Can new coaches impact Pac-12?

Originally Published: August 22, 2012
By Ted Miller | ESPN.com

The reason there are four new coaches in the Pac-12 is unhappiness. Four teams were unhappy where they were and thought they should be doing better.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Louis Lopez/CSM (Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesJim Mora is stressing toughness, discipline and accountability at UCLA.

The reason there are four new coaches in the Pac-12 whom everyone has heard of is money. The Pac-12 has more of it since signing a new TV contract, so the days of Paul Wulff getting paid $600,000 at Washington State are over. His replacement, Mike Leach, is going to pocket $2.25 million this fall, 3.75 times what Wulff made in 2011.

Rich Rodriguez will be paid $1,910,000 this fall at Arizona, nearly $500,000 more than the man who preceded him, Mike Stoops. Same thing at Arizona State, where Todd Graham's $2 million tab will eclipse Dennis Erickson's salary by about $500,000. Jim Mora's salary of $1.935 million this season at UCLA will exceed Rick Neuheisel's by nearly $700,000.

Big-time hires. Big-time money. Big-time excitement.

And big-time expectations.

That's now the rub. The offseason excitement, which has been building at Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Washington State, is about to give way to real live games. Real live opportunities for meeting high expectations. Or falling short.

Yes, we have arrived at put up-or-shut up time. Shortly we will have wins and losses to color our perception of these four new coaches. We will be able to compare what their highly paid selves have been able to do compared with their predecessors who were kicked to the curb.

This is where coaches often choose to manage high expectations and imply a need for patience within the administration and fan base.

Or not. Only Rodriguez has spent much time talking about the rebuilding process. Graham calls managing expectations a "complete cop-out."

"We're in some big-time recruiting battles right now," Graham said. "Kids want to go to a big-time program. I'm just being honest. If I sit here and say, 'Well, you know, it's just going to take time.' I don't think they want to hear that. And I really don't think that's the reality of it. It's just not in my mindset to approach things that way. I just believe you can get what you expect. Is it going to be easy? No. Are we going to face a lot of adversity? Yes. Can we win a championship this first year? Yes we can. That's what our mission is going to be."

Of course, that sort of "relentless optimism" -- a Neuheisel term, by the way -- can bite you on your butt. For one, if the Sun Devils, whose 10 returning starters are the fewest in the conference, win the Pac-12 South Division, it would be a major upset to the projected preseason order, starting with the fact it would mean surpassing No. 1 USC.

But, as Leach and the other coaches observed at Pac-12 media day, their expectations are pretty darn high for themselves. In fact, all four of these coaches should be highly motivated to win, and not just because that's what they are paid to do. Leach, Mora and Rodriguez were all fired from their last head coaching jobs. Graham wasn't fired at Pittsburgh, but the nature of his departure after one year made him -- he only texted his goodbye! -- the ultimate media caricature of a mercenary coach who spouted Hallmark card clichés for his players while lacking any ethical compass himself.

Also tying these guys together is the perspective that all four programs were in need of a culture change.

[+] EnlargeLeach
Robert Johnson/Icon SMIMike Leach takes over Washington State, which hasn't been to a bowl game since 2003.

Rodriguez expressed frustration about how poorly conditioned his team was before spring practices. He spoke about players needing to see football as important. Graham takes over a Sun Devils team best known for getting a lot of penalties and a fractured locker room. UCLA has long been viewed as a program that lacked focus and toughness.

"You know what? I don't know what they had or didn't have last season, that's not my concern," Mora said when asked about what changes he's implemented. "My concern is what we have now and going forward. I can tell you we're trying to implement … three main things: our toughness, discipline and accountability."

But no coach made a more severe statement on culture change than Leach, who booted three likely starters from his defensive front, one that was widely viewed as a team weakness even with those players on hand.

"He made it known that, listen, you're here to play football and that's it," quarterback Jeff Tuel said. "If you aren't committed to that, then you can leave and he made an example out of a few guys and opened some people's eyes and said, 'He's not messing around here and we need to do get our stuff together and get with the program.'"

The reality is none of these new coaches inherited a team that seems certain to post a winning record, which makes sense because their predecessors were fired for each posting a losing one last fall. Washington State hasn't been to a bowl game since 2003. Arizona has never been to the Rose Bowl and since going 12-1 in 1998, it has posted just three winning seasons -- all under Stoops. Since going to the Rose Bowl after the 1998 season, UCLA is 82-79 with just one season with more than eight wins.

So some perspective might be in order. As good as these coaches may be, and as many games as they might win in the future, it might be premature to cue the angelic chorus for each as he runs onto the field for the first time next week.

Ted Miller | email

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