NCF Nation: Don James

Chris Petersen's first game-week news conference for the Washington Huskies on Monday was unremarkable, which was imminently predictable and the way he wanted it. His predecessor, Steve Sarkisian, now at USC, was effusive and quotable, sometimes even revealing. Petersen aspires toward affably dry. He's not going to open up about his sentiments as he makes what is a potentially momentous transition into the big leagues.

He didn't provide any deep thoughts about what it might feel like to take the field at Hawaii on Saturday leading Washington instead of Boise State, where he experienced incredible success and became a fixture, a nationally respected figure, a two-time national coach of the year celebrated for getting less talented players to consistently beat college football's big boys.

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenChris Petersen said coaching in the spotlight of the Pac-12 won't change his demeanor.
Yes, he is excited, as he has been for every season opener he's experienced. No, he's not looking back nostalgically over how far he's come, nor looking forward eagerly to where he might go. One suspects he doesn't pour out his emotional thoughts and concerns into a diary every night before going to bed.

The angst-inducing competition of the Pac-12? Sparkling, overflowing Husky Stadium? Big-time pressure? The ever-present shadow of Don James, his one and only benchmark? Whatever. To Petersen, it's football and nothing more, his version of Nick Saban's mighty "The Process."

A momentous transition? Baah. You ask Petersen if this present moment is special or big for him, he swats the idea aside.

"No bigger than any other year," he said. "They are all big. Like I told you guys way back when I first started coaching in front of 300 fans, I had the same exact feelings. It doesn’t change. You’re competitive. You want to do your best for your guys. It doesn’t matter what stage you’re on, where you’re at. My focus never changes on that.”

That sort of thinking comes out of the many business and leadership books and articles Petersen has digested through the years: Simplify the task at hand to what it truly is and ignore all that is extraneous. Media and fans may overlay seasons and games with epic meaning but that's just frosting on a cake. Petersen only sees a football team he's preparing for a football game and when he's done Saturday it will be the same thing the next week. And so on.

Yet I will 100 percent guarantee you that Petersen's brain has considered the notion of personal legacy. While he's resistant to it -- particularly talking about it -- and probably good at blocking out such thinking as something that is detrimental to his moment-to-moment and day-to-day mental process, he knows that there's a historical ledger kept on college coaches.

He knows that if he wins big at Washington, he'll become a Hall of Fame coach, a guy who is remembered. A statue guy. A bronze bust guy. Like James.

Again, he's not dwelling on that, but it undoubtedly was part of his contemplation when he started chatting with Washington AD Scott Woodward about replacing Sarkisian. If Petersen wasn't interested in challenging himself, in advancing himself, in aspiring toward something he couldn't do at Boise State, he wouldn't have taken the job. Petersen accepted a brighter spotlight, which he hates, to have a chance to win it all.

There is nothing wrong with ambition, and Huskies fans should be giddy that Petersen, while probably not as flushed with it as Saban or Urban Meyer, is now accommodating his own. For the proverbial "next step" at Washington is all about championships, Pac-12 and otherwise. The way things have gone of late in this conference, you win the first, the national stuff will take care of itself.

Sarkisian took an 0-12 team and made it a top-25 team that finished 9-4. So for a team to improve on 9-4, it posts double-digit wins, right? It goes from No. 25 to No. 15. Or higher. And so on.

That next step for Petersen means eclipsing Oregon and Stanford in the North Division. Then it means winning the Pac-12. At that point, eyeballs will be firmly affixed to something like what happened in 1991. Yeah, the whole thing. It's not unrealistic. It's happened before, and Petersen arrives as a guy with an impeccable coaching resume, better even that what James had when he went west from Kent State.

Petersen isn't going to go 92-12 over the next eight seasons and match his Boise State record, but the reasonable expectation is he will build Washington into a Pac-12 power. Again.

And if he falls short, if the Huskies don't advance in the North, don't move up in the top 25? That, too, would be reflect upon his coaching legacy, which would end up good but not great.

So call it an overly dramatic media play if you want, but Petersen at Washington is momentous. It's about a very good coach measuring himself for greatness. It will be interesting to see if he ends up with that statue.

Petersen will be challenged in Pac-12

December, 6, 2013
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Major narratives in college football change quickly. Just as the midseason hyperventilating surrounding the BCS title game typically sounds nothing like the end-of-season hyperventilating about the BCS title game, so do narratives almost immediately evolve on coaching changes.

Washington formally announced the hiring of Chris Petersen away from Boise State on Friday, answering one of the major annual questions in college football: Will Chris Petersen ever leave Boise?

[+] EnlargePetersen
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsChris Petersen won 92 games in eight years at Boise State.
The hiring, rightfully, will be widely celebrated, particularly among those wearing Huskies purple.

With a list of big-name targets after Steve Sarkisian opted to bolt for USC on Monday, athletic director Scott Woodward moved quickly and decisively. He checked in with UCLA coach Jim Mora, who thought seriously about the job before re-upping with the Bruins. Rumors briefly flew over Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, a Don James disciple. Then two names emerged: Petersen and Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who worked under Sarkisian from 2009 to 2011.

Both would be good hires, but Petersen is the big fish, the guy who spurned many previous overtures because he liked living and coaching in Boise. He has won five conference titles and two BCS bowls while winning 88 percent of his games (92-12) over eight years with the Broncos.

This hiring will create immediate buzz across the country. Huskies fans, many of whom were growing impatient with Sarkisian not challenging Oregon and Stanford in the Pac-12 North Division, probably view themselves as being in a better place today than they were just after finishing the regular season 8-4. They would like to thank USC for poaching their former coach, as well as apparently passing on Petersen in favor of Sarkisian.

But that narrative will shortly shift as well. Words, spin and column inches celebrating Petersen's arrival will eventually give way to actual games. While Petersen is a great hire on paper, he is not a certainty. This is new territory for him. Coaching Boise State in the WAC and then the Mountain West is not the same thing as coaching the Huskies in the Pac-12.

For one, he will no longer be primarily recruiting proverbial diamonds in the rough who are overlooked by major powers and then taking time to develop them. He now must go after elite players who have offers from USC, Stanford, Oregon, Ohio State and Alabama. It's a different type of recruiting with different challenges and different potential pratfalls.

Of course, the biggest difference will be the schedule.

At Boise State, Petersen built a national power by gaining nationwide attention on a near-annual basis with an early-season victory over a marquee AQ conference foe -- Georgia, Oregon, Virginia Tech, etc. -- then running the table through a weak conference. It was a nice formula for non-AQ success, and the magical win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl after the 2006 season gave the Broncos national credibility that trickled down through the years.

While there were plenty of naysayers, Boise State earned a spot at the adult table. The general feeling was an undefeated Boise State deserved a shot at the big boys, even if it never was invited to the championship game.

Much deserved credit for that goes to Petersen, who reached many short lists of the nation's best coaches, alongside guys named Nick Saban, Chip Kelly and Urban Meyer.

Petersen, however, will need a new formula in the Pac-12. There are no Wyomings, New Mexicos or Colorado States in his new conference, which is as deep in quality players, coaches and teams as it has ever been.

He has never coached a team that faced a Pac-12 grind of nine conference games. He's never led a team through a back-to-back-to-back slate of Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State, as the Huskies did during a midseason three-game losing streak that turned fans sour.

We know Petersen, 49, is smart. We know he's an offensive innovator. He is the only two-time winner of the Paul “Bear” Bryant Award as national coach of the year. He seems to be good at evaluating talent, both with players and assistant coaches.

