Pac-12 Championship Game: The Coaches

(Photo Courtesy: USA Today Images)

It’s college football’s Championship Week, and we here at Crystal Ball Run have spent the last several days breaking down Saturday’s biggest games from all angles. We’ve given you some background on these teams. We’ve told you who their key players were. Earlier this morning we began to look at the head coaching match-up in each big game.

Speaking of those coaching matchups, for college football nerds (like myself), there may not be a more interesting head coaching matchup in any game this weekend, than the sideline showdown between Stanford’s David Shaw and Arizona State’s Todd Graham. They are two men who could best be described as “opposites.”

Graham prefers a wide-open spread attack. Shaw prefers a slow and methodical ground game.

Graham has been known for his professional job-hopping. Shaw is the Stanford man who has remained true to the school even when other colleges and NFL teams have come calling.

Yet for their differences, the two are eerily similar in one aspect: Each is capable of extracting the maximum effort and ability from each of their players, which is probably the biggest reason why each team is getting ready for this game on Saturday.

So what do you need to know about the two coaches and their staffs heading into the Pac-12 Championship Game?

Let’s take a look:

Head Coach, Arizona State: Todd Graham: If Gary Pinkel and Gus Malzahn are the leaders in the clubhouse for National Coach of the Year, it only seems appropriate that Graham should be in the “honorable mentions” group right behind them. As I discussed in Monday’s piece on how these two teams have gotten here, Graham has done a masterful job of taking a group of talented individuals that he inherited from Dennis Erickson, and turning them into a “team.”

And ultimately, that’s been both the gift and curse of Todd Graham’s coaching career: The ability to quickly turnaround programs. Unlike previous stops, it looks like he’ll stick around to see this turnaround project all the way through though.  

Incredibly, Graham began his career as a high school assistant, and in less than 20 years, he made his way up the food-chain to his first college heading coaching job in 2006. There he led Rice to a 7-5 record, after going 1-11 the previous season.

After just one year at Rice Graham bolted for Tulsa, a place where he ultimately made his name as a college head coach. There Graham won a staggering 36 games in four years, including three seasons of 10 or more wins.

Yet at Tulsa it wasn’t just that Graham won, but how he did it. Thanks in large part to the hire of an offensive coordinator named Gus Malzahn (yes, that Gus Malzahn…as if there was another one), Tulsa had one of the nation’s top offenses during Graham’s time at the school, and there were a few years where they had the best offense, period. Much like he has done at Arizona State with offensive coordinator Mike Norvell (more on him coming), Graham put the offense in the hands of his coordinator, and it paid major dividends.  

Of course with the good of Graham’s coaching resume comes the bad, and following four highly successful years at Tulsa, comes one bizarre, up and down season at Pitt. There, Graham’s high-flying offense never truly took flight and he never seemed to truly fit in.

Well, we all know what happened next, and it isn’t pretty if you’re a Pitt fan. After just one season in the Steel City, Graham skipped town on the first flight out to Tempe. To make matters worse, he told his players- the ones he barely got to know- that he was leaving via a forwarded text message.


Yet regardless of how Graham arrived at Arizona State, it does seem as though he’s made a permanent home there. After an 8-5 season a year ago, Graham has the Sun Devils at 10-2, and playing for a berth in the Rose Bowl.

Director of Football, Stanford: David Shaw: Yup, they do things a little bit different on The Farm, where the head coach isn’t actually referred to as the “head coach” at all, but instead the “Director of Football.”

Whatever the title is, it seems to fit David Shaw well.

As previously mentioned Shaw grew up around the Stanford program….literally, as his father Willie was a long-time assistant (and nearly the head coach) at the school, which led Shaw to eventually play four years on The Farm as a wide receiver.

From there the younger Shaw’s own coaching career took many stops, but ultimately ended up right back where it started, at Stanford. After bouncing around a variety of NFL assistant positions, Shaw was hired as Jim Harbaugh’s passing game coordinator at the University of San Diego, before eventually moving to Stanford with Harbaugh as the offensive coordinator.

And it was while Shaw was the offensive coordinator that the offense really took off, and evolved into the unit that we see today; led by some dude named Andrew Luck, the Cardinal broke school records for scoring in each of the team’s final two years with Shaw calling plays.

From there, we all know what happened next, with Harbaugh departing for the NFL, and the team essentially not missing a beat once Shaw became the head-man. Stanford has won 12 games in each of the two seasons he’s been head coach, with trips to the Fiesta and Rose Bowls in the process.

They will also be playing for their second straight Pac-12 title on Saturday.

Key Assistant, Arizona State: Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell: So, serious question: For all the talk of the “best” assistant coaches in the country- Kirby Smart, Noel Mazzone, Pat Narduzzi, Brent Pease (ok, kidding on that last one)- why is Mike Norvell’s never named in the discussion?

Frankly it should be, as the Frank Broyles Award finalist has been as good as any of the names mentioned above this year.

And that success is ironically due to Graham; in the world we live in, where coaches micro-manage everything from the food players eat to what they say to the media, Arizona State’s head coach has a weird relationship with Norvell: He…brace yourself…actually gives his offensive coordinator complete control of the offense.

Crazy, I know!!

Only it’s seems to have worked, with Arizona State having an offensive season for the ages. The Sun Devils are eighth in scoring nationally, averaging over 43 points per game, with five separate games of 50 or more points scored, which ties a school record.

What may be more impressive though is what Norvell’s offense has done at Sun Devil Stadium this year: Arizona State is averaging a staggering 49 points at home this season.

For those scoring at home, yes, Saturday’s game will be at Sun Devil Stadium.

Key Assistant: Director of Defense, Derek Mason: Here we go with the “Director” conversation again. Regardless of the title though, Mason will have the challenging task of trying to slow down Norvell’s offense…and if the last few years have proven anything, it’s that he’ll be up for the challenge.

That’s because during the last couple seasons, Mason has emerged as one of the top defensive minds in college football, and like Norvell this year, was a finalist for the Broyles Award last season.  Ultimately, that nomination came with good reason; Mason led Stanford to a Pac-12 best scoring defense (17.2 points per game), with the Cardinal leading the nation in sacks (57) as well.  

In 2013 Mason’s defenses haven’t quite lived up to those lofty standards, although admittedly it’s kind of hard to blame him… I mean, have you seen some of the offenses in the Pac-12 this season?

Regardless, Stanford still leads the Pac-12 in most major defensive categories, with top scoring defense (19 points per game), the top rush defense (a mere 87.7 yards per game) and was within a half a yard of surpassing USC for top total defense, allowing just 341.8 yards per game (the Trojans gave up 341.2).

What might be most impressive though is the conference that Stanford has done it in, with five of Stanford’s wins coming over offenses that rank in the Top 31 nationally in scoring (Oregon, Arizona State, Washington, UCLA and Oregon State).

Point being, this is going to be a fun match-up of high-flying offense versus ferocious defense Saturday night in Tempe.

As Terrell Owens once said, “Get Ya Popcorn Ready!”

For all his opinion, insight and analysis, follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.