Washington's Chris Petersen ranks among the Pac-12's best coaches.
Success with any college football team starts with coaching. Even if a program doesn’t have the resources of the nation’s elite jobs, a good coach can elevate a program into national title contention. However, similar to any position on the field, statistics may not tell the full story when judging a coaching tenure.
This is not simply a list of coaches ranked by accomplishment or wins. While those aspects are important, it doesn’t provide a complete picture of how successful coaches are. Winning 10 games at Alabama is different than winning 10 games at Kentucky. Also, every program has a different amount of resources available. Hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. It's always easier for programs with more built-in advantages to contend for a national title on a more consistent basis.
A couple of other factors to consider when ranking coaches: How well are the assistants paid? A staff with two of the nation’s top coordinators could be a sign the head coach is better as a CEO and may not be as strong in terms of developing gameplans. How is the coach in the X’s and O’s? Can the coach recruit? Are the program’s facilities on par with the rest of the conference? Much like assistants, a program needs good facilities to win big. If a team is winning at a high level with poor facilities and a small budget, it reflects positively on the head coach. Is the coach successful at only one stop? Or has that coach built a solid resume from different jobs?
Again, wins are important. But our rankings also take into account a blank slate. If you start a program from scratch, which coach would you hire knowing what they accomplished so far and their career trajectory? Remember, you don't get the assistants - only the head coach. And head-to-head wins do not matter for this ranking. Athlon's editorial staff has voted on a ranking of coaches for all 10 conferences. Here are the results for the Pac-12:
Ranking the Pac-12's Football Coaches for 2016
1. David Shaw, Stanford
Stanford’s rigid academic standards are no secret, but the tough admissions and smaller prospect pool hasn’t stopped Shaw from transforming this program into a top 10-15 team nationally on an annual basis. Over the last five seasons, Shaw has guided Stanford to a 54-14 record, and the Cardinal finished No. 3 in the final Associated Press poll last year. Additionally, Stanford has claimed three out of the last four Pac-12 titles and has only one season (2014) of fewer than 11 wins under Shaw’s direction. Despite losing several key pieces from last year’s 12-2 team, Shaw’s leadership should ensure the Cardinal won’t slip too far in the national rankings.
Related: Athlon Sports Top 25 for 2016
2. Chris Petersen, Washington
Petersen’s record through two seasons in Seattle is only 15-12, but there are plenty of signs this program is on the right path. The Huskies went 8-6 in Petersen’s first year (2014) and finished 7-6 last season. Despite the slight decrease in wins, Washington was considered a top 25 team in advanced metrics. The seven-win 2015 campaign featured a handful of underclassmen in key roles and an additional year of experience should allow the Huskies to push for a breakout year and contend for the Pac-12 title. Prior to Washington, Petersen went 92-12 and claimed two BCS bowl victories in eight seasons at Boise State. Although it’s a small sample size, Petersen has already emerged one of the Pac-12’s top coaches.
3. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Whittingham’s stock continues to rise among Pac-12 coaches after leading Utah to a 10-3 record last season – the program’s best mark since joining the league in 2011. Additionally, the Utes have back-to-back finishes (2014-15) in the Associated Press poll for the first time since 2008-09. Whittingham has only two losing seasons in his Utah tenure and has four years of at least 10 wins, including a perfect 13-0 mark in 2008. Utah doesn’t recruit on the same level as South Division rivals UCLA or USC, but the Utes will always be a factor in the Pac-12 with Whittingham leading the way.
4. Mike Leach, Washington State
Entering his fifth year in Pullman, Leach seems to have Washington State poised to challenge for eight or nine wins on a consistent basis. After a surprising loss to Portland State in Week 1 last season, the Cougars rebounded by winning nine games and finished 6-3 in league play – the program’s first winning mark in Pac-12 action since 2003. Under Leach’s watch, Washington State is 21-29 overall and has played in two bowl games over the last four years. Success is nothing new to Leach, as he went 84-43 at Texas Tech from 2000-09. Leach is one of college football’s top offensive-minded coaches and returns one of the nation’s top quarterbacks for 2016 in Luke Falk.
5. Todd Graham, Arizona State
High expectations surrounded Arizona State last season, but the Sun Devils finished with their lowest win total (six) in Todd Graham’s four years in Tempe. The 6-7 record last season was just the second losing mark in Graham’s 10-year career as a FBS head coach. However, it’s safe to assume Graham won’t allow Arizona State to be down for long. Graham has a strong track record of success at the FBS level, leading Rice to a six-game improvement in the win column in his only year with the Owls (2006), finishing 36-17 at Tulsa from 2007-10 and leading Pittsburgh to a 6-6 mark in one season (2011) with the Panthers.
6. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
A year after a Pac-12 South title and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, Arizona took a step back in the win column with a 7-6 overall mark and a 3-6 record in league play. The seven wins in 2015 were the fewest by Arizona under Rodriguez’s watch, but despite injuries to key players on offense, the Wildcats earned their fourth consecutive winning record. Rodriguez is widely regarded as one of the nation’s top offensive minds and should get this program back on track over the next two seasons. Scoring points won’t be a problem for the Wildcats, but the defense has to improve. Rodriguez took steps to fix this unit in the offseason, hiring new play-caller Marcel Yates to highlight a revamped staff. Prior to taking over in Tucson, Rodriguez went 60-26 at West Virginia from 2001-07 and 15-22 in three years at Michigan.
7. Mark Helfrich, Oregon
Life after Marcus Mariota wasn’t going to be easy, but Oregon’s 2015 season was hindered by an early-season injury to quarterback Vernon Adams. After a 3-3 start, Helfrich guided the Ducks to a 9-4 final record in 2015, which included road wins at Washington, Arizona State and Stanford. The nine-win season elevated Helfrich to 33-8 in three years at Oregon and an impressive 22-5 mark in Pac-12 play. Helfrich faces a couple of challenges in 2016, as the Ducks need to improve on defense and find a quarterback to replace Adams. The hire of Brady Hoke as the team’s new defensive coordinator should help, and Helfrich seems to have two capable quarterbacks in Dakota Prukop and Travis Jonsen.
8. Jim Mora, UCLA
The Pac-12 has one of the nation’s deepest collections of coaches. Need evidence? Mora ranks eighth on this list, but a strong argument could be made for the UCLA head coach to rank higher after a 37-16 mark over the last four seasons. Under Mora’s watch, the Bruins have won at least eight games every year and claimed the Pac-12 South title in 2012. UCLA has some key players to replace from its 2015 team, but a favorable schedule and the development of sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen has this program poised to enter the 2016 season as the favorite in the South Division.
9. Gary Andersen, Oregon State
Andersen’s decision to leave Wisconsin for Oregon State came as a surprise. In his two seasons with the Badgers, Andersen went 19-7 and guided the program to a Big Ten West Division title in 2014. And prior to Wisconsin, Andersen went 26-24 at Utah State and finished his tenure in Logan with back-to-back bowl appearances. While Andersen’s hire came as a surprise, Oregon State’s 2015 performance was not. The Beavers were in clear rebuild mode last year and struggled to a 2-10 finish. Andersen has a track record of success but it’s going to take some time to get the Beavers back in contention for winning seasons.
10. Sonny Dykes, California
Coming off his best season at California (8-5 in 2015), Dykes has momentum and a contract extension on his side. The Golden Bears went 1-11 in Dykes’ first year with the program but improved to 5-7 in 2014 and recorded their first winning season since 2011 with a solid 8-5 campaign in 2015. Additionally, quarterback Jared Goff went No. 1 in the NFL Draft, which certainly doesn’t hurt Dykes on the recruiting trail. The Golden Bears also received good news in mid-May, as transfer quarterback Davis Webb is headed to California instead of Colorado. Repeating last year’s 8-5 mark will be tough, but Dykes has this program trending in the right direction.
11. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado
MacIntyre inherited a mess and a program that went 4-21 from 2011-12 under former coach Jon Embree. There were no quick fixes in MacIntyre’s rebuilding effort, and the former San Jose State coach has made some progress over the last three seasons. The Buffaloes finished 4-8 in MacIntyre’s first year (2013), regressed to 2-10 in 2014 but finished 4-9 last season. While Colorado has been more competitive under MacIntyre’s watch, this program still has only two Pac-12 wins over the last three seasons. Prior to Colorado, MacIntyre went 16-21 in three years at San Jose State, including a 10-2 record in 2012.
12. Clay Helton, USC
Helton enters 2016 with plenty to prove and no shortage of pressure. After filling in as an interim coach for the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl and again last year after Steve Sarkisian was dismissed, Helton was promoted to the full-time job at the end of the 2015 regular season. Helton is 6-4 in his limited stint as the program’s head coach and guided USC to the Pac-12 South title last year. However, this is his first opportunity to be a head coach on a full-time basis – and he’s doing it at one of the nation’s top programs. Helton wasted no time putting his stamp on the program by overhauling the staff and finished strong on the recruiting trail by signing the No. 8 class in the nation in February. Helton doesn’t have the big-time name recognition that Lane Kiffin or Sarkisian brought to the program when they were hired. Could that be a good thing for USC? Only time will tell how this hire will work out.