Nonetheless, we don't know for sure if he has the coaching chops to consistently win at this level. Or win big enough to make himself the long-term answer at Washington, though it's perfectly reasonable to believe he will be. Just recall how things went for the former Boise State head coaches who preceded Petersen in bolting for AQ jobs, Dirk Koetter to Arizona State and Dan Hawkins to Colorado. At the time, both were widely viewed as fantastic hires. Neither succeeded.

To be fair, the only sure things in college football right now are Saban and Meyer.

Speaking of assistant coaches, Petersen's first big recruiting job will be persuading defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to stick around. Wilcox could follow Sarkisian to USC, though his contracted $1 million buyout is pricey, even for the Trojans, or he might end up a head-coaching candidate, starting with the place Petersen just left.

Wilcox was Petersen's defensive coordinator from 2006 to 2009. They could prove a powerful tandem in Montlake.

There also is a not unreasonable Pollyanna side to this. Maybe when Petersen gets an A-list program with A-list facilities and A-list revenue he becomes an even better coach? Maybe he becomes Washington's Nick Saban.

Or maybe he becomes the second coming of Don James.

Sarkisian critics get their wish

December, 2, 2013
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Lane Kiffin only became USC's coach in 2010 because Steve Sarkisian didn't want to leave Washington. "It wasn't the time," he told me.

On Monday, Dec. 2, 2013, however, the time was right, as USC hired Sarkisian to replace Kiffin, two good friends who coached the Trojans' offense together under Pete Carroll.

It's an interesting and perhaps surprising hire. It will receive a mixed reaction.

More than a few Washington fans, while grateful that Sarkisian led the Huskies back from a long-term tailspin that crashed and burned with an 0-12 season in 2008, were growing impatient. The program hadn't taken the proverbial next step, hadn't yet made a move against the Oregon-Stanford hegemony in the Pac-12's North Division. The Huskies went 7-6 three years in a row and only gained a Sarkisian-high eighth win on Saturday with a victory over Washington State in the Apple Cup regular-season finale.

So more than a few Washington fans will receive the news with: "Good riddance."

That such sentiments, arguably emotional and unreasonable, exist, and Sarkisian was fully aware of them, is probably part of the reason he deemed it time to leave Washington.

So Sarkisian's Huskies critics get their wish: a new coach.

The search could be concluded quickly if athletic director Scott Woodward opts to promote defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who almost certainly will follow Sarkisian to USC if Washington doesn't hire him. Wilcox is a true up-and-comer, a young but proven coach who built quality defenses at Boise State, Tennessee and Washington.

Of course, there is a big-fish candidate the Huskies might make a run at: UCLA coach Jim Mora. He played for Don James at Washington and has long been a favorite among more than a few boosters who wanted to hire him previously, when Mora was in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian turned around Washington but had trouble reaching the next step.
Mora said a few weeks ago that he has never interviewed for the Huskies job or been approached by a representative of the school. UCLA and Mora have been a good match, and the Bruins almost certainly would do everything they could to retain him.

For one, Mora has beaten USC twice in a row, including a 35-14 blowout Saturday. Second, it would send a bad message about the pecking order in Los Angeles, no matter the recent results, if USC hired away the Washington coach, and then Washington hired away the UCLA coach. Do the transitive property on that one.

Another big-fish name that will pop up: Boise State's Chris Petersen. While his name has been attached to every major coaching vacancy since Petersen started working magic for the Broncos -- including USC, UCLA and Washington before it hired Sarkisian -- there might be some legitimacy in his candidacy for the Huskies.

Boise State slipped decidedly in the national pecking order this fall, going 8-4, which included a loss to Washington. With the advent of the four-team playoff in 2014, Boise State might find itself outside looking in among the national powers even more than it did under the BCS system. If Petersen was ever going to leave Boise State, this might be the time. While he didn't seem like a good fit for the hurly-burly of Los Angeles, laid-back Seattle might be more to his liking.

Another current coach whose name is sure to come up is Tim DeRuyter, who has done a fantastic job rebuilding Fresno State. The Bulldogs went 9-4 his first season and are 10-1 this year, and was seen as a likely BCS buster from a non-AQ conference before they lost to San Jose State on Friday.

Another intriguing possibility is Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. The former Idaho quarterback was Sarkisian's offensive coordinator from 2009 to 2011 before being lured away by Nick Saban in 2012. He was highly thought of even before he spent two years under Saban -- a pair of seasons where he's been privy to Saban's celebrated "The Process."

There is no lack of strong possibilities for the Huskies.

Many Washington fans will be disappointed about Sarkisian leaving. A vocal minority will celebrate it.

The bad news for sportswriters? USC and Washington don't play again until 2015, so the emotions won't be as raw when the programs clash for the first time, with Sarkisian adorned in cardinal and gold instead of purple.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
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Ten storylines to keep an eye on this week in the Pac-12.

1. Oregon in the spotlight: Separated by just 45 miles, Oregon and Oregon State will host a pair of California teams in games that will surely have major Pac-12 implications. Heisman hopefuls Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Brett Hundley of UCLA square off as the undefeated No. 3 Ducks look to crack the top two of the BCS standings. Oregon State, winners of six in a row, host a reinvigorated Stanford squad that topped UCLA last week to get back into the top 10.

2. Get up for GameDay: ESPN’s College Football GameDay will be in Oregon for the Bruins-Ducks showdown. While the Ducks' offense gets plenty of attention -- and rightfully so -- it’s that defense, allowing fewer than 18 points per game -- that has been equally spectacular, if not underappreciated. They’ll go against a UCLA offensive line that is young and a bit banged up. The Bruins scored a season-low 10 points in the loss last week to Stanford. Part of the decline has been the loss of running back Jordon James, who is questionable this week. In their last two weeks, per ESPN Stats & Information, UCLA backs have been hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 60 percent of their designed runs. In the first four games they had nine rushes of 20 yards or more. In the past two games, zero. On the flip side, Oregon has had no trouble running the ball (332.4 yards per game), and should be bolstered by the expected return of De’Anthony Thomas.

[+] EnlargeTyler Gaffney
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezCan Tyler Gaffney push Stanford past Oregon State?
3. Ground vs. air: In the other state of Oregon game, the high-flying passing attack of Oregon State will clash with the run-based approach of the Cardinal. Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney is coming off a career performance in the win over UCLA, rushing for 171 yards. He has broken 100 yards four times this season. Conversely, Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks continue to put up ridiculous numbers -- 85.7 percent of Oregon State’s offense comes through the air, second in the FBS only to Washington State. Mannion came into the season with 31 career touchdowns and 31 interceptions. His FBS-leading 29 touchdown passes are already tied for the school record. He has thrown for at least 350 yards in all seven games; no other Oregon State quarterback had more than four in a season. Things will ramp up for the Beavers from here on out. Their next five opponents have a combined record of 26-9.

4. Bounce back? The Huskies -- once ranked as high as 15th in the country -- look to snap a three-game skid when California comes to town. The Bears are still looking for their first conference win and have dropped nine straight Pac-12 games dating back to last season. Complicating the matter for the Huskies is quarterback Keith Price and the injured thumb on his throwing hand. He has played through the injury for three weeks, but there is a question of whether he’ll be effective enough to play this week.

5. Honoring Coach James: Washington is also planning several tributes to legendary coach Don James, who died Sunday at age 80 of pancreatic cancer. In 18 seasons at Washington, James led the Huskies to six Pac-10 titles, a share of the 1991 national championship and a 153-58-2 record. Players and coaches will wear decals with the initials "DJ" and members of his family will serve as the honorary captains for the pregame coin toss. The band will perform a tribute to James at halftime, along with a memorial video. A public memorial service will be held Sunday afternoon at Alaska Airlines Arena.

