Pac-12 Musical Chairs – 2017

The Pac-12 coaching carousel was relatively quiet last season, with two new coaches taking over – Justin Wilcox at Cal and Willie Taggart at Oregon.

This fall, however, a full third of the conference has new coaches, with four schools (and almost five) moving on with new coaching staffs.

In case you have been off in the Himalayas in search of enlightenment after CU’s disappointing 5-7 season, here are the coaching changes in the Pac-12:

Oregon StateGary Andersen resigned mid-season (the weekend before the CU game in Corvallis), and was replaced after the season by Washington offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith;

—  UCLAJim Mora was fired prior to the final game of his sixth season, replaced by former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly;

Arizona State … After the Sun Devils defeated Arizona in the Territorial Cup, securing a winning season and a second-place finish in the Pac-12 South, Todd Graham was fired anyway. The surprise hire to replace Graham was Herm Edwards, who hasn’t coached since 2008, and hasn’t coached on a college campus since 1989; and

Oregon … The Ducks finished their first season under Willie Taggart with a 7-5 record and a top five recruiting Class in the works. Then Florida State came calling, and Taggart was gone, replaced by his offensive coordinator, Mario Cristobal.

(There was almost a fifth Pac-12 coaching change. Tennessee athletic director John Currie, after several high profile flubs, met with Washington State head coach Mike Leach about taking the job in Knoxville. Currie never got the chance to hire Leach, as he was canned before a deal could be struck. The Volunteers went on to hire Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt).

Of the four new head coaches in the Pac-12, the reaction has been fairly consistent for two of them. UCLA is given high marks for hiring Chip Kelly, while Arizona State is given almost universal scorn for its hiring of Herm Edwards.

Some grades for the new coaches, from CBS SportsOrlando SentinelThe New York PostABC Sports

Chip Kelly, UCLA … UCLA was not the most desirable job on the market, but it landed the biggest name available in Chip Kelly. That’s a win – A+ …  It was a home-run hire for UCLA, which gets one of the most innovative offensive minds in some time – A … Kelly went 46-7 at Oregon, and now gets a huge geographical boost for recruiting fun athletes to play in his system … An underachieving, underfunded program upped its game in a big way, first by paying Mora a lot of money to go away, then by landing Kelly, the most coveted free agent of the cycle. Athletic director Dan Guerrero and his team hit a grand slam here – A.

Jonathan Smith, Oregon State … He’s not the sexiest hire, but he’s familiar with what it takes to win at Oregon State – C … Smith helped develop Huskies quarterback Jake Browning into one of the elite players in the Pac-12, earning the 2016 Offensive Player of the Year. The big challenge ahead of him is rebuilding an Oregon State program that’s 62-75 since 2007 – B … Sometimes schools fall into the familiarity trap rather than making the best hire. This isn’t one of those cases, as Oregon State needs someone who understands its unique challenges and what it takes to win in Corvallis – B

Mario Cristobal, Oregon … Cristobal was the team’s co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach last season, and he has head coaching experience. He went 27-47 at FIU, though that record doesn’t indicate the kind of rebuild he undertook there. While it’s a hire that makes sense, it still isn’t one that’s very exciting – C+ … Known for being an excellent recruiter, Cristobal has been integral in developing talent at Alabama and in his current stop at Oregon where he was so well-liked that Ducks players petitioned to get him the job on a full-time basis – B+ …

Herm Edwards, Arizona State … Here’s your winner for strangest hire of the offseason so far. A coach that hasn’t been at the college level since 1989? Maybe it’ll prove to be a genius move, but right now it’s just a head-scratcher – F … The hire was a head-scratcher. I understand that Edwards is well-liked and has built great relationships wherever he’s worked but if you look at this one without rose-colored glasses, Arizona State is hiring a 63-year-old coach who hasn’t been a full-time coach since 2008 – C … This could be a hilarious calamity on many levels, starting with the optics of Edwards’ former agent, Ray Anderson, being the Sun Devils’ athletic director … Maybe it works. Maybe Ray Anderson has outsmarted us all with this hire. Edwards certainly will bring Arizona State media attention and, most likely, upgrade the program’s recruiting – D.

Some random thoughts and musings over the changing in coaching staffs across the Pac-12:

— Fans of teams in the Pac-12 who cheer for teams other than UCLA should be wary of the hiring of Chip Kelly by the Bruins. Kelly was able – granted, with a great deal of financial help from Phil Knight – to build a dynamo in Oregon. Oregon!. You know, the program which had gone the entire 20th century without ever having a ten-win season? That Oregon. Now Kelly is in talent-rich Los Angeles, and his name has restored an instant cache to the program.

