the eye of the beholder.”
So here goes. As always, your opinions and disagreements are welcome in the comments section below.
For anyone who is a regular reader of my work, you know that one of the things I value least in modern college football is a school’s tradition. Kids these days don’t care about “tradition” at least not any more than I care about fine French cuisine. Ask most high school kids, and what their college decisions ultimately come down to is who will play them the earliest, and prepare them the best for the next level. Having the right coach, the right AD and the right resources are much more important in today’s game than having tradition.
But with that said, I do feel like USC is one of the places where tradition does still matter. It’s home of 11 National Championships under three coaches, six Heisman Trophy winners (five if you take out Reggie Bush’s vacated one), and also can stake claim to being both “Running Back U” and “Quarterback U.” USC was always known for its running backs, but when you put Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez and (eventually) Matt Barkley into the pros, it’s hard to argue with the results. Given that the No. 1 high school quarterback in the country committed to USC just last night that tradition seems set to continue for another five years.
And all that doesn’t even factor in the beautiful weather, plush recruiting area, and Song Girls. Wait, why I am not hanging out on USC’s campus right now?!
One more thing about USC, because they have an advantage that few others do: It is one of the few private schools anywhere that has the resources to spend like a public university. While it’s impossible to verify (because of privacy laws), Pete Carroll was believed to be the highest paid coach in college football while he was at the school.
Simply put, USC is not only the best job in the Pac-12. You could argue that when they’re not on probation, they might be one of the top 2-3 jobs in college football.
To quote Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother, “Havvvvvvvvvve ya met Phil Knight?” The founder of Nike (and Oregon alum) supplies this program with every feasible advantage they could possibly want, making this far and away the second best job in the Pac-12. Add Knight’s resources in with the perfect coach to take full advantage of them (Mr. Chip Kelly) and it’s easy to see why Oregon has gone from a nice, regional school to a college football super-power.
Speaking of Kelly, Oregon’s one true disadvantage- limited access to elite prospects- isn’t really an issue under him any more either. They say “If you build it, they will come.” Well, Kelly has built it, and the elite recruits are starting to follow. Guys like De’Anthony Thomas and Arik Armstead could’ve gone anywhere in the country. They elected to go to Eugene.
There really is no limit to where this program could go.
UCLA has been a sleeping giant for years, one that- for whatever reason- seems content on never waking up. Now granted, I know their financial resources were limited in the past, but how can a program located in Southern California, on one of the most beautiful college campuses in the country, that plays their home games in the Rose Bowl only have one 10-win season since 1998? Riddle me that?
Again, the answer seems to come down to money, and more than ever, money seems to be less of an issue with the new Pac-12 TV deal. On his way out, Rick Neuheisel mentioned that it was important for the school to spend big to compete, and they have, giving plenty of compensation to Neuheisel’s successor Jim Mora, and Mora’s staff.
Simply put, UCLA is out of excuses. It’s time to start winning. Big.
There’s both good news and bad news with the Washington football program.
The bad news is that the state simply doesn’t produce nearly enough top-end, elite high school football talent to stock a winning Division I football team. The good news? Of the guys the state has produced in recent years, almost all of them have ended up at UW. Jermaine Kearse, Jake Locker and others were Washington kids, who went to the state university.
But ultimately, what success in the Washington job ultimately comes down to is the ability to recruit outside the state, specifically Northern and Southern California. It’s no secret that when Washington was at its best in years past, the Huskies have gotten guys out of California (a lot like Colorado, which we’ll discuss later), and it seems to be a renewed emphasis under Steve Sarkisian as well. Washington was able to lure elite safety prospect Shaq Thompson up to Seattle this past February (thanks, in no small part to ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi).
Add in one of the best game-day settings in college football (right along Lake Washington), and this is one of the more underrated jobs anywhere.
5. Arizona State
Every inclination in me wanted to put a couple schools (mainly Stanford) ahead of Arizona State, but I just couldn’t do it. And ultimately, it comes down to recruiting. To change up an old Chris Rock joke, the difference between the two schools is that “When you’re recruiting at Arizona State, the sky’s the limit. When you’re recruiting at Stanford, the limit’s the sky.” Simply put, the Sun Devils can admit kids into their school that Stanford just can’t.
And really, that’s what makes the Arizona State job so damn perplexing: There is no logical explanation as to why they haven’t been better through the years. As I mentioned previously, I lived in Tempe for a while a couple years back (it’s a long story, don’t ask), and there is just no explainable reason why Arizona State isn’t a football super-power. The sun shines 360 days a year, the Sun Devils play in a nice stadium, and on a campus of 60,000 undergrads, 30,000 of them are females wearing barely any clothing. Plus, for all his shortcomings, Dennis Erickson proved that you can recruit Southern California as well.