6. Bounce back? Take 2: Utah and USC will both look to rebound from flat road performances last week. Utah is back on the road, headed down to L.A., where the Utes haven’t won since 1916. Aside from the bowl implications (see below) this is also a big recruiting trip for Utah, since 33 players on the roster hail from California. Utah’s front has been nasty, averaging 3.14 sacks per game, tops in the Pac-12. The Trojans got a boost with the return of Silas Redd (112 yards vs. Notre Dame) but marquee players from both teams, USC wide receiver Marqise Lee and Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, are battling injuries.

7. Off and running: In case anyone needs reminding, Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey rushed for a Pac-12 record 366 yards and five touchdowns in last year’s win over Colorado. The teams will meet again in Boulder, and Carey has picked up where he left off last year. He has nine straight 100-yard rushing games and leads the country with an average of 161 yards per game. The Buffs are coming of a win over Charleston Southern where Michael Adkins II rushed for 137 yards and four touchdowns. Also, from the Department of Funky Stats, Colorado is 0-6 in the pregame coin toss this year.

8. Bowl bound: Three Pac-12 teams are already bowl eligible: Oregon (7-0), Oregon State (6-1) and Stanford (6-1). For those three, it’s all about pecking order and jockeying for position to get to the best possible bowl game, which could include Roses, or maybe something bigger. All three of those teams still have to play each other starting with Stanford’s trip to Oregon State this weekend, Oregon’s trip to Stanford on Nov. 7 and OSU’s trip to Autzen on Nov. 29 for the Civil War.

9. Bowl bound? Lots of teams are on the bubble, but only one team could become bowl eligible this week. That’s UCLA (5-1). Of course, to do it, they’ll have to upset Oregon on the road. With GameDay in town, this one takes center stage across the country. Arizona State is the league’s only other five-win team, for now, and is off this weekend. Five other teams have four wins: Washington State (4-4, 2-3), Washington (4-3, 1-3), Arizona (4-2, 1-2), USC (4-3, 1-2) and Utah (4-3, 1-2).

10. Taking a breather: Two byes this week with Arizona State and Washington State resting up. The Cougars started the year with eight straight games, and head coach Mike Leach said that it’s possible some fatigue may have set in over the past couple of games -- both losses to the Oregon teams. WSU and ASU will meet next Thursday night in Pullman.

Remembering UW legend Don James

October, 20, 2013
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Don James did not have -- or need -- a two-sided stone fireplace in his office.

He did not need an indoor practice facility, which is perhaps why his teams played so well in bad weather. He did not need ever-changing uniform styles each week. He did not need anything, really, other than a rather simple tower of scaffolding from which he oversaw practices and turned the University of Washington Huskies into one of the finest football programs in the country.

James, who died Sunday, was the greatest football coach Washington has ever had, which is saying something considering that Darrell Royal once coached there and Gil Dobie never lost a game in his nine years there. James took over a floundering program and turned it into the best team in the conference. He took the Huskies to 15 bowl games in 18 years, including six Rose Bowls. He won the co-national championship in 1991 and should have won it in 1984 (BYU? Really?).

This is why, when Sports Illustrated named the three best college coaches in the country one fall, the magazine's list was: No. 1, Don James; No. 2, Don James; No. 3, Don James.

To read the rest of this story click here.
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Pac-12

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian likes his team's maturity. He likes its depth. He's appreciative it emerged from preseason camp mostly healthy. He's pleased with the focus and willingness to work. And he really likes the spectacular remodel of Husky Stadium.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
James Snook/US PresswireSteve Sarkisian and Washington hope to improve on a string of 7-6 seasons.
Sarkisian sees plenty of positives as he enters his fifth season at Washington, including 20 returning starters, a number that doesn't include a handful of former starters who missed the 2012 season due to injuries who are back on the 2013 depth chart.

Don't think Sarkisian isn't aware, however, of the "but" coming, the qualifier, the pause that allows skepticism to walk into the room to confront this optimism. The last three times his team was 0-0 in August, it finished 7-6 in December. This is a program with a dedicated fan base that can recall a time when three consecutive seasons capped by no final game in January was seen as a worrisome downturn.

Of course, part of the problem is that portion of the Huskies dedicated fan base needs to be at least in its mid-to-late 30s to recall the golden age under Don James.

So the excitement of No. 19 Boise State coming to Seattle to open Husky Stadium on Saturday is accompanied by a sense of full-on urgency for Sarkisian and his team. It's time to be relevant again, both in the Pac-12 and nationally. It's time to eyeball Rose Bowls, not just bowl eligibility.

Simply: If not now, then when?

"What's really going to make this place special is how we play, the product we put on the field. Our guys understand that," Sarkisian said.

Sarkisian says his players are eager to prove this is the team; this is the year.

No Husky is more eager to move on to a new season than quarterback Keith Price. He lets out a big laugh when a reporter jokes that both of them are surely pleased that Boise State's arrival means no more talk about 2012. It's now time.

[+] EnlargeKeith Price
Steven Bisig/US PresswireKeith Price will need to make plays for Washington to compete against Boise State on Saturday.
"We understand that seven-win seasons are no longer acceptable," he said. "We're up for the challenge."

The Huskies know the Broncos will offer a challenge for a number of reasons, not the least of which is their having lost to them in last year's Las Vegas Bowl on a last-second field goal. In that game, the Huskies fell behind 18-3, rallied to take a fourth quarter lead but then yielded a 47-yard kickoff return and short drive for the winning kick.

It was emblematic of the season -- slow start, a positive swing in momentum but then an ultimate flop. The Huskies were floundering at 3-4 at the 2012 midpoint but then won four consecutive games as the schedule softened. With the Apple Cup against struggling Washington State and a bowl game ahead, they seemed poised for a potential six-game winning streak to close a nine-win season.

Instead, they epically collapsed in the Apple Cup -- surrendering an 18-point fourth-quarter lead to lose in overtime -- and then fell to Boise State.

You might have heard all this before, but -- apologies -- it's the prevailing narrative until the Huskies change that. Which is where Boise State comes in.

Sarkisian is as aware as anyone that putting too much on this game -- one way or the other -- could damage the season. Beating Boise State likely would push the Huskies into the national rankings, but they will only stay there by continuing to win when Pac-12 play begins. Conversely, allowing a loss to linger could prove catastrophic to the season. The latter could congeal random hotseat chatter into something legitimate for Sarkisian, even though he took over a program after it went 0-12 in 2008.

Another plot twist: The uncertain status of preseason All-American tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. He's not been cleared to play due to an injury to his pinkie, Sarkisian said, but the real issue is whether he will face any type of suspension after a spring DUI. Sark isn't saying, giving a reporter seeking clarity a, "Come on dude," during a Monday news conference. If Seferian-Jenkins is out, Price loses a big target, particularly in the red zone.

Price is probably where this game turns. It's likely that Boise State, after giving up 205 yards rushing to Bishop Sankey in the bowl game, is going to gang up on the run and try to force Price to make plays. He'll have a much healthier and seasoned offensive line in front of him, and he's seemed to be back to his old playmaking ways after strong performances in spring practices and fall camp.

