Grading Pac-12 Coaching Moves (Or Lack Thereof) – North Division

It’s been a busy year for the Pac-12 coaching community – and may not be over yet.

Both of the Washington schools have new coaches, as do Pac-12 power brokers USC and Oregon. There are hints that the dean of the Pac-12 coaching fraternity, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, may retire.

Oh, and there’s no guarantee that Arizona State, which wants to keep its head coach, will be allowed to do so.

Below is a look at the current status of the Pac-12. The first grade is the based upon the satisfaction of the fan base of the school; the second grade is based upon how I, as a Buff fan, view the move.

(Just so you know, my view of CU’s rivals is based upon what I perceive as being good for the Buffs, not the conference. In my world, I want CU to win. If that means the other team is down, or if the other team has a star player injured the weekend they play the Buffs, so much the better.)

Pac-12 North … 

California (5-7, 4-5) … Head coach: Justin Wilcox … Fifth year (26-28, 15-25)

From Cal’s perspective … C

Justin Wilcox has been the head coach at Cal for five seasons. He has two winning seasons in those five, with an overall losing record and a 15-25 record in Pac-12 play (with an 11-3 record in non-conference play, with the Bears playing an FCS team every fall).

Heading into the 2021 campaign, there was some reason for optimism, but the Bears fell flat, starting 1-5, but rebounding to win their rivalry game against Stanford, as well as a less-than-meaningless makeup game against USC.

And yet … Wilcox interviewed for the vacant Oregon head coaching position, and reportedly was offered the job. The sentiment is that Justin Wilcox is a good coach, but in an impossible position dealing with an aggressive Bay area healthy department and a less than supportive administration. That a school like Oregon would have an interest in Wilcox indicates the respect others have for him … if not his program.

From CU’s perspective … B+

This grade is certainly not based upon how CU fared against Wilcox and his Bears, an embarrassing 26-3 defeat to a Cal team which was 1-5 at the time.

No, this grade is based upon Wilcox staying put … for the moment.

The fact that Wilcox interviewed for the Oregon job is a clear indication that he is not happy in Berkeley (why he didn’t take the job – if indeed it had been offered – is subject to speculation). How long will it be before he leaves? If you were the parent of a player – or a recruit – would you want your son to play at Cal right now? Cal’s recruiting Class is currently ranked 65th in the nation; 8th in the Pac-12.

It’s doubtful that Cal, with what can only be described as a lame duck coach, will carry much momentum into the 2022 season, a season which includes a road trip to Boulder … a game Buff fans will be circling as a “must win”.

Pac-12 North … 

Oregon (10-3, 7-2) … Head coach: Dan Lanning … First Year in 2022

From Oregon’s perspective … B-

It’s not Chip Kelly. It’s not Dave Aranda. It’s not Luke Fickell. It’s not Matt Campbell. It’s not Kalani Sitake. Hell, it’s not even Justin Wilcox.

It’s Dan Lanning, the 35-year old defensive coordinator from Georgia.

There’s plenty of spin for Oregon to put on this hire … Lanning is a fierce recruiter … He has the best defense in the nation … He’s young and energetic.

He’s also an unknown quantity.

Here’s how John Canzano at The Oregonian put it: It’s a bit of a gamble, isn’t it?

A risk for (Oregon AD Rob) Mullens, who needs a favorable outcome. For Knight, too, who doesn’t have time for a failed experiment. For Oregon also, which is banking that deep resources are enough to overcome Lanning’s inexperience. Also, there’s a chance Lanning wins some games and bolts like Taggart and Cristobal did. But it appears Oregon views that as the cost of doing business here.

If I am an Oregon fan … I’m hopeful, but not overwhelmed.

From CU’s perspective … B+

If you are a Colorado fan, or a fan of pretty much every other team in the Pac-12, you have to be enthused by this hire. Yes, Lanning may turn out to be the best thing in Eugene since Chip Kelly, but there are as many question marks as there are bullet points.

When Cristobal left, there was some revisionist history in the Duck Nation. Sure, he was a great recruiter, but a lousy game day coach (citing the Utah games, conveniently forgetting the upset of Ohio State earlier in the season).

And now the Ducks have Lanning, reputed to be a great recruiter (like Cristobal) … but with no head coaching experience. Oh, and Lanning total coaching experience in the western time zones consists of two years as an assistant coach at Arizona State (one as a graduate assistant; one as the receivers coach).

Of the potential candidates, I was most concerned that Oregon would hire Kalani Sitake. At BYU, Sitake has done great things, including going 5-0 against the Pac-12 this year, a year after going 11-1 and losing Zach Wilson to the NFL. BYU gave Sitake a handsome raise to stay in Provo (with the added benefit that Sitake will continue to be a thorn in the side for Utah for years to come).

The Dan Lanning hire could prove to be a lose/lose for Oregon.

If Lanning is bad, well, that’s bad.

If Lanning is good, he may well follow Taggart, Cristobal (and his predecessor as defensive coordinator at Georgia, Mel Tucker) for a better coaching gig back east.

Oregon State (7-5, 5-4) … Head coach: Jonathan Smith … Fourth Year (16-27, 12-22)

From Oregon State’s perspective … B+

For Oregon State fans, the 2021 season was a good year. The Beavers finished with a winning record, and are going bowling for the first time since 2013.

For his efforts, Jonathan Smith was given a raise and a contract extension.

“Coach Smith has led the resurgence of our football program in a way that has made all of Beaver Nation proud,” athletic director Scott Barnes said when announcing the contract extension. “Their steady growth, improvement and success on the field, in the classroom and the community is apparent. A strong foundation has been laid for success and the future of Beaver football is bright due to Coach Smith’s leadership.”

