- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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It has been a dizzying few years if you’re a head coach in the Pac-12.
Since the start of the 2011 season, 10 of the 12 programs have changed skippers. Some have voluntarily walked out the door for greener turf pastures. Others were gently nudged. Still, others were booted out with Sebastian Janikowski velocity.
Will 2014 bring a moratorium on departing coaches? Surely, everyone is happy with their guy. Right?
“My first reaction I have for that is I’m thankful for my job,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said with a laugh. “Since I came back here I’ve made it clear I’d like this to be my last job and make this the best place that I can make it. That’s where I’m putting my energy.”
Riley has been back with the Beavers since 2003. In the Pac-12 coaching timeline, that lands him somewhere in the Mesozoic Era. He’s not just the Dean. He’s the Dean’s great, great, great grandfather.
The league has had at least one coaching change every year since 2006. There have been 41 head coaches in the Pac-12 since the start of the BCS era (47 if you include the coaching changes at Colorado and Utah prior to joining the league).
Former Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel knows a little something about the revolving door that is coaching. So does former Washington coach Rick Neuheisel and former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel.
“We’re at a juncture in our culture,” said Neuheisel, now a studio analyst with the Pac-12 Network. “It’s not just college football. People want things and they want it now.”
Whether it was the controversial exits of John Mackovic from Arizona or Neuheisel from Washington, the quick hooks for Jon Embree at Colorado and Walt Harris from Stanford or the cement shoes descent of Lane Kiffin at USC, the expectations are the same. Win, or we’ll find someone who will.
Easier said than done. As Neuheisel explains, a coach’s success is often tied to his quarterback. If a coach experiences injuries or instability at that position during his tenure, that might be his only shot.
“You really only get one,” Neuheisel said. “For a guy like Kevin Sumlin to walk into [Texas] A&M and have Johnny Manziel on the shelf, that helps. You create a reputation which allows you to get a new contract even though they lost four times. A new contract gets you some security to build your program.
“Juxtapose that against Sonny Dykes. He was the hottest of the hot. I think he interviewed eight times in one week. Yet because he runs into a program without a returning quarterback, all kinds of defensive problems and injuries, he’s on the hot seat in Year 2. You are at their mercy and [people] expect it all to flourish in Year 1. To expect that is not realistic. It happens, and everyone wants it to happen for them. But it’s not realistic.”
So the name of the game is immediate gratification. And when alumni investing in change aren’t immediately gratified, the grumbling starts sooner than it used to.
“The amount of time given to create a winning program has definitely been accelerated,” Neuheisel said. “People expect things and they expect them now. Especially in the world of the Darwinian survival of the fittest. You have to be in the conversation of championships or the easiest fix and most inexpensive fix is to change coaches.”
It hasn’t been all doom and gloom for Pac-12 coaching alums. Pete Carroll just won a Super Bowl. Jim Harbaugh was in the Super Bowl last year. Chip Kelly had the Eagles in the playoffs in his first season as an NFL coach. Steve Sarkisian jumped from one school to another. Not every relationship ends with a pink slip.
Ironically, the two longest tenured coaches in the league, Riley and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, might have the hottest seats. Though they aren’t scalding … yet.
The Arizona schools are content with their coaches. Cal and Colorado made coaching changes in 2013. Oregon promoted Mark Helfrich. David Shaw insists he isn’t going anywhere. Jim Mora just signed an extension. Chris Petersen just got into the league, and Mike Leach has been extended.
So it’s very possible that everyone who coaches in 2014 will still be around in 2015. Depending on where you sit, that could be a good or a bad thing.
“The investment in football in this league is unbelievable when you look at facilities and coaches and coaching salaries,” Riley said. “I think the conference is changing right out from under us. It’s the best football we’ve ever seen. It’s going to get harder and harder.”