Meanwhile, the Huskies defense took big strides last year and seems poised to do so again in year two under coordinator Justin Wilcox. Not only are eight starters back, but Hau'oli Kikaha -- who was brilliant as a true freshman in 2010 when his last name was Jamora -- has won the starting nod at one defensive end, displacing Andrew Hudson, who had 6.5 sacks last year.

"Man, I think he’s better than ever, quite honestly," Sarkisian said. "He is flying around all over the field. You really notice him in practice. He’s creating turnovers, he’s moving all over the field at different positions for us."

Of course, the Broncos have starting QB Joe Southwick back. He was highly efficient over the latter part of the season, including the bowl win over the Huskies.

Price calls it "a good question" when asked if the Huskies should be concerned about being too fired up. They're eager to put last season's disappointment behind them. They're focused on becoming relevant again. And they will be goosed about their fancy new digs.

And those digs are really fancy.

"Aw man, it's awesome," Price said. "Going from our old facilities to our new facilities, it's night and day. But we understand those facilities don't mean anything if we don't win games in our home. That's what's going to make that place even more special."








Recalling Don James and Dick Tomey

August, 16, 2013
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Our national topic Friday on ESPN.com is successful coaches who were pushed aside and what happened next.

Two come to mind for the Pac-12 -- or Pac-10, in which both coached: Arizona's Dick Tomey and Washington's Don James. Both resigned, though only one was forced to.

[+] EnlargeDon James
US PresswireDon James went 153-57-2 as coach of Washington, including a split of the 1991 national title.
Tomey opted to resign because it appeared he was about to get fired. James resigned because he was fed up with the administration at Washington -- insert Barbara Hedges imprecation here -- and how it handled an NCAA/Pac-12 investigation of the program that resulted in what would prove to be crippling sanctions.

Neither program has approached the heights those two coaches attained since their departures.

James, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997, is simply one of the all-time great coaches. He went 153-57-2 leading the Huskies and split the 1991 national title with Miami. He won four of the six Rose Bowls he coached in and led the program to seven top-10 finishes.

After he left? Washington is 121-119, a .504 winning percentage just a bit south of James' .729 clip. The lone Rose Bowl was a victory over Purdue in 2001 under Rick Neuheisel.

As for Tomey, he resigned after a 30-17 loss to Arizona State and a 5-6 season "because of public debate" over his coaching tenure, he said at the time.

Tomey led the Wildcats to their only two seasons with at least 10 wins in program history, including a program-best 12-1 finish in 1998 when they ended up ranked fourth. In 1993, led by the "Desert Swarm" defense, Arizona went 10-2, beat Miami 29-0 in the Fiesta Bowl and finished 10th.

Tomey led the program to four of its seven all-time final Top 25 rankings. In 14 years, he only posted three losing seasons. His winning percentage was .598.

The one knock on Tomey: He never led the Wildcats to the Rose Bowl -- Arizona is the only Pac-10 member to have never played in the game.

Since Tomey was pushed aside? The Wildcats have suffered through seven losing seasons -- including five in a row after he left -- and have never won more than eight games. Their post-Tomey winning percentage is .435.

Sometimes a program has the right coach but things go askew. And sometimes folks don't realize how good things actually are.

Pac-12 as NFL coaching pipeline

June, 4, 2013
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ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel looks at which conferences send head coaches to the NFL and makes a conclusion: "The shortest road for any FBS head coach to the NFL is through the Pac-12. In fact, no other conference even comes close."

He points out that Chip Kelly (Oregon to the Philadelphia Eagles) was the 15th Pac-12 coach to jump to the NFL since "Tommy Prothro moved crosstown from UCLA in 1971 to coach the Los Angeles Rams."

And during that span the SEC has sent three to the NFL. The Big Ten one.

Figuring out exactly why this is true is more of a challenge, particularly because folks in other regions will get mad hearing the real reason: Brains and sophistication.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Matt Rourke/AP PhotoChip Kelly's offensive creativity helped him become the latest Pac-12 head coach to land an NFL head coaching gig.
Hey... take it easy. Just saying. And you Pac-12 folks need to behave.

Just look at the list: Dick Vermeil, Bill Walsh, John McKay, Mike Riley, Dennis Erickson and Chip Kelly. Those are some of the most innovative minds in football history, particularly offensive football.

Schematically, the Pac-12 -- historically and I think still at present -- is the nation's most sophisticated league. There's just more ... stuff. Playbooks are thicker. That, by the way, includes both sides of the football. The QBs are asked to do more. And that forces defenses to do more, too.

This, by the way, fits in with those who -- wrongly -- view the Pac-12 as a finesse league: A conference that is physically inferior has to use its wits to succeed.

But sophistication is about more than scheme. It's about psychology and managing people. There's more diversity on the West Coast. That complicates the job, so doing it well is meaningful. John McKay probably would have been successful coaching in Tuscaloosa. Not as sure the same could be said of Bear Bryant in Los Angeles.

Part of that is this: There's not as much "Yes, sir," "No, sir" on the West Coast as there is in other regions, particularly the Southeast and Texas, though that as a historical trend is likely narrowing. Going old school on an 18-to-23-year old from L.A. or Seattle probably won't work as well as it would on a kid from small town Alabama. The way a successful Pac-12 coach talks to and motivates his team is, in general, different. And, historically, it's probably closer to the NFL model, where the players are paid professionals and less willing to respond positively to a ranting coach.

Understand, there are plenty of exceptions to that. Frank Kush at Arizona State and Don James at Washington were as old school intimidating to their players as any of their contemporaries. Probably part of the reason neither made the NFL jump, either.

There's another level to that sophistication: Big cities. The NFL is a big-city league. So is the Pac-12. Maisel thinks this matters:
It could be that universities that share a market with NFL teams lose more coaches to the league. A school such as Boston College, clamoring for attention in a crowded market, might be more liable to hire a prominent NFL assistant coach such as Tom Coughlin, who left the Eagles for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1994. That best explains why, even without counting Johnson or Erickson, the 22-year-old Big East has lost five head coaches to the NFL.

But there are other potential reasons:

  • Out of the box hires create fast-rising stars: Kelly, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll each arrived in the Pac-12 in creative ways. Mike Bellotti made the inspired decision to hire Kelly away from New Hampshire. Harbaugh mostly generated head scratches when Stanford hired him away from San Diego. And Carroll was USC's 174th choice after a bumbling search. Heck, even Bill Walsh was a frustrated NFL assistant when he arrived at Stanford.
  • Previous NFL experience: Carroll had previous NFL coaching experience. So did Dick Vermeil, Bill Walsh and Dennis Erickson. Harbaugh was a longtime NFL QB. Several other guys on the list at least had a cup of coffee as an NFL assistant before taking over a Pac-8/10/12 team. You could conjecture that many of them viewed returning to the NFL as their ultimate ambition, unlike a college coaching lifer.
  • Recruiting rules in SEC: The most important skill for a head coach in the SEC is without question: Recruiting. The competition for recruits nationwide is brutal, but it's a blood sport in the Southeast. And that is not really a skill that translates in the NFL.
  • Money: Some conferences' pay scales are competitive with the NFL. The Pac-12's is not.
Does a coach define your program? Think Alabama and Bear Bryant, Penn State and Joe Paterno and Florida State and Bobby Bowden.

Does he cast a shadow that's hard to escape? Or is your all-time winningest coach mostly incidental?

[+] EnlargeJeff Tedford
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesCoach Jeff Tedford is Cal's winningest coach of all time, but is he the face of the program?
ESPN.com is looking at the winningest coach for each FBS program today, and the results from the Pac-12 are interesting.