If quarterback Josh Rosen, who is projected by at least one prognosticator to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft, decides to stick around Westwood for the 2018 season, UCLA will be a sexy pick to crash the top ten. If not, it won’t be long until UCLA will be expected to become a powerhouse in the Pac-12 South alongside cross-town rival USC. With Kelly having no place better to go (based upon his two failed stints in the NFL, Kelly isn’t likely heading back to the NFL anytime soon), the Pac-12 South could become the “Big Two and Little Four” in fairly short order.

— One question for Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson … WTF?

Had Colorado hired Herm Edwards as its new head coach, the Buff Nation would be exploding with outrage. Herm Edwards is a known name, to be sure, but known mostly because he has been a commentator/analyst for ESPN for years. He last coached in 2008 (a 2-14 campaign for the Kansas City Chiefs), and last coached college players in 1989.

“Our goal for this football program is to reach unprecedented heights, and therefore we need to find a way to operate more innovatively and efficiently than we have in the past,” athletic director Ray Anderson said in a statement. “In the spirit of innovation, our vision for this program is to have a head coach who serves as a CEO and is the central leader with a collaborative staff around him that will elevate the performance of players and coaches on the field, in the classroom and in our community. Equally important, the head coach will be a dynamic and tireless recruiter.”

Huh?

Setting aside for the moment that “innovatively” is not a word, what is Anderson thinking? Todd Graham had been on the hot seat all season, so there was plenty of time to set a new course, but the new course is to hire a coach who hasn’t coached in decades, and retain most of the staff … which had under-performed in the first place?

At the very least, Anderson could have briefed his choice to be the new ASU coach that the team nickname was “Sun Devils”, and that a reporter from “Devils Digest” might not be from a satanical cult?

— Oregon State made a decent, if safe choice. Jonathan Smith is a bland name with a bland history as a coach. Smith has had his share of success as the offensive coordinator at Washington the past four seasons, but has no other Power-Five conference coaching experience. His primary appeal to Oregon State appears to be that he played for the Beavers (quarterback, 1998-2001), so he knows what it takes to overcome the challenges coaching in Corvallis.

Of primary interest to outsiders, though, is not so much the hiring of Smith, but the names of two of his assistant coaches. Colorado fans will watch with interest to see what Brian Lindgren, CU’s offensive coordinator for the past five seasons, will do with the Oregon State offense.

The other coaching hire which raised eyebrows is the return of former head coach Mike Riley, who left Oregon State for Nebraska three seasons ago, only to be fired in November after posting a 19-19 record in Lincoln. Riley’s job description is “to-be-determined”, but Jonathan Smith doesn’t seem to be worried about having the Beavers’ coach of 14 seasons looking over his shoulder (waiting in the wings to get his job back??).

“Current and former players thriving in the NFL and in life are proof of coach Riley’s tremendous ability to recruit outstanding young men,” Smith said in a statement. “He understands what it takes to win in this conference, and how to evaluate student-athletes. There is no one better to have represent OSU in the homes of recruits as we build this program.”

We’ll see how that works out …

— By far the most intriguing change in command in the Pac-12 this off-season took place in Eugene, with Willie Taggart bolting after one season. Taggart, who came to Oregon after a successful run at South Florida, posted a 7-5 record in 2017, then left for Florida State, leaving the Oregon administration with its second coaching search in as many seasons.

The flirtation between Florida State and Taggart left many a Duck player and fan with a bad taste in their mouths.

Taggart said he had been “open and honest” with Oregon players and administrators throughout the courtship, which accelerated last Monday during a meeting with FSU officials in the Phoenix area while Taggart was in Arizona recruiting.

Across the country, not all Ducks players and recruits agreed.

Sophomore linebacker and leading tackler Troy Dye, whose brother, Travis, is a 2018 Oregon commit, tweeted that Taggart “lied straight to my dads face in my living room Thursday night. He didn’t keep his word to me Monday. Lost all my respect.”

The reaction from Duck fans to the loss of Taggart was interesting. Oregon and its fans like to see the Ducks as being among the elite of college football, forgetting that Oregon is the epitome of nouveau riche in the world of college football. To be dumped for a prettier girl by Willie Taggart had to hurt.

One of the podcast I like to listen to is called “Solid Verbal”. Ty Hildenbrandt and Dan Rubenstein, are the commentators, and the fact that one (Dan) is an Oregon fan, while the other (Ty) is a Penn State graduate/Notre Dame fan should be enough to turn away Buff faithful, the pair do a good job of remaining objective when doing their previews and reviews throughout the college football season.

The pair posted a podcast earlier this week, The Bonus Willie Taggart EmergiPod, in which Dan, the Duck fan, was given free rein to vent about the loss of Willie Taggart. Dan refused to look upon the Oregon program as a “stepping stone” for coaches, preferring to see Oregon as a program being the “right fit for the right coach” (which is, of course, true for any program).

