The Pac-12 once again features a solid group of coaches at the top, with Washington’s Chris Petersen and Stanford’s David Shaw leading the way in Athlon’s rankings for 2017. Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, Washington State’s Mike Leach and Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre round out the next tier, with an intriguing group of coaches just outside of the top seven. Will Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez and Arizona State’s Todd Graham have a bounce-back season? And how will Clay Helton perform in his second full year at USC?
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 College Football Coaches for 2017
12. Justin Wilcox, California
Wilcox returns to the West Coast for his first head coaching opportunity. The former Oregon defensive back spent most of his coaching career on the West Coast prior to a stint in 2016 as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator. Under Wilcox’s direction, the Badgers finished third in the Big Ten by limiting opponents to just 15.6 points a game last fall. The Oregon native’s one season at Wisconsin came after two years as the defensive play-caller at USC (2014-15). He also worked in the same role at Washington (2012-13), Tennessee (2010-11) and Boise State (2006-09). Wilcox also spent three years as California’s linebacker coach from 2003-05. Considering the Golden Bears have not finished higher than eighth in the Pac-12 in scoring defense over the last five years, choosing a coach with a solid defensive background should fix some of the issues on that side of the ball. And to help ease Wilcox’s transition to head coach, he hired two proven coordinators and former head coaches – Beau Baldwin on offense and Tim DeRuyter on defense.
11. Jim Mora, UCLA
Last season’s 4-8 record was the first losing mark for UCLA under Mora’s watch. While the four-win season was the program’s lowest since 2010, it’s hard to dock Mora too much in the overall landscape since quarterback Josh Rosen was lost midway through the year with a shoulder injury. How quickly can Mora get the Bruins back on track? He’s 41-24 over the last five years, including two 10-win campaigns. Additionally, UCLA won the 2012 Pac-12 South title and has a winning record in league play in four out of the last five years. Recruiting talent hasn’t been a problem for Mora with a 13.8 average finish in national team rankings since 2013. However, the Bruins are just 25-20 in Pac-12 games from 2013-16.
10. Clay Helton, USC
The outlook on Helton’s first full year at the helm changed dramatically during the course of the 2016 season. After a 1-2 start and a sluggish offense against Alabama and Stanford, Helton decided to switch quarterbacks. The move from Max Browne to Sam Darnold paid huge dividends for the Trojans, as this team went on to win its last nine games, including the Rose Bowl over Penn State. The 10-3 record in Helton’s first full season improved his overall total at USC to 16-7. With Darnold returning (and better as a sophomore), the Trojans are a legitimate playoff contender.
9. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
Arizona is just two years removed from the Pac-12 South title, but there is building pressure on Rodriguez. The Wildcats were hit hard by injuries and struggled to find the right pieces for a new defense last season, finishing with a 3-9 record and just one win in league play. The losing mark was Arizona’s first under Rodriguez, but the program is just 10-15 since winning the South title. Adding to the growing pressure for 2017 is a new athletic director. Through five years, Rodriguez is 36-29 with four bowl trips in Tucson. Prior to Arizona, Rodriguez was dismissed after a 15-22 record at Michigan but had a successful run at West Virginia (2001-07).
8. Todd Graham, Arizona State
Similar to in-state rival Arizona and coach Rich Rodriguez, 2017 is shaping up to be an important year for Todd Graham and Arizona State. The Sun Devils started Graham’s tenure with an 8-5 mark in 2012 and back-to-back 10-win campaigns from 2013-14. Arizona State claimed the Pac-12 South title in 2013 and climbed to No. 12 in the final Associated Press poll in 2014. But the program has been trending down over the last two years. The Sun Devils are just 11-14 in that span and went 2-7 in Pac-12 games last season. Injuries to the quarterback position significantly hampered Graham’s offense, but the defense has ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in back-to-back years. Graham has a track record of success from previous stops at Rice, Tulsa and Pitt. Will Arizona State take a step forward in 2017?