Some teams are trying to regain the past glory of a legendary coach (Arizona State and Frank Kush, Colorado and Bill McCartney, UCLA and Terry Donahue and Washington and Don James).

Some teams all-time wins leader paved the way for present glory (Oregon and Mike Bellotti and USC and John McKay).

Some are just names on a list, Hall of Famers or otherwise, men glaring at us from black and white photos (Pop Warner for Stanford, Lon Stiner for Oregon State, Ike Armstrong at Utah and Babe Hollingbery for Washington State).

And for some teams, well, things are complicated.

For one, Jeff Tedford, who has been hot-seated by many reporters and California fans, is the Bears all-time winningest coach. Then there's Oregon State's Mike Riley, who most feel is sitting on the second-warmest seat in the Pac-12. He needs just three victories to eclipse Stiner as the Beavers winningest coach.

A guy who might identify: Arizona's winningest coach Dick Tomey. Tomey went 12–1 in 1998 but was forced out in 2000.

Hey, look at this patch of grass. It's lovely. Not perfect, though. Is that a clover? Hmm. What about the grass ... over there?

The most interesting names, of course, are Kush, McCartney, Donahue and James. Each is the standard for his program. Even fans too young to have witnessed their tenures know who they are. While these coaches' programs have experienced varying degrees of success both before and after them, no one has been able to duplicate their consistency. And those who have tried over the past couple of decades seem as though they shriveled up under the shadow of the legends who preceded them.

While fans fervently cling to the "It happened before, so it can happen again" position, the truth is comparisons are sometimes unfair. College football is much different than it was before the BCS era, which none of these four experienced.

But that doesn't keep fans from hoping for a second-coming.
We asked which coach you hated most in the Pac-12. You have spoken with much bile. Congrats.

It was sometimes hard to figure out exactly which coach you hated the most in your notes, as many of you listed several coaches. Some of you listed several coaches and provided many details on the sources of your hate.

In total, you named more than 20 different coaches. Even Oregon State's Mike Riley got a vote. So did legendary coach Bill Walsh (Huskies!).

The only sitting Pac-12 coaches to not get a vote? Utah's Kyle Whittingham and Colorado's Jon Embree. Guess you guys don't know them well enough to hate them. Yet.

The race for most hated was far closer than I thought it would be. (And this was hardly scientific because I only used votes that were specific and unambiguous. And I may have skipped over some of the 1,500-word essays).

Your most hated coach? Here's the nip and tuck final tally from the mailbag.

Chip Kelly: 29

Lane Kiffin: 30


Third place went to Rick Neuheisel with 19, though that's misleading because he was mentioned by many of you in some fashion, mostly in the line of, "I used to hate Neuheisel the most but now I hate..."

I was surprised that Washington's Steve Sarkisian got 11 votes, but I guess I shouldn't be because some Cal fans aren't happy with him (Tosh Lupoi, now at Washington after bolting Berkeley, got a bunch of votes but he didn't count because he's an assistant coach).

New Arizona State coach Todd Graham got five votes. New Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez got two. New Washington State coach Mike Leach got three. New UCLA coach Jim Mora got two.

For those who chose to look back, former USC coach Pete Carroll got 10 votes and plenty of mentions. Former Washington coach Tyrone Willingham got two. Former USC coach John McKay and former Washington coach Don James also got a handful of votes.

The most surprising vote -- other than Riley -- was one for former UCLA coach Bob Toledo.

Here are some comments. Obviously, some comments aren't appropriate for a family Pac-12 blog.

Steve from Seattle writes: By far the most hated coach is Chip Kelley. He certainly personifies the Oregon Fans with his snide comments to the media and better than everyone else attitude. Would love to see hard sanction get put on him and his institution!

Jack from Oakton, Va., writes: I cannot stand Chip Kelly. That smug grin he carries around as if he's the smartest guy in the world just makes me want to smack him.

Glenn from Renton, Wash., writes: Most Hated Coaches in the Pac-12: Chip Kelly. He's a smug jerk, but if I was an AD I would hire him in a New York minute.

Doug from Salt Lake City writes: The coach I hate the most is undoubtedly Oregon's Chip Kelly.Yes, he's a fantastic coach among the nation's elite. But he's a total jerk.The last straw for me came last season when, on live TV, he took time out from his postgame interview to scream at his own fans, "shut the hell up!"

Adam from San Francisco writes: Why is this even a question? Lane Kiffin.As for his new recent strides toward "maturity" - if I were a betting man, I'd bet a large portion of my heart, soul, and life savings that we all end up laughing at those statements by the time his tenure at Southern Cal is all said and done

Kent from Davis, Calif., writes: Coaches We Love to Hate: Lane Kiffin. The guy has less credibility and integrity than John Edwards. He's the only person in the world who could have made the late Al Davis look like upright and ethical. How this arrogant, imperious guy keeps getting plum jobs is beyond me but clearly you don't have to produce results on the field but simply keep wearing the "up and coming innovative offensive genius" tag to make it work.

Paul from San Francisco writes: No Pac-12 coach makes my blood boil more than Lane Kiffin. But it's not just his cavalier attitude and inexplicable career climb that drive me over the edge. It's his history against my Ducks. If you include his stint as USC's offensive coordinator from 2005 and 2006, Kiffin is 3-1 against Oregon, including last year's untimely win at Autzen that ended the longest home winning streak in the country. Needless to say, Nov. 3, 2012 has been circled on my calendar ever since

Kevin from San Francisco writes: Pete Carroll. I hate Pete Carroll. Everyone outside of USC hates Pete Carroll. He was classy in interviews, gave the other teams in the Pac 10 respect; in fact called the Pac 10 conference games the toughest part of his schedule. The reason why he is hated is because he was the leader of the most arrogant, abrasive group of fans and players to grace the Pac 10 in the last decade. Everybody is glad we no longer have to listen to Matt Leinart tell us that he doesn't think he's a celebrity, just everyone else in the world does. After every USC game we had to listen to the fans explain that "of course we knew we were going to win, just we thought it be over by the first quarter." And probably the part that irritates me and my Cal brethren the most is that despite a campus culture of a lot of drinking and little studying, students we met from USC always attempted to equate the academics to Cal. They aren't the worst school, but Cal is in another league.

Chris from Othello, Wash., writes: for us Oregon fans (And fans elsewhere in the conference), Rick Newheisel will always be a historical coach to hate. Growing up in the early 90's, I was consistently reminded about how that "New - weasel" in Seattle had consistently and infamously harmed our program throughout his various coaching positions. Even if he tried to turn a leaf while in UCLA, his history was never forgotten in Eugene.

Dee Dee from Portland writes: There is no possible way any coach in the Pac is hated more than Rick Neuheisel. The Weasel is universally abhorred by no fewer than THREE Pac12 fanbases. I don't even think UCLA fans like him that much any longer, and he's an alum. As a matter of fact, opinion on Slick Rick is the ONLY thing that Oregon and Washington fans have in common

Evan from Seattle writes: I must say, Steve Sarkisian is the lowest of low, slimiest of slime. Other than the obvious manner in which he talks, like a fake politician, he has a long list of shameless acts.

Dan from Spokane writes: I hate Steve Sarkisian more than any other Pac-12 coach and it's not just because of his ridiculous adherence to wearing a visor in the rainy northwest. His twitter account is insufferable. "Woof" every time a new recruit commits? Give me a break! He should tweet "whimper" every time the dawgs opponent hangs more than 50 points on them.Go Cougs!

