Welcome to the Pac-12, conference of football coaching legends.
We may have just four teams currently in the Top 25, we can’t see the four-team College Football Playoff without a telephoto lens and we haven’t claimed a national championship in 13 years, but things are getting really interesting on the Pac-12 sidelines.
There are two ways to define a great football coach. The first is obvious: He wins a lot of games and lifts his team to national prominence. The second might be more important to those of us in the media. A football coach should be entertaining. Two recent transactions promise to fulfill these requirements.
On Nov. 25, UCLA hired Chip Kelly to resuscitate its program. And earlier this week, Arizona State introduced Herm Edwards as its new coach. Let’s examine these new/old warhorses.
It will be hard for 49ers fans to acknowledge that Kelly fits into either of my stated categories. Last year, his lone season coaching in Santa Clara, was a disaster. The 49ers finished 2-14 and fielded a historically bad defense. People actually yearned for Jim Tomsula. And Kelly sleepwalked through press conferences, mumbling like the bedraggled lead character in a quirky independent film. You could have sworn he wasn’t all that interested in his job.
But as a UCLA alum, I’m counting on the Chipster to become a West Coast version of Nick Saban, whose coaching career has been like an Oreo, if the outside layers were the most delicious cookie you’ve ever eaten, and the middle layer was sawdust. Saban couldn’t cut it with the Miami Dolphins, but he was brilliant at Michigan State and LSU before that, and more recently has built a dynasty at Alabama.
It’s possible opponents have caught up to Kelly’s spread offense, which was at the advance guard of a revolution. We’ll see. For now, it’s enough to celebrate a highly prized coach choosing a Pac-12 job over Florida, the other school that went hard after Kelly. We’re used to playing second fiddle to the schools that offer “Audibling to the Run When Facing a Single-High Safety” as a graduate course.
ASU, meanwhile, took a different approach. I have no idea whether Edwards can handle this job. He hasn’t coached in a decade, and his only college experience was coaching defensive backs for three years at San Jose State in the late 1980s. But I’m pretty sure he’ll be fun.
Edwards declared as much during his introductory press conference Monday, punching the air with passionate declarations and stopping for long, meaningful pauses in the gospel style he brought to NFL studio shows.
At one point, a reporter from Devils Digest, which covers the program for Rivals/Yahoo!, asked Edwards a question and the 63-year-old coach replied, “Devils Digest, huh? Where you located, my man?” He added: “I’m a Catholic, I’m a Christian. Watch out for them devils.”
It’s highly likely that Herm Edwards did not know the mascot of the team he had been hired to lead.
Two coaches do not make an interesting conference, but the Pac-12 was in good shape before Kelly and Edwards landed. David Shaw is creative and erudite, the perfect coach for Stanford. Washington’s Chris Petersen is hands-down one of the best coaches in the game. Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez is a crusty sideline pacer who once compared an NCAA investigation into his program at Michigan to the tribulations caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
And then there’s Mike Leach. I was going to write this column last week, but nipped it in the bud because it looked like Leach might be headed to the University of Tennessee. The Vols have since decided to play the 2018 season without a head coach and to use rock-paper-scissors to dole out starting assignments, so Leach remains at Washington State.
He is one of those rare coaches who meets both prerequisites. He’s a top-notch strategist, and an over-the-top-notch conversationalist.
Leach can talk about play-action passing and trips formation until the cows come home. (In Pullman, Washington, that’s generally about a half-hour before sundown.) But he is just as eager to rhapsodize on Bigfoot, aliens, candy corn and his favorite topic, pirates.
A reporter recently asked Leach for wedding advice, and the coach deadpanned a remarkable, three-minute cautionary tale. “I’m just telling you, when it comes to marriages, the women lose their mind,” Leach said. “Your fiancee’s gonna lose her mind. Your mother-in-law is gonna lose her mind. Your mom is gonna lose her mind. Your sisters and several of your female relatives are gonna lose their mind.”
He went on to detail the coming battles over wedding invitations and dessert.
So yeah, we’ve got it pretty good in the Pac-12 right now. But I have some ideas to make the conference even better. I will admit right off the tee that I am ignoring Colorado and Utah here. I don’t particularly care about those schools, which are pretty much steppingstones to the eventual Pac-18 or Pac-22 we’ll be burdened with. As for the other programs:
Cal should hire Jim Harbaugh. Wait, you’re saying, the Golden Bears have a fine young coach in Justin Wilcox, who sparked an upswing in his first season. True, true. But the Oregon job is currently open, thanks to Willie Taggart’s departure for Florida State. Wilcox was born in Eugene and played for the Ducks during his college days. He’d be a great fit at Nike U.
And that would open up a slot for Harbaugh, possibly the most entertaining coach in America. Remember Harbs at Stanford, having words with Pete Carroll after running up the score on USC with a late 2-point conversion? Remember Harbs with the 49ers, nearly coming to blows with Lions coach Jim Schwartz after an overly enthusiastic postgame back slap? We need more of that in the Bay Area.
This is Harbaugh’s third season in Michigan, and though he called it his dream job when he accepted the position, we all know the guy gets itchy heading into Season 4.
Oregon State should hire Greg Schiano. No offense to Jonathan Smith, the Beavers’ current head coach, but let’s be real: Had you heard of Jonathan Smith until now? He lost to Oregon by 59 points this year, and he didn’t do anything outrageous like castrating a bull or punching an opposing player, so he is expendable.
And you know Schiano, right? It was his imminent hiring that ignited a firestorm at Tennessee a couple weeks ago. I’m no fan. Schiano seems kind of awful, in fact. But the announcement would put Corvallis on the map, and that’s quite an achievement.
Finally, USC should hire Lane Kiffin. Again, apologies to Clay Helton. His Trojans just won the Pac-12 title. And yet he doesn’t stand out. Even his fan base is lukewarm to Helton after he failed to develop quarterback Sam Darnold into a Heisman Trophy candidate this year.
There’s nothing lukewarm about Kiffin, though. He’s a human lightning rod. He has burned bridges in Oakland (where he was fired via overhead projector), at Tennessee (where students literally rioted when he bolted after one season), and at USC (where he was canned at 3 a.m. at LAX after a loss). But maybe that last bridge can be repaired. Kiffin led little Florida Atlantic to a 10-3 record and a bowl game this season. Yes, it’s the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl, hosted by FAU itself. But that’s a start.
We all know USC has no scruples. Anyway, this isn’t about scruples. It’s about winning football and can’t-miss press conferences.
Give us those, and we’ll cede the College Football Playoff to the SEC for a few more years.
You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.