With the emergence of Colorado and Washington State as legitimate Pac-12 contenders, it is clear as ever how important coaching is in college football. The strength of a conference can be directly tied to the prowess of its head coaches, and right now the Pac-12 is undergoing a power shift.
All it took for the Big Ten to return to national prominence was an infusion of coaching talent. Add Jim Harbaugh, Urban Meyer, Paul Chryst, Mike Riley and James Franklin in the last few years and the conference is significantly better than it was just five years ago. Overnight, the conference has been rebranded from an also-ran to this year’s strongest contender to the SEC in terms of national dominance.
Hopefully, the same will be true for the Pac-12 as well. The trajectory of a program is determined by the man at the helm. A bad hire can have rapidly drastic consequences, as is the case of Oregon. Mark Helfrich appears to follow the same pattern as Larry Coker at Miami and Frank Solich at Nebraska — great assistants without the skillset to keep a program dominant. In just two years the team has gone from a national-title favorite to battling for a .500 season.
In contrast, Chris Petersen at Washington took an underperforming and somewhat poorly coached, yet loaded Washington roster and turned it into a juggernaut within three years. Mike MacIntyre has turned in an arguably more impressive performance at Colorado, building up a dormant program into a respectable foe in only four seasons.
The upper echelon of decision-makers in the conference would be sorely lacking if Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham wasn’t mentioned. No coach consistently develops prospects into talented team players, while dominating the junior college recruiting pipeline. The fact that graduate transfer defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu was a rotational player at best at Utah and is now an integral part of the USC defensive line speaks to the excellence in coaching and developing Whittingham and his staff possess.
The coaching talent continues down the Pac-12 conference, with standouts at both Arizona schools and unique offensive minds at the northern California universities. While Gary Andersen has struggled thus far at Oregon State, his track record is impressive and he looks to be in the nascent stages of a building a program that brings back memories of Riley’s best years as the coach of the Beavers.
All of this coaching talent bodes well for the conference as a whole. After losing tremendous coaches to other jobs in Riley at Oregon State, Harbaugh at Stanford and Kelly at Oregon, the Pac-12 teams have done a good job of reloading and creating a more competitive atmosphere.
For USC, the problem with is the playing field has been leveled. It appears that Oregon and Stanford’s days as the pride of the conference are over, and one would have hoped that USC would have been better prepared to reassume that mantle. There is still some hope, as USC probably has the most talented and dynamic quarterback in the Pac-12, which it hasn’t had in quite a while.
However, over the grand scheme, coaching will determine if USC rises to the top or stays a notch below. The location and brand of Trojan football will always bring in top flight recruits, but only coaching and development will dictate whether or not USC is a playoff contender or on the fringe of competing for a Pac-12 South title.
The jury is still out on Clay Helton’s coaching prowess. Ignoring his in-game coaching decisions, which have improved of late, his most important attribute might be what he can do from March to September in terms of coaching his players up. The team is more disciplined and more fundamentally sound than in years past, and if Helton can build on that and harness the immense raw talent he has at his disposal, USC could be elevated as a program — and he could as a coach as well.
UCLA football is dealing with its own coaching issues. Their season may be a case study in what happens when a questionable offensive coordinator gets the keys to a Ferrari. It crashes and burns when the driver attempts to turn it in an off-road vehicle. The Bruins this season are a testament to how important coordinators are as well.
Hopefully, USC takes notice to the team across town and continues to coach and scheme to its players’ strengths instead of whatever is going on at UCLA. The Trojans no longer control their own destiny this season, but they have a chance to determine the fate of the program for years to come. Coaching will be the lead navigator. The hope is they follow the roadmap laid out by Washington, Utah and Colorado.
Those programs are quality brands with excellent captains. USC, with the right person behind the wheel, has the chance to be a Bugatti, leaving everyone behind in the dust.
Jake Davidson is a senior majoring in accounting. His column, “Davidson’s Direction,” runs Mondays.