Pete from Missoula, Mont., writes: When Utah first entered the Pac12, I instantly did not like Lane Kiffin. However, when I saw the class of not only him but the USC fans when my beloved Utes played them last year, my hatred shifted a bit. I decided that I need to stick with the hate that I already know. Hating Coach Sark from the Washington Poodles. You see Ted, it is easy to hate something you have hated before. I remember the years of hating Sark as the Team Down South, byWHO quarterback. I will always love to HATE byWHO, even if we do not play them anytime soon after this year. So Ted, this is the reason I hate Sark. It comes very naturally

Tana Vea from Sandy, Utah writes: Most hated coach in the Pac-12. Todd Graham hasn't coached a game yet but I already hate his guts. But I use to hate Chip Kelly, not as much anymore.

Henry from slymar, Calif., writes: Why limit your hating coaches column to head coaches? What about assistant coaches? I hate Tosh Lupoi mainly because he betrayed his alma mater for a boat.

Tim from Austin, Texas writes: Nobody outside of Tucson likes Richy Rod!

Sar from Tacoma, Wash., writes: regarding your request for all-time most hated coach. As a washington fan the answer is easy : 1992 Stanford Cardinal coach Bill Walsh. His well-timed (for him) block to the back of the Huskies football program is what I hold responsible for Don James' departure and a downward spiral to an eventual 0-12 season for the Huskies.

David from Tucson writes: In order to answer which coach I hate the most I have to exclude any and all ASU coaches because, in my humble opinion, that football program is the worst thing to happen to college sports since...ever. So, that being said I'd have to say that I hate Jim Mora the most, and for a purely trivial reason: his smile makes me want to punch babies.

David from Calgary writes: I hate Coach Mike Riley. Only because I was raised a Duck, and he's really like-able. So I hate that I can't hate him.

Pac-12 teams left in the lurch

May, 23, 2012
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Our theme today, as part of our "Love to hate" week at ESPN.com, is "Left in the lurch." This is about coaches who bailed out on a Pac-12 program at an unexpected or awkward time. We're not including Urban Meyer leaving Utah for Florida or Jim Harbaugh leaving Stanford for the San Francisco 49ers because their departures were not unexpected and came only after unprecedented success.

Of course, these situations vary greatly in terms of circumstances and reaction. There aren't many college football jobs out there considered better than one in the Pac-12, so most of the coaches who bailed out on their programs left for the NFL.

But here is a sampling from the Pac-12. Feel free to provide your own thoughts below.

  • [+] EnlargePete Carroll
    AP Photo/Don RyanPete Carroll stunned USC fans when he left after the 2009 season to coach the Seattle Seahawks.
    California got dogged twice. First, after going 10-2 in 1991, Bruce Snyder bailed on the Golden Bears for Arizona State. It's rare for a coach to jump from one conference program to another, and it certainly hurts more. Then, in 1996, Steve Mariucci lasted just one year in Berkeley before jumping aboard with the San Francisco 49ers.
  • Dennis Erickson twice left Pac-12 teams for sunnier pastures (at least in theory). After two years at Washington State, Erickson bolted for Miami after the 1988 season. Then, after a strong run at Oregon State from 1999-2002, Erickson left Corvallis for the San Francisco 49ers. He has repeatedly said that was the worst move of his career.
  • Dick Vermeil lasted two seasons at UCLA. After going 9-2-1 in 1975 and upsetting No. 1 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, he left for the Philadelphia Eagles.
  • Rick Neuheisel shocked many when he left Colorado for Washington before the 1999 season for a million-dollar contract, which was at the time considered exorbitant. He left behind NCAA sanctions for the Buffaloes and immediately got into trouble with the Huskies. It didn't make folks in Boulder feel any better when the Huskies and Neuheisel swept a home-and-home series over the next two years.

But two departures really stand out.

Don James is on the short list of greatest college football coaches of all time. In 18 seasons at Washington, from 1975 to 1992, he won a national title and four Rose Bowls. He went 153-57-2 (.726) and set a then-record of 98 conference victories. From 1990-92, the Huskies won 22 consecutive games.

He is the Dawgfather.

And that's why many Huskies fans will tell you the lowest moment in program history is when he resigned in protest of NCAA and Pac-12 sanctions on Aug. 22, 1993. (James really, really didn't like Washington president William Gerberding and athletic director Barbara Hedges, either).

His resignation just before the season forced Washington to promote defensive coordinator Jim Lambright, a good man and a good defensive coordinator but not an ideal fit as head coach. Other than a Rose Bowl victory after the 2000 season under Rick Neuheisel, things have never been the same in Husky Stadium. Not yet, at least.

A more recent shocker: Pete Carroll bolting USC after the 2009 season for the Seattle Seahawks.

Carroll's hiring in 2001 was widely panned, but all he did thereafter was build a college football dynasty, winning national championships in 2003 and 2004 and falling just short of a third consecutive title in 2005 in a thrilling loss to Texas. He went 97-19 (.836) in nine seasons (11-2 versus rivals Notre Dame and UCLA), won six BCS bowl games and finished ranked in the AP top-four seven times. He won 34 consecutive games from 2003-05 and coached three Heisman Trophy winners and 25 first-team All-Americans.

So, yeah, he accomplished a lot. And many thought he would coach USC for life, though many others also suspected the lure of the NFL would prove too much.

It was the timing of his sudden, stunning departure that frustrated many Trojans fans. While Carroll has repeatedly denied oncoming NCAA sanctions had anything to do with his decision to leave, that's a hard line to buy. He skipped town after a 9-4 season that featured blowout losses to Stanford and Oregon and left behind a team with a two-year bowl ban and deficit of 30 scholarships over three seasons.

Still, not unlike how James is viewed by Huskies fans, Carroll is mostly spared the wrath of Trojans fans because of what he accomplished.

There's no question, however, that both programs were left in the lurch.

Washington didn't step forward in 2011

December, 30, 2011
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The Valero Alamo Bowl was a highly entertaining offensive explosion. If you want to read about offensive bowl records, go here. And Washington's 67-56 loss to Baylor certainly showed that the Huskies could score some points.

Further, Baylor was ranked 12th, was favored by 9.5 points and finished 10-3. So the Bears were supposed to win.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireSteve Sarkisian's outfit lost five of its final seven games -- and gave up 777 yards in the finale.
Still, what does this game mean for the Huskies, for their season, which ends with a 7-6 mark that is identical to a year ago, and for their big-picture status after Year 3 under Steve Sarkisian ended with a thud?

Here's a guess that most Huskies fans feel worse than they did a year ago. For one, it's shameful to surrender 67 points and 777 yards, no matter how good the opposing offense is. It's hard to walk away from a season with those numbers on the ledger, particularly for Huskies fans who recall the glory days under Don James, when defense was the program's cornerstone.

But the bigger issue is losing five of the final seven games in 2001 after a season-ending four-game winning streak in 2010 hinted at the program advancing back into conference and national relevance. That advance seemed confirmed when Washington started this season 5-1 and earned a national ranking. But when the schedule toughened up, the Huskies failed to meet the challenge. That is the ultimate take-away from the season.

Toss in a Insider bad week with in-state recruiting, and it's hard to shake the notion that Sarkisian's reclamation project has hit a slippery spot.

The Huskies have a nice crew returning next year, most notably quarterback Keith Price. But it became clear over the second half of the season that there's still a significant divide between the Huskies and the top third of the conference. While getting better on both lines is near the top of the to-do list, the primary issue is obvious to all observers: The defense. It stinks.

Sarkisian would be justified if he called coordinator Nick Holt into his office and said, "I love you, buddy, but this isn't acceptable. We've got to go in another direction." But it appears that's not going to happen.