7. Willie Taggart, Oregon
After successful stints at WKU and USF, Taggart inherits his third rebuilding project at Oregon. But the Ducks aren’t in need of major repair. After all, the program is just two seasons removed from playing for the national championship. However, make no mistake about the situation Taggart is walking into. Oregon has slipped in recent years, going 13-12 over the last two seasons and finishing out of the top 25 in 2016 for the first time since 2006. Taggart compiled a 16-20 mark at WKU from 2010-12, winning 14 games over the last two seasons and earning a bowl bid in 2012. He took over at USF in 2013 and went 6-18 through the first two years. But the Bulls showed marked improvement from 2015-16, winning 18 games and claiming a share of the AAC East Division last fall. Taggart’s background on offense should help Oregon regain its edge on that side of the ball, and the hire of Jim Leavitt as coordinator will immediately improve the defense.
6. Gary Andersen, Oregon State
Andersen inherited a program in need of repair after Mike Riley left for Nebraska, and the Beavers have showed progress over the last two seasons. After a 2-10 debut in 2015, Oregon State doubled its win total to four and claimed three Pac-12 victories last season. Prior to Oregon State, Andersen went 19-7 in two years at Wisconsin and was 26-24 at Utah State from 2009-12. While the Beavers might be a season away from making a bowl, Andersen has this program pointed in the right direction and another step forward is likely in 2017.
5. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado
MacIntyre delivered a breakthrough season in his fourth year in Boulder. The Buffaloes finished 10-4 and No. 17 nationally last season, while also claiming the Pac-12 South title. The 10-win season equaled MacIntyre’s victory total (10) from the first three years with the program. It’s no secret MacIntyre inherited a program in need of major repair in 2013 and slow progress through the first couple of years was expected. This isn’t the first time MacIntyre has engineered a significant turnaround. From 2010-12, San Jose State went 16-21 under his watch, improving from a one-win team in 2010 to a 10-win program in the regular season in 2012.
4. Mike Leach, Washington State
Leach is known for his high-powered passing attacks, but he’s also quietly building a program capable of contending for a top 25 spot on an annual basis. The Cougars are 29-34 under his watch and have won 17 of those games over the last two seasons. A 7-2 finish in conference play ranked second behind rival Washington in the Pac-12 North last year. Prior to Washington State, Leach recorded an impressive 84-43 mark at Texas Tech and guided the program to 10 consecutive bowl trips from 2000-09.
3. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Whittingham’s tenure in Salt Lake City continues to bring consistency and success at a high level. Utah has won 28 games since 2014 and recorded a winning mark in Pac-12 play in each of the last three seasons. Additionally, for the first time in program history, the Utes have earned three consecutive top 25 finishes in the Associated Press poll. Whittingham was instrumental in the program’s transition to the Pac-12 in 2011, with his steady approach helping to quickly assimilate in the conference. Under Whittingham’s direction, Utah is 104-50 and has only two losing records since 2005. Additionally, the Utes are 9-1 in bowl games under Whittingham’s direction in that span.
2. David Shaw, Stanford
With its rigorous academic standards, Stanford is one of the toughest jobs in the Pac-12. However, the difficulty of the job also underscores just how good of a coach Shaw has been for the program since 2011. The Cardinal are 64-17 under Shaw’s watch since 2011 and recorded four finishes inside of the top 12 of the final Associated Press poll. Additionally, Shaw has guided Stanford to three Pac-12 Championships and two Rose Bowl victories.
1. Chris Petersen, Washington
In just three seasons, Petersen has transformed Washington into one of the Pac-12’s top programs. The Huskies went 8-6 under Petersen in 2014 and finished 7-6 one year later. However, after building the team with a handful of young players from 2014-15, the youth movement paid off in 2016. Washington won its first Pac-12 title since 2000, claimed 12 regular season wins and a berth in the CFB Playoff against Alabama in the Peach Bowl. Success at a high level is nothing new to Petersen. He went 92-12 at Boise State from 2006-13. As a head coach, Petersen has only three years of fewer than 10 wins and has never recorded a losing record.