There's no debate for the top spot among Pac-12 coaches, as that honor belongs to Washington's Chris Petersen once again for 2019. However, it's a tough call between Stanford's David Shaw, UCLA's Chip Kelly, Washington State's Mike Leach and Utah's Kyle Whittingham for second in the conference.
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.
How did we compile the rankings for the Pac-12 coaches? For starters, it’s an impossible task. However, we tried to weigh every possible factor into this ranking. 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.
Every team has a different variety or built-in resources available, and hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. Those factors, along with career biography/resume, success in developing talent and landing prospects on the recruiting trail factored into the ranking. Additionally, how well programs value staff (is the head coach better as a CEO or hands-on approach) and the facilities or program resources matter into forming an outlook of how coaches have performed at different stops throughout their career.
Again, wins and the career biography to this point 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 2019
12. Mel Tucker, Colorado
Tucker is the Pac-12’s only new head coach for the 2019 season, and his background on defense in a conference known for offense makes this an interesting fit in Boulder. Tucker spent the previous three years under Kirby Smart as the defensive coordinator at Georgia and worked during the 2015 campaign at Alabama on Nick Saban’s defensive staff. Tucker also coached in the NFL from 2005-14, including a stint as Jacksonville’s interim coach in ’11. The Ohio native started his coaching career as a graduate assistant on Nick Saban’s staff at Michigan State in 1997 and followed him to Baton Rouge (2000), before spending four years on Jim Tressel’s staff at Ohio State (2001-04). This is Tucker’s first opportunity to be a head coach at the FBS level.
11. Jonathan Smith, Oregon State
Oregon State is a tough job, but Smith certainly knows what it takes to win in Corvallis. However, as indicated by the 2018 season, the Beavers have a long climb back to a winning season. The former Oregon State quarterback went 2-10 in his debut at his alma mater last fall, but the offense showed signs of life and provides optimism for 2019. Before taking over at Oregon State, Smith worked as the offensive coordinator at Washington (2014-17), Boise State (2012-13) and Montana (2010-11).
10. Clay Helton, USC
After a 5-7 finish by USC in 2018, Helton sits squarely on the hot seat this season. A handful of staff changes, along with the development of quarterback JT Daniels should help Helton’s program take a step forward in 2019. But will it be enough to buy him another year? The Trojans are 32-17 under Helton’s watch, claimed the 2017 Pac-12 title and finished No. 3 overall in the final Associated Press poll in 2016.
9. Kevin Sumlin, Arizona
Sumlin’s first season in Tucson resulted in a disappointing 5-7 record, but the Wildcats weren’t far from a bowl game after losing four games by five points or less. A healthy year out of quarterback Khalil Tate should make a difference in 2019, but a tough schedule won’t make Sumlin’s life any easier. Prior to taking over at Arizona, Sumlin went 51-26 over six years at Texas A&M. The Aggies won 11 games in Sumlin’s debut (2012) but did not record a finish in the top 25 after the ’13 season. He also had a stop at Houston from 2008-11. The Cougars went 35-17 over four years and finished No. 20 nationally with a 12-1 mark in 2011.
8. Herm Edwards, Arizona State
Arizona State’s decision to hire Edwards was criticized by many (including us at Athlon Sports), but the former NFL coach exceeded expectations with a solid 7-6 finish last fall. The Sun Devils recorded a winning mark in Pac-12 play (5-4), picked up a quality non-conference win versus Michigan State and defeated rival Arizona 41-40 in the regular season finale. Of Arizona State’s six losses, five came by seven points or less and none were by more than 11 points. Edwards previously went 39-41 with the Jets from 2001-05 and 15-33 with the Chiefs (2006-08). Replacing quarterback Manny Wilkins and receiver N’Keal Harry won’t be easy, but after his first year in Tempe, there should be confidence in Edwards and this staff to fill the voids going into 2019.