Dan was wary of casting any stones at any potential candidate (at the time of taping, offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal had yet to be named head coach). Cristobal, while seen by Ty as “an underwhelming” option, was given more props by the Duck fan. Dan saw the benefit of “promoting from within”, if, for no other reason than to try and retain Oregon’s top five recruiting Class (which may be more difficult than it sounds. See: “Warren Thompson, 4-star WR, decommits from Oregon; Ducks lose all 5 4-star WRs” from the Oregonian).

— Which brings us to Jim Leavitt.

As of this writing, Jim Leavitt remains the defensive coordinator for Oregon. When it was announced that Willie Taggart was leaving for Florida State, numerous media outlets, from the Tallahassee Democrat to the Oregonian to the Atlanta Constitution reported that Leavitt was leaving with Taggart to become the new defensive coordinator at FSU.

Not so fast, my friend.

While not closing any doors, Leavitt remains, for the time being, the defensive coordinator at Oregon. The Ducks play Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl next Saturday (December 16th).

After that?

Attempting to take a higher road amidst the firestorm of outrage in Willie Taggart’s presumed misleading of Duck fans and players, Leavitt tweeted out the following on December 5th: “Always been honest. Never have I mislead. Have great passion for the Ducks! Want to be a HC someday again Lord willing. Flying back tomorrow but tonight with my girls.”

Sounds good … but has Leavitt boxed himself into a corner?

Unless Leavitt is willing to take an open head coaching position (no attractive ones remain open, unless a high profile coach bolts to the NFL after the NFL begins firing coaches in a few weeks), he is admitting that he is a gun for hire, with aspirations to leave for greener pastures (not of the monetary kind. Leavitt is already the highest-paid assistant coach in the Pac-12, one of only 15 nationally to be earning over $1 million this past season) as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

Leavitt also tweeted out this week: “There is nothing more important than our players and their lives. I would never get in the way of that. The players are why I coach. That will never be lost with me no matter where I coach.”

It’s the “no matter where I coach” that is telling.

Translation: I love you guys … until a better batch of guys comes along.

Such is the nature of the coaching carousel.

For the Buff Nation, there is reason for concern and enthusiasm in this cycle of change in the Pac-12 coaching ranks. UCLA seems to have taken a big step forward in hiring Chip Kelly, while Arizona State seems to have taken a step back in taking on Herm Edwards. Up North, the new Oregon coaches, both offensive coordinators last season, are “wait-and-see” hires.

True enough, Buff fans are more concerned about the two new assistant coach hired Mike MacIntyre will make after Signing Day a week from Wednesday. Presumably, the Buffs will be taking on a quarterbacks coach and a special teams coach – or at least coaches with those positions in their titles. Those hires will have a greater bearing on CU’s future than what other teams are doing with their new staffs.

But CU does not exist in a vacuum. What other schools do in their hirings and firings will impact the Buffs in 2018 … and beyond.

As the game of Pac-12 coaching musical chairs continues …

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3 Replies to “Pac-12 Musical Chairs – 2017”

  1. Jim Leavitt is showing enthusiasm, loyalty and passion for the Ducks, just like he showed enthusiasm, loyalty and passion for the Buffs – right up until the day he left. If Florida State offers him more in the DC role, or if he is offered a HC position elsewhere, I would not expect him to stay in Oregon.

    I am very interested in how Chip Kelly performs at UCLA. There is obviously a lot of media hype about this hire, but I am skeptical that he can replicate the success he had at Oregon – much of his offensive philosophy that was considered innovative in 2009-2012 has been implemented by other programs, and it is becoming more commonplace.

  2. how much more money was Taggart going to get at FSU? I dont have much money but it always makes me wonder why folks who already have a bunch always look for a bunch more.
    and Maybe its because I have always lived in Colorado I cant figure out why someone would want to live or play in the deep south….especially play in that heat and humidity. I head to the beach occasionally for a little vacation but where I go in Mexico kicks the poop out of the FL MS, TX gulf ocean experience.
    So to leave a place like Oregon, where you have only been for one season,and leave behind moneybags Knight, possibly Jim Leavitt and a top 5 recruiting class, only to head to an even bigger pressure cooker….?
    Coaching must be an all consuming lifestyle and anything outside of football and the job cant and doesnt get any notice anyway so I guess maybe you might as well have a little more money.

    1. Oregon offered Taggart a raise to $4 million per year.
      The contract with Florida State is for $5 million per year.
      I doubt that it was the raise in pay Taggart was looking for – if it was a bidding war, Oregon would have upped the ante.
      Taggart is from Florida, and wanted to go home. A year spent 3,000 miles away from home, and the spotlight afforded the ACC/SEC by the national networks … an easy call.

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