Such is the lot of Oregon State. Smith did lead the Beavers to their first win over USC in Los Angeles since 1962, and the Beavers are going bowling. But there were also losses to struggling teams like Cal and Colorado.

Smith gives Oregon State a high-floor, low-ceiling coach … and that’s about as much as you can expect in Corvallis.

From CU’s perspective … B-

When you are in the bottom tier of the Pac-12, as Colorado is, and, for the foreseeable future will be, there is some value in having other teams in the bottom tier fail.

It helps CU to have Arizona be horrendous. It helps CU to have Stanford in a downward spiral.

It doesn’t help CU to have Oregon State succeed.

Yes, the Buffs beat the Beavers in Boulder, but it took two overtimes and a little luck to pull it off. For CU to climb into the “bowl-eligible” pool in 2022, a win in Corvallis is likely a must.

Jonathan Smith has been at Oregon State for four years; Karl Dorrell has been at CU for two.

Even with an abbreviated schedule in 2020, Dorrell already has half as many overall wins as Smith has in four seasons at Oregon State, and half as many Pac-12 victories.

If Karl Dorrell were to match Smith’s four year totals, it would mean going 8-17 over the next two seasons, with a 6-15 Pac-12 record.

Here’s guessing that wouldn’t give him a contract extension for year five.

Stanford (3-9,2-7) … Head coach: David Shaw … Eleventh Year (93-45, 64-31)

From Stanford’s perspective … D+

The bloom has fallen off of the rose in Palo Alto.

In David Shaw’s first five seasons as the head coach at Stanford, the Cardinal won the North Division four times, and won the conference title three times.

Since then, however, it’s been a rocky road. Stanford’s last conference title came in 2015; the last division title in 2017.

The last three seasons? 4-8, 4-2, 3-9.

So, yes, all you need to know about how bad it’s gotten for David Shaw: Karl Dorrell has a better record the past two seasons (8-10 v. 7-11).

Stanford’s not likely to fire David Shaw anytime soon, and the Cardinal does have the highest-rated Pac-12 recruiting Class heading into Signing Day, but it’s not all peaches and cream in Palo Alto.

From CU’s perspective … B

As noted, it helps CU to have other Pac-12 teams struggling right now, and Stanford is currently below Colorado in the Pac-12 pecking order.

But the Buffs won’t play the Cardinal again until 2023, so Stanford is one school can only gaze upon from afar.

Will David Shaw still be the coach in 2023?

We’ll see …

Washington (3-6, 4-8) … Head coach: Kalen DeBoer … First Year

From Washington’s perspective … C+

The same week that USC announced it was hiring Oklahoma’s head coach Lincoln Riley to revive its program, Washington announced it was hiring …

… Fresno State’s head coach.

For the Huskies, who consider themselves as a blue blood, it was not a great look.

DeBoer posted a 12-6 record in two years at Fresno State. DeBoer spent the 2019 season as the offensive coordinator at Indiana, which followed a two-year stint as the offensive coordinator under Jeff Tedford at Fresno State.

DeBoer was named the NAIA National Coach of the Year three times during a five-year run as the head coach at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota, where he had a 67-3 record.

USC got an FBS coach of the year, a coach with College Football Playoff appearances and Heisman trophy … Washington got an NAIA coach of the year.

DeBoer may work out well in Seattle, but DeBoer was not a “splash” hire.

From CU’s perspective … B

Another Pac-12 North school which didn’t make a big name hire.

Colorado finished the 2021 season with a 4-8, 3-6 record.

USC finished the 2021 season with a 4-8, 3-6 record.

Washington finished the 2021 season with a 4-8, 3-6 record … including a loss to Colorado.

Suffice it to say, the predictions for 2022 for USC and Washington will exceed those for Colorado.

How much better will Washington be under Kalen DeBoer? There will be question marks, for sure.

Which bodes well for CU and its Pac-12 brethren.

Washington State (7-5, 6-3) … Head coach: Jake Dickert … First Year (3-2, 3-1)

From Washington State’s perspective … A-

For all of the chaos which surrounded the Washington State program during the Nick Rolovich exit from Pullman, the Cougars could hardly have done a better job of landing on their feet.

Jake Dickert took over in mid-October for the fired Rolovich, and led Washington State to a 3-2 finish, including a trouncing of Washington, 40-13, in the Apple Cup (The Cougars first win in the series since 2012.

“We are thrilled to have Jake Dickert step into the head coaching role,” WSU president Kirk Schulz said. “Coach Dickert was able to bring together a team that has been through so much in the past two seasons and inspire them to not only keep going, but to fight harder. Coach Dickert loves Pullman, understands what it means to be a Coug, and most importantly, puts his players first. He is an asset to this program, and to WSU.”

Dickert has never been a head coach before, and, in fact, had never coached at the FBS level before becoming the defensive coordinator at WSU in 2020.

Will Dickert be able to turn his year-end success into future wins?

Time will tell, but Washington State beat hated rival Washington, and is going bowling, so, for now, it’s all good in Pullman.

From CU’s perspective … B

As is the case with Oregon State, if Colorado is going to climb in the overall standings in the Pac-12, the Buffs need to have other teams stumble.

And Washington State is a prime candidate.

Yes, Washington State went 7-5, and is going bowling, but the future is anyone’s guess with Jake Dickert at the helm.

The Washington State recruiting Class is currently ranked 83rd in the nation; 9th in the Pac-12.

Will Dickert be up to the challenge of being a head coach in the Pac-12?

He had a great audition … but 2022 and beyond will be the real test.


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