Four coaches ushered in an era of change for Pac-12 football in 2012. Six years after Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham, Jim Mora and Mike Leach arrived at Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Washington State respectively, three are gone. Their replacements are among the historic wave of five new head coaches leading Pac-12 programs into the 2018 season.
Kevin Sumlin takes over for Rodriguez at Arizona; Herm Edwards is in for Graham at Arizona State; and Chip Kelly returns to the Pac-12 after six years away, replacing Mora at UCLA. Also new to the conference, Mario Cristobal and Jonathan Smith look to inject fresh blood into the Civil War rivalry at Oregon and Oregon State.
Each of the five new head coaches around the Pac-12 bring something different, and all will face unique challenges in their first year on the job and beyond. Their respective tenures will also shape the conference for the foreseeable future.
Kevin Sumlin, Arizona
The ugly circumstances precipitating Rodriguez's ouster from Arizona made Sumlin (above, right) the last head-coaching hire of the offseason. His late arrival just two weeks before the second National Signing Day presented Sumlin with some difficulties, but what the former University of Houston and Texas A&M head coach described as the biggest hurdle is the same if he'd been hired a month earlier.
"The difficult part is that video and film can only tell you so much," Sumlin said. "It’s really only on the field where you can start to feel what the league is like. That won’t happen until we actually go out and play."
In his first season at his last stop, Texas A&M, Sumlin's potent offensive style fostered a run to the Heisman Trophy from quarterback Johnny Manziel. Sumlin inherits a playmaker at Arizona with a similar skill set, Khalil Tate.
Tate dazzled in 2017, finishing seventh in the nation in rushing yards per game, and 17th in total rushing yards despite playing very sparingly for the season's first month. Expectations for Tate are high, but Sumlin tempered those during spring practice.
"The guy’s only started eight games. He’ll be the first to tell you there’s room for improvement," Sumlin said. "He’s got huge potential. There’s some things we can help him with. (Offensive coordinator) Noel Mazzone's doing a great job with him."
Herm Edwards, Arizona State
Of the head-coaching hires this offseason, none raised more eyebrows than that of Edwards — a longtime NFL sideline general who spent the prior decade working as a television analyst for ESPN. Were Edwards' lack of a college-coaching resume and long sabbatical away from the profession not peculiar enough, Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson's description of Edwards filling a role more akin to corporate CEO than college head coach piqued curiosities further.
But the enthusiastic Edwards sees his time away from the game as a positive in preparing him for the "new leadership" role.
"Visited a lot of campuses in the offseason, visited a lot of schools where I stayed two or three days. So there’s nothing surprising," Edwards said. "I wasn’t in a bubble; I was actually more global in the fact that when you sit there on television, you have the ability to watch a lot of football. If anything it enhanced my ability to understand what I was walking into."
Edwards' lack of college football experience stands out among his new Pac-12 peers; three of the four held previous FBS head-coaching gigs. Having spent two decades in the NFL does give Edwards his own, unique perspective, however.
"The players are the same between college and pro football," he said. "They’re all seeking knowledge and information. The biggest adjustment is the time. You have less time with these guys — which is probably a good thing, because they’re student-athletes first."
Mario Cristobal, Oregon
Cristobal (right) built a program virtually from scratch as head coach at FIU. At Oregon, he takes over a program just four years removed from playing in the national championship game behind a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
Good thing Cristobal is well versed in coaching at powerhouse programs with aspirations that start and end at national championships.
Cristobal came to Oregon from Alabama a season ago as Willie Taggart's offensive coordinator, and got the earliest jump among the Pac-12's new coaches on his new gig. The Ducks lost the Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State, but the true litmus test for how they'll perform in Cristobal's first full season as head coach is how they adopted the offseason strategy.
For a program focused on rebuilding to an elite level, that means starting from the foundationary block.
"Every practice, the first hour was dedicated to fundamentals, whether it be one-on-one, two-on-two or full-unit blocking, and striking blocker-type scenarios," Cristobal said. "We wanted to make sure discipline, culture, fundamentals were all going to be at the forefront every single day, whether it be a meeting, walkthrough or practice."
Jonathan Smith, Oregon State
Smith is new to head coaching, but he isn't new to the Pac-12 nor Oregon State. He worked as offensive coordinator at Washington during Chris Petersen's first four seasons at the helm, overseeing a balanced attack that landed in the College Football Playoff in 2016 and FIesta Bowl in '17.
As a player, Smith quarterbacked one of the best teams in Beavers history. The 2000 team won 11 games, culminating in a Fiesta Bowl blowout of Notre Dame. It was a high point for a program that hasn't had many, particularly in modern times. The Beavers have not reached the Rose Bowl in more than a half-century, and last season's 1-11 finish ranks among the very worst in program history — and is the exact opposite of Smith's 2000 team's finish.
Reestablishing winning ways in Corvallis is less about autumn Saturdays, and more the many days leading up to kickoff.
"The biggest, major goal we had was setting the tone on how we practice, in regards to the effort and detail of what we’re doing," Smith said. "That’s the thing you get to do way more than actually play games is practice, and we’ve got to be able to improve and compete and really get better doing those times."
Smith touted a successful spring setting that necessary tone.
Chip Kelly, UCLA
Of the five newcomers to the Pac-12 coaching fraternity, Kelly is the only one with prior Pac-12 head-coaching experience. Kelly can also be credited as the forefather of the conference in its current incarnation.
His tenure at Oregon from 2009-12 produced 46 wins against just seven losses, with three conference championships, a national title game appearance, and four BCS bowl games. He arrived at Oregon in 2007 as offensive coordinator, tasked with crafting the proverbial silver bullet to take down powerhouse USC.
Not only did the Ducks surpass USC — the program Kelly can now count as his official rival — but Oregon began the new Pac-12 program others in the league emulated. The Ducks' success with a sped-up version of the zone-read option offense beget hires of like-minded coaches such as Mike Leach, Todd Graham, Rich Rodriguez and Sonny Dykes.
With much of the Pac-12 now playing styles comparable to those Kelly-coached Oregon teams, the new UCLA manager will again have to innovate.
"It’s always just about adapting what you do schematically to the players that you have," Kelly said. "You can run really cool plays, but if you don’t have the right personnel to run those cool plays, you’re not going to be very successful. It’s got nothing to do with staying on the cutting edge... it’s just about putting players in position to make plays."
Kelly inherits a talented roster after several impressive recruiting classses signed in Jim Mora's tenure at UCLA. The Bruins will be intriguing dark horses in the Pac-12 race next season, as Kelly — who spent four seasons in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers, before spending last year as a TV analyst — is itching to get back in action.
"The day-to-day, that’s what you miss. The meetings, the study and film... that’s been the fun part," he said. "During my year away, you studied the game, but there wasn’t a sense 'Hey, this is what our personnel is and what we hope we can accomplish with this group.'"
(Chip Kelly photo by Don Liebig/UCLA Photography, courtesy of uclabruins.com; Kevin Sumlin photo by Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics, courtesy of arizonawildcats.com; Mario Cristobal photo by Eric Evans Photography/University of Oregon, courtesy of goducks.com)