So, simply put, Holt will be coaching for his job in 2012. He's one of the nation's highest-paid coordinators. He needs to produce at least a top-50 defense in his fourth year.

There are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Huskies' future under Sarkisian. It's still reasonable to recall the mess he inherited in 2009: A team that couldn't win a single game.

But 7-6 won't be good enough next year. And a defense that is no more stout than a petunia garden is unacceptable.

Erickson couldn't build on fast start

November, 28, 2011
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Dennis EricksonAdam Davis/Icon SMIThe Sun Devils won 10 games in Dennis Erickson's first season in 2007, but no more than six in each of the four years that followed.
The 2011 season was much like Dennis Erickson's tenure at Arizona State: fast start, then mediocrity and disappointment.

Erickson went 10-3 in his first season, but even that was a mirage of sorts, a product of a forgiving schedule. Some forget that the Sun Devils lost three of their final five games by an average of 16.7 points.

The Sun Devils started this season 6-2, posting quality wins over Missouri and USC. They were nationally ranked and 10 wins seemed likely with a forgiving schedule ahead. They seemed certain to win the Pac-12 South Division title.

But then the wheels came off. They lost their last four games, and now Erickson is out of a job.

Erickson's final record at Arizona State, which is 31-30 at present, will be determined after the Sun Devils' bowl game. Erickson, 64, opted to bow out gracefully, coaching the team he put together one last time.

"I will always cherish my memories here," he said in statement.

There was some conjecture that this would become a retirement instead of a termination for Erickson. Reached by phone Monday, Erickson said he has no plans to retire.

"Yeah, I'd like to coach again," he said. "I'm not done coaching. You know that. I'd certainly like to. It's just a matter of opportunity, of course."

Erickson also said there were no hard feelings between him and Arizona State administrators. He said he had "great respect" for athletic director Lisa Love and school president Michael Crow.

"We talked about it and they made the decision," Erickson said. "That's kind of how it is. The last part of the season didn't help us."

Of course, he doesn't walk away empty-handed. Under contract for another year, he will receive half of his $1.5 million annual salary.

What went wrong this year? The easy answer is defense. During the four-game losing streak, the Sun Devils yielded 37 points per game. During the 6-2 start, they gave up 21.5 ppg.

But it has to be more than that. Arizona State started the season riddled with injuries, but it won despite them. The team that started losing was healthier than the team that started fast. Of the final four losses, only California comes close to having the athletic talent the Sun Devils have. Something went wrong in the team's collective head. Something yielded. The chemistry and unity that were cited as hallmarks of the Sun Devils' senior-heavy locker room during the successful early going somehow cracked.

Defensive tackle Bo Moos told the Arizona Republic's Doug Haller this after the Arizona loss. "We have a group of 30 seniors. You should expect it to be there, but something within the chemistry hasn't been right for the past month and I really cannot put my finger on what it is."

While Arizona State will play in its first bowl game since 2007, the Sun Devils need to win to eclipse .500 for the first time since that season. That's not what folks expected when Erickson was hired. Say what you want about his nomadic ways, he was a guy with a proven track record of winning at the college level. While Erickson's NFL coaching career was a wash, he was successful at every college stop. This is the first time he's been fired from a college job.

Erickson won a national title with Miami in 1989, a Fiesta Bowl at Oregon State in 2000 and was 148-65-1 (.695) in 18 seasons before arriving in Tempe. He posted nine-win seasons at five different schools. He is one of only three people (USC's Pete Carroll and Washington's Don James) to win Pac-10 coach of the year three times.

Erickson's legacy is on solid ground no matter what he does next. While he has a roguish reputation with some folks, he's been an open, accessible guy who almost always went for optimism and rarely dumped on his players, even when they probably deserved it.

As for what's next for Arizona State, it's definitely going to be a competitive market to find a new coach, with firings across the country dotting the blotter. It's unlikely the Sun Devils will secure a sexy prospect for what Erickson was making, and the school is notorious for paying assistant coaches poorly. Further, Sun Devils fans will at least want to match the positive buzz generated by hated rival Arizona, which hired Rich Rodriguez to replace Mike Stoops.

The first name everyone is saying: Houston's Kevin Sumlin. Two problems with that: 1. get in line; 2. the Cougars are likely going to a BCS bowl game, which means Sumlin won't be available until after Jan. 1. That could put a strong recruiting haul assembled by Erickson at risk.

The Pac-12 blog will throw out a name that's also been buzzing a lot of places: former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. His pass-happy, spread offense is nearly identical to what the Sun Devils have been running the past two years under offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.

Leach comes with baggage, but Arizona State is a big-city program that must compete with pro sports for attention. So Leach's attention-grabbing ways probably would be more of a positive than a headache.

Whoever gets the job will inherit a solid core of talent, including a promising quarterback in Brock Osweiler. The next coach also might give serious consideration to retaining Mazzone, who's done a fantastic job transforming an anemic offense in two years.

It's been a schizophrenic season in Tempe. Erickson started the year on the hot seat, but with a team that looked like the South Division favorites. Through eight games, they played like it.

Then things went splat.

Talk to 10 people and you'll get 10 different explanations on why things never worked out under Erickson, this season or the three after the promising debut in 2007.

But as far as divorces go, this certainly isn't the worst. Erickson doesn't walk away significantly diminished. And the next Sun Devils coach has a chance to win immediately.

Of course, Arizona State has been called a sleeping giant for years. Will the next guy finally wake Sparky up?

Ducks-Huskies: Nameless, faceless foes?

November, 3, 2011
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We've got bad news. College football rivalries aren't really about the emotional roller coaster, the good guys versus bad guys of a Hollywood movie. Their fundamental essence is far more akin to those self-help books you see stacked high on the deeply discounted table at your corner bookstore.

While Oregon and Washington fans have spent a lot of time this week painting each other as inferior, uglier, stupider and enemies of all that is right and good, the Huskies' and Ducks' locker rooms have been talking about focusing on "things they can control" and about the "importance of preparation" and about "winning the day."

[+] EnlargeChris Polk
Steven Bisig/US PresswireWashington's Chris Polk remains friends with Oregon's LaMichael James despite the teams' rivalry.
Rivalry talk? It's for fans, not players.

"That stuff is so cool when you are on the outside," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. "That's why I love this sport. But from the inside, the rivalry is not going to make us play better. It's our preparation."

On Monday, some Oregon fans probably will make up stories about being spit on in Husky Stadium, just like some Huskies fans probably made up stories about being spit on at Autzen Stadium in the past, as if spitting on people is more accepted as proper behavior in Seattle/Portland than in Portland/Seattle.

And Huskies running back Chris Polk will still be from California and Ducks running back LaMichael James will still be from Texas and they will continue to like each other, because the different colors of their jerseys don't hide the fact they have a lot in common.

"He's a real cool person," Polk said. "It just so happens that he's a Duck and I'm a Huskie. I consider him a friend. I respect him as a player and a person."

Further, the bitter hate of this rivalry among fans apparently can be weened out of a young man if he should ever become a player in the game, either via coaching hypnosis, a magic ray beam set up in the locker room, or an untruth serum provided by a sports information department deeply paranoid about players saying anything inflammatory about the rivalry.

For example, Oregon defensive tackle Taylor Hart, a graduate of Tualatin (Ore.) High School, has this in his official bio: "Notable: Father is a UO graduate. Attended first Oregon game (against USC) when he was eight years old."