So why hasn’t Arizona State been a better gig? Your guess is as good as mine.
We’ll see if the conference’s new TV money will make a difference.
Again, what it comes down to with Stanford is academics. Simply put, there are a lot of kids that just don’t have the grades or test scores to get into school there. Heck, Barry Sanders Jr. (only one of the top running backs in the country) had to wait until the 11th hour to be admitted to Stanford, proving that in Palo Alto, they don’t wait on recruits. Recruits wait on them.
Then again, if you do have the academics, the question then becomes “Why wouldn’t you want to go to Stanford.” The campus is beautiful, Stanford Stadium is fantastic, and as Jim Harbaugh proved (and David Shaw has continued to prove), you can play big-time, big-boy college football while also getting an elite education there. With guys like Andrew Luck and Johnathan Martin set to join ex-teammates Chase Beeler and Ryan Whalen in the NFL, you can also get to the league through Palo Alto as well.
Had I made this list five years ago, there’s a real possibility that I would’ve put Stanford at the bottom. Now it’s one of the best. Funny how these things change, huh?
Pardon me for thinking its 1989, but I really don’t think the Colorado job is all that bad. Folsom Field is as good as it gets in college football, Southern California is open for recruiting, and it’s hard to think of many schools in the country where you’ll have more fun off-the-field than Boulder. Plus, whatever budget shortcomings the school had just a few years ago, won’t be nearly as big an issue with the new Pac-12 TV deal.
Give Jon Embree a few years, and I suspect that he’ll have this program at the top of the Pac-12 North standings consistently
(***Correction: As someone pointed out in the comments section below, Colorado plays in the Pac-12 South, not the Pac-12 North. I apologize for the mistake.)
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the rankings of these schools really is hard. After UCLA at No. 3, it seems to me that you could pretty much make a case for any school, in any spot, No. 4 through No. 10.
In regard to Arizona in specific, the reason that I like this job more than most is because of AD Greg Byrne. The guy is one of the rising stars in the business, someone who has an eye for talent in the coaching ranks, and an understanding of the modern way to build not only your program, but the brand around it. Few college administrators are more active on Twitter than Byrne is.
The one thing holding Arizona back from being higher is one simple fact: It is, and always will be a basketball school. I love Rich Rodriguez, and believe he will have a ton of success in the desert. But he will always play second-fiddle to what Sean Miller is doing on the basketball court.
Then again, is that such a bad thing?
Of every school on this list, I suspect Cal fans have the biggest gripe. No. 9? No. 9? Couldn’t you make the case that Cal could be as high as No. 5 or 6? The answer is absolutely.
Then again, we’ve got to look at modern history too. No program was saved from financial disaster from the new Pac-12 TV deal quite like the Golden Bears were. This was a school that was set to cut a bunch of sports as recently as 18 months ago, before getting saved at the 11th hour by Larry Scott.
The Golden Bears are also coming off a season where they played their home games in a half empty AT&T Park, and it’s impossible to know yet if the renovations to Memorial Stadium will really give a boon to recruiting or not. It should also be mentioned that Cal is now working on a streak of 53 straight New Year’s Days without going to the Rose Bowl.
If I made this list a year from now, or three, I suspect Cal would be higher. But right now, they belong where they are.
Only time will tell what to make of the Utah football program playing big boy football, but right now, it’s hard to justify putting them any higher on this list than where they are. The scenery around Rice Eccles Stadium is as good as it gets, but Salt Lake City is still a tough place to recruit to, and it takes a special kind of student-athlete to survive and thrive there. Not to mention that of the football recruits in Utah, the Utes are going head-to-head with BYU on quite a few of them.
At the end of the day, putting Utah here really is more of a reflection of how deep the Pac-12 is, then anything they’ve done wrong.
11a. Oregon State
11b. Washington State
Yes, this is a bit of a cop-out, but it really is impossible to differentiate one job from the other. Recruiting is limited at each, and neither school has the resources or prestige of their cross-state rivals.
When it comes to these two jobs, what it really comes down to is who is coaching each school at that particular moment. Two years ago, the edge would’ve gone to Oregon State. Two years from now, it’ll likely be Washington State.
But for right now? It’ll be a struggle at each.
What did Aaron do right? What did he do wrong? Let him know by commenting below, or hitting him up on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.
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