7. Justin Wilcox, California
The Pac-12 is known for its offense, but California went with defense when it hired Wilcox to replace Sonny Dykes prior to the 2017 season. The move has paid dividends for the Golden Bears over the last two years. After a 5-7 debut, California improved to 7-6 overall in 2018. Additionally, Wilcox has quickly transformed the defense into one of the best in the Pac-12. Prior to his arrival, the Golden Bears allowed 42.6 points a game in 2016. That total declined to 28.4 in ’17 and fell to 20.4 in ’18.
6. Mario Cristobal, Oregon
After having three head coaches over three seasons, the Ducks enter 2019 with some much-needed stability. Cristobal was promoted to head coach after Willie Taggart left for Florida State and finished 9-4 in his debut in Eugene. The biggest highlight of Cristobal’s first year was a win over Washington in overtime, but the Ducks also closed on a high note by beating Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl. Cristobal continued the momentum over the offseason by landing the Pac-12’s No. 1 recruiting class and hiring Andy Avalos from Boise State to coordinate the defense. Cristobal previously went 27-47 with two bowl trips at FIU – one of the toughest jobs in college football – from 2007-12.
5. Chip Kelly, UCLA
Kelly didn’t make an immediate splash at UCLA, as the Bruins finished 3-9 in his debut last fall. However, this program got better over the second half of 2018 and should take a step forward in the win column this season. Kelly’s innovative offense may need another year to take off, but his track record at Oregon suggests this program won’t be down for long. From 2009-12, Kelly recorded a 46-7 mark with three Pac-12 titles in Eugene. He also went 26-21 in three years with the Eagles (2013-15) and 2-14 with the 49ers (2016).
4. David Shaw, Stanford
The depth of the Pac-12 coaches is on display when Shaw ranks No. 4 in the conference. Shaw was promoted to head coach after Jim Harbaugh left for the NFL, and the Stanford alum has helped this program emerge as a consistent contender for the conference title. The Cardinal are 82-26 in Shaw’s tenure since the 2011 season. Additionally, Stanford has won three conference titles and finished No. 3 nationally after the 2015 campaign. The Cardinal have only one season of fewer than nine wins (2014) and just three years below 10.
3. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Whittingham is the Pac-12’s longest-tenured coach (14 years) and has a 120-61 mark since taking over in Salt Lake City. In addition to the longevity and success over an extended period of time, Whittingham led Utah through a transition from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. The Utes had a perfect 13-0 season in 2008 and finished a combined 20-6 before joining making the switch to a Power 5 conference in 2011. Whittingham guided the program to an 8-5 mark in its Pac-12 debut and led a quick rebound after back-to-back 5-7 campaigns in 2012-13. Utah has won at least nine games in four out of the last five seasons and claimed a Pac-12 South Division title for the first time in school history last fall. With a loaded team in place for 2019, Whittingham could lead this program to its first Pac-12 title.
Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2019
2. Mike Leach, Washington State
Under Leach’s direction, Washington State has emerged as a consistent winner and a contender in the Pac-12 North. The Cougars are 49-40 since Leach’s arrival in 2012 and have played in five bowl games over the last six years. Washington State has won at least eight games in each of the last four seasons and is coming off its best year (11-2) of Leach’s tenure. The Cougars also finished No. 10 nationally last fall, which marked the program’s first top 25 ranking since 2003. And as expected, Washington State’s passing game has ranked among the nation’s best since Leach’s arrival. The Cougars have finished first in the Pac-12 in passing offense in six out of the last seven seasons.
1. Chris Petersen, Washington
Petersen enters 2019 as the unquestioned No. 1 coach in the Pac-12. After a 15-12 start to his tenure in Seattle, the Huskies have won at least 10 games and played in a New Year’s Six bowl in each of the last three years. Petersen has guided Washington to two Pac-12 titles and a trip to the CFB Playoff in 2016. Success at a high level is nothing new for Petersen. He went 92-12 over eight years at Boise State from 2006-13). During Petersen’s 13 seasons as a head coach, only three of those saw his team win fewer than 10 games.
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