Part 1: Ranking The Top Football Coaches In The Pac-12


The head coach is the patriarch of every college football program across America and has taken on more widespread responsibilities over the course of the last decade as not only the boss of a team, but an ambassador of the brand. In some cases these leaders of men combine a cocktail that is one part political figure/organizer mixed with one part player boss/instructor.

With the Pac-12 network inaugural season now in the books, each of the Athletic Departments across the league were infused with a new and lucrative annual revenue stream that, in turn, increased expectations among boosters and fan bases to win now or else.

As former Arizona State head coach Dennis Erickson learned the hard way immediately following the 2011 regular season, new expectations and demands have now introduced a shorter era of coaching tenure across the league with only a fourth of the coaches having more than five years of tenure at their current place of employment.

Rating these twelve coaches is no easy task, especially with the addition this off-season of three new coaches that have never coached at a school in a major conference. But when put in the position of, for instance, a head coach searching committee the following rankings factored in the selection process: in-conference success, coaching staff composition, roster talent versus overall results, recruiting results, not to mention results in big games. This week we discuss the cream of the crop, the top half of the group, and where ASU head coach Todd Graham fits in among his peers.

1.Brian Shaw (12-2 in 2012, 23-4 at Stanford)

The two-time reigned Pac-12 Coach of the Year has nearly done it all in his two seasons with the exception of an appearance in the BCS National Championship game. And he’s done it sticking to a system that works since the resurgence of Cardinal football under the helm of his former boss Jim Harbaugh by dominating the line of scrimmage, stopping the run and establishing a physical downhill running game. He has recruited well, won nearly every big game with the officiating debacle at South Bend in 2012 and the overtime thriller in the Fiesta Bowl in his first season being the only exceptions.

Shaw kept a good thing going in 2012 without solid production from the quarterback position for the first half of the season until Kevin Hogan was anointed the starter. But he once again has his work cut out for him losing highly regarded offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton to the Indianapolis Colts, as well as workhorse running back Stepfan Taylor and standout pass rusher Chase Thomas.

The bar has been set for a fourth straight trip to a BCS bowl and with a solid offensive line, playmaking quarterback, and impact defense, Shaw should be looking at an easy eight wins. It is a question of whether they develop a playmaker at the wide receiver position to offset the loss of Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo at the tight end position that could determine whether or not they make it back to elite status in the conference.

2.Jim L. Mora (9-5 in 2012, 9-5 at UCLA)

Some questioned whether or not Mora had the chops to serve as the leader of a major college football program after spending all of his coaching career, spanning back to 1984, in the NFL. But Mora was smart enough to surround himself with a great staff of experienced coordinators and big-time recruiters that received commitments from some of the best prospects in the West as the team raced to the finish line, culminating with an appearance in the Pac-12 championship game in December.

Mora has fantastic playmakers on both sides of the ball in 2013 with senior Anthony Barr, one of the best pass rushers in the country and a redshirt sophomore Brett Hundley at quarterback who just totaled over 4,000 all-purpose yards and 38 touchdowns.

But you might expect this kind of success for a coach who not only was the son of former NFL coach Jim Mora, but who coached under some of the better known offensive gurus the game has ever seen, Don Coryell, Dan Henning, Steve Mariucci, not to mention Dennis Erickson.

His coaching chops will be tested this year with higher expectations after the 2012 success and tough road games against Nebraska, Stanford and Oregon and two tough games at the end of the schedule against the Devils at the Rose Bowl and Southern Cal at the Coliseum.

In order to succeed in these and avenge the deflating bowl game loss to Baylor, he’ll have to replace one of the more productive dual-threat running backs for the Bruins in recent memory in Johnathan Franklin who really fit into Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone’s offense in its first year. Not to mention Hundley’s main red zone target tight end Joseph Fauria, his best defensive lineman in future NFLer Datone Jones, and wide receiver Shaq Evans.

3.Mike Riley (9-4 in 2012, 81-67 at Oregon State)

Let’s begin with the obvious: Riley’s success in 2012 was one of the biggest stories in the Pac-12, coming at a time when some were beginning to question whether or not he was on the hot seat. With his nine-win season, Riley instantly made the Beavers A.D. look very good as he is now the lowest paid head coach in the conference with a base salary just under $1.5 million. That’s right, the lowest paid coach in the conference is also the current leader in wins with 81.