When asked about this, Hart acts as if he has little memory of it, other than admitting that, yes, he did root for Oregon growing up.

Asked if this game is special for him, he said: "We've been going into every game as the Ducks Super Bowl and that's worked for us. I feel like that's how we're going into this game."

Asked how his father, Doug, might feel about this game, Hart said: "I don't know how he feels."

Hmm.

This, of course, can be attributed to Ducks coach Chip Kelly's well-known mind-control techniques. While Kelly admits that he frequently hears from Ducks fans about their dislike of the Huskies -- "They bring it up. It's relevant to them," he said -- he also coaches by the mantra of playing a "nameless, faceless opponent" each week, and that each game is the equivalent of a "Super Bowl."

If you wish to mock this approach, please note that Kelly is 29-5 as the Ducks' head coach and is 22-1 in conference play.

"We don't get caught up in the 1923 game," Kelly said. "Or what happened in the '89 game or the '96 game. None of us were here. The only thing we can worry about is what we have an effect on. What we have an effect on is the game we're playing on Saturday."

By the way, the Huskies won 26-7 in 1923, 20-14 in 1989 and 33-14 in 1996. They, however, have lost seven in a row in the rivalry, each defeat by at least 20 points.

This "just another game" talk might feel like raining on a parade, but at least Ducks and Huskies are pretty good at handling rain.

Further, when taken as an observable social trend, this represents an interesting shift in thinking. Recall that some coaches celebrate rivalries and talk specifically about how rivalry games are more important than others. Jim Tressel was immediately embraced by Ohio State fans when he started trash talking Michigan before he'd even coached in the game.

And it wasn't too long ago that then-Huskies coach Rick Neuheisel and then-Ducks coach Mike Bellotti were trading barbs in the newspapers, players were openly taunting each other and Oregon players were wearing T-shirts that said, er, "Huck the Fuskies."

Now, instead, it's fairly clear that Sarkisian and Kelly like each other, at least as well as coaches in the same conference can.

"I think the world of Chip," Sarkisian said. "We've got a very good relationship. I probably communicate with Chip as much as any other coach in our conference in season or out of season."

Finally, the "nameless, faceless opponent" mantra makes sense. Shouldn't a team try to practice and play at its highest level every week? The whole "110 percent" cliche is mathematically impossible, after all, but giving just, say, 80 percent in practice and competition is something any coach or athlete would condemn. And the emotions of "We really hate these guys" can only last a few plays before the football part of football becomes most important: blocking, tackling, executing.

"I don't think you have the time or the energy to get up for one game more than another," Sarkisian said. "The preparation process is really more about us than about Oregon, and our ability to go out and play the best brand of football that we can."

Still, there is something there. Just as Kelly and Sarkisian admit that boosters frequently bring up the rivalry, Polk said he hears about Oregon "just about every day." Being that this is the last game in Husky Stadium before a massive renovation begins, and that former Huskies coach Don James and the 1991 national championship team will be on hand, there's an unmistakable gravitas to the approach of Saturday night.

Oh, and there's that whole Pac-12 North and Rose Bowl thing, too. Both teams have designs on those, the Ducks for a third consecutive time, the Huskies as a sign of program recovery from an extended downturn.

So the cumulative effect will be a game atmosphere that should feel more intense than, say, if either team were squaring off with Missouri State or Eastern Washington.

"There's definitely a sense of urgency," Polk said. "Win or lose, the most important thing is respect. Being that we've not really played our best game the last few times we've played them, and they kind of got in to us, we don't feel like they really respect us. They whole thing this weekend is to go out there and earn respect."

And the notion of earning respect works both as a self-help truism and as an us-vs-them cinematic plot point.

Oregon-Washington: Competitive again?

October, 31, 2011
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Oregon at Washington on Saturday: Is this the year hate becomes tethered to meaning and competitiveness once again?

Perhaps.

I've been pondering this for years. While Huskies and Ducks fans insist that I favor the other, I really only root for the game to be relevant and meaningful. What I want is two ranked teams hating each other. It makes my job -- standing in the middle, fanning the flames -- much more fun.

I, a transplanted Southerner, first learned about the rivalry's intensity in 1999 by being ignorant of it, as I recounted here. Note to future Huskies beat writers: Don't write a laudatory piece about the Oregon coach your first year in Seattle.

I once spent an evening in Eugene wearing a purple mock turtleneck with a big gold "W" on the front and giant foam Husky hat just to see what would happen.

I was there when things seemed most bitter. And I've pondered a potential renaissance with the Huskies hiring of Steve Sarkisian, a guy who clearly can coach.

But the media can only do so much. The problem with the rivalry has been simple: Oregon has been putting a footprint -- webbed -- on the Huskies foreheads for the past seven years.

Huskies, don't get mad. It's a fact: The Ducks have won seven in a row, their longest streak in the series, by at least 20 points. The average margin of victory during the run is 26.4 points.

What can you possibly say to that?

Well, Washington fans do have some arrows in their quiver. Chief among them: When did Oregon last win the Rose Bowl?

Then Ducks fans observe Huskies fans are living in the past, and Huskies fans -- fully knowing they have been doing exactly that, at least since 2000 -- use a variety of rhetorical tricks in order to yield no ground, as every college football fan should.

I miss the glory days, which can be loosely defined as 1994-2003, starting with Kenny Wheaton's game-clinching interception return for a touchdown -- "The Pick," as Ducks fans lovingly call it -- and the Huskies last win in the series, when Oregon safety Keith Lewis trashed talked before the game and got in a fight late in the 42-10 loss.

"Raw animosity," said former Huskies coach Rick Neuheisel of the feelings among the fan bases.

That's why our friends at Addicted to Quack warmed my heart Monday with this: "Happy I Hate Washington Week." Ahhh... they still care enough to talk about their hate.

The fact is the Pac-12 will get more respect nationally and become a better conference in a real, measurable way if Washington-Oregon becomes an annual measuring stick in the Pac-12 North. In other words: A game that conference TV partners salivate over and broadcast in a primetime slot.

Many college football fans -- Pac-12 and otherwise -- hate USC. They hate USC because it's won so much. In the 1980s and '90s, Pac-10 fans started to really, really hate Washington. Why? Washington won a bunch of Rose Bowls and a national title. Over the past few years, Oregon hate has reached a high-water mark. Why? Because the Ducks are looking for a third consecutive conference title and have been stomping foes while wearing loud uniforms.

And there is a rumor that, well, Oregon fans are a bit obnoxious. Not saying that's what I believe. No way. Would never even suggest it. But someone else might. Not me, though. Someone else.

Easy there, Washington fans. There are plenty of whispers about you, too.

This is not to say California or Oregon State rising in the national polls wouldn't be good for the conference. It's just that unadulterated hate moves the needle, and Huskies-Ducks is the Pac-12's only nuclear-powered rivalry.

If Ducks-Huskies on Saturday matched top-10 teams, with say Chip Kelly's ludicrous speed offense against a Huskies defense similar to the Don James years, let's just say that LSU-Alabama would share top billing.

I know the rest of the Pac-12 is going, "No way... screw them." But you're not really thinking that. You know where I'm coming from. You've seen it.

It makes me think of the Col. Nathan R. Jessep's speech in "A Few Good Men."

And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.


Jessep was the villain of the movie. But that speech was absolutely right.

The thought of Oregon and Washington lording over the Pac-12 North might sound grotesque to you, but the truth is deep down in places you don't talk about at tailgates, you want their mutual hate to matter, you need their mutual hate to matter.

Or at least I do.

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