Riley could have ranked higher on the list had he handled his quarterback situation late in the season a bit better, costing his team a win or two in the process. But you can’t argue another coach doing more with less than Riley, landing the Beavers in a bowl game for the first time since 2009.

He’ll have to replace key conference stand-outs on both sides of the ball in playmaking wide receiver Markus Wheaton and shut down corner Jordan Poyer.

4.Todd Graham (8-5 in 2012, 8-5 at Arizona State)

Todd Graham led the Sun Devils to their first winning season since Erickson’s inaugural season of 2007. He promised a stout defense, an offense centered on explosive plays, and accountability among his players that would lower penalties on the field, and keep the fan base proud off the activities team-wide off it.

The defense didn’t disappoint as the Devils always seemed to find themselves in opponents’ backfields as they accumulated over 117 tackles for loss, best in the nation. Add to that a pass rush that racked up 52 sacks on the season—second best in the nation to Brian Shaw’s Stanford club.

While the four-game losing streak in the middle of the season was disappointing, Graham, unlike his predecessor in 2011, was able to circle the wagons, beat Arizona and win their bowl game to finish the season with three straight wins for the first time since Jimmy Carter was in office.

Along the way he allowed his young offensive coordinator, Mike Norvell, to tab Taylor Kelly his starting quarterback, guiding a fast-paced entertaining offense racking up over 3,500 total yards of offense. Not to mention a run game that was the Devils’ most productive since its 1996 Rose Bowl season.

But what really won over Sun Devil fan base was the new accountability of the staff and its players. ASU finished the in the top-ten in the country in terms of fewest penalties per game and fewest penalty yards per game, after ranking dead last in both categories the year before. Graham stated clear and obtainable goals for the public to absorb and get behind, and achieved most of them, outside of winning the league of course.

The bar has now been raised and Graham has identified what his staff and players need to improve upon if they are to take the next step as a team and he is to move up on this list as a coach: improved run defense, increased production at the wide receiver position, not to mention finding an effective place kicker. Improving on their record against Top 25 teams wouldn’t hurt either as the Devils faced three of them and failed to win in each of these games.

5.Rich Rodriguez (8-5 in 2012, 8-5 at Arizona)

RichRod was hired to rebuild a program that had completely run off the tracks in the final days of the Mike Stoops era. Not always a coach known for flexibility in applying his scheme, which caused problems during his days as Michigan head coach, he identified his playmakers and built a skeleton of a team around impact players like running back Ka’Deem Carey, who lead the nation in rushing; and Matt Scott, who lead the Wildcats to program-building wins over USC in the regular season and New Mexico in the bowl game. In the end, the offense was absolutely scintillating, scoring at least 50 points in four games.

Rodriquez was unable, however, to sustain a defense that could at least play at an acceptable level throughout most of the season after undergoing a scheme change that started in the spring. But the fact he was able to cover up this defense with the offense to get the school to its first bowl game since 2008 says it all.

If Rodriguez can get enough out of his defense to merely play around middle of the crowd, his offense has a chance to be among the nation’s best, each and every year he coaches this team.

6.Steve Sarkisian (7-6 in 2012, 26-25 at Washington)

Washington took some of the money it was receiving in 2011 thanks to the Pac-12 Network and began renovating its facilities, while signing Sarkisian to an extension that would make him the highest paid coach in the conference. First thought of as a prodigy during his time under Pete Carroll and USC, he accepted the Washington job knowing he would be tasked with rebuilding a once-proud football program, Sarkisian, now 39, stands at the crossroads of success.

He was able to replace starters at two of the three offensive skill positions without really missing a beat, but it was his quarterback, Keith Price, who plagued the team with inconsistency, and really held back the Huskies in 2012. This is notable because Sarkisian had always been a coach with the Midas touch at the position going back to his days as an assistant with the Trojans.

This seems to be the year it either all comes together for the Huskies, with Price entering his 3rd year as the starting quarterback, a running back in Bishop Sankey who can shoulder the load, and impact players in the passing game in both Williams and Seferian-Jenkins, not to mention a rebuilt defense.

Next week we’ll bring you the other end of this list.  Who do you think the top coaches are in the conference? Let us know on Twitter and your question could make it on the next ASU Devils Den Podcast.