Originally Published: July 26, 2018 12:53 p.m.
LOS ANGELES — The Pac-12 went 1-8 in its bowl games last season, leading to a winter of external criticism and internal soul-searching for most of its programs.
The league also extended its national title drought to 14 years, the longest in the Power Five. Athletic directors openly worried about the Pac-12 falling farther behind the other big conferences in revenue and in exposure from its television network.
After all the disappointment for its football programs late last year, this is a league that probably could benefit from a fresh start.
Nearly half of its member schools are getting one with the arrival of new coaching staffs to shake up the West Coast football scene.
The Pac-12’s five new coaches range from the heralded Chip Kelly at UCLA, to the surprising choice of Herm Edwards at Arizona State, to the homecoming of Jonathan Smith at Oregon State. Two of the five are first-time collegiate head coaches, while the other three — including Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin — have ample experience.
“It’s super competitive,” new Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said Wednesday at Pac-12 media day in Hollywood.
“Football is cyclical,” Cristobal added. “Sometimes conferences run into that when you have a good number of coaches that are new in the conference. I look at the level and their pedigree and where they’ve been and what they’ve done, and you’re looking at competitive guys that know how to bring it and want to establish championship programs.”
The new blood could energize struggling programs and alter the league hierarchy — or it could clear the way for Washington, Southern California and Stanford to continue to dominate their less-experienced foes.
While Kelly got the most attention Wednesday in his return to the Pac-12 after a remarkable tenure at Oregon, many coaches and players speculated that Sumlin’s Wildcats could have the quickest opportunity for success among the newcomers.
But most coaches are hoping the moves will raise the overall level of play in the Pac-12, creating a higher standard that could translate into the postseason and the national title race after the league’s disappointing performance last winter.
“I think it’s an impressive group of coaches in their records and track records of winning games, championships (and) developing players,” said Smith, who left Chris Petersen’s staff at Washington to take over his alma mater. “I think we’ve got some great personalities that can sell this conference, because there is a bunch of good coaches right now in this league to make it competitive. I’m just excited to be a part of it.”
Kelly, Sumlin and Edwards are all taking over programs with measures of stability in recent seasons, even if the three schools didn’t pile up enough wins to satisfy boosters.
Smith has a tougher task in restarting the Beavers after the abrupt exit of Gary Andersen last season — and Cristobal is Oregon’s third head coach in three seasons, following the firing of Mark Helfrich and the one-season tenure of Willie Taggart.
“I think all five guys new to the conference are tremendous football coaches,” said Kyle Whittingham, who’s heading into his 14th season at Utah. “I think there are just a bunch of great coaches in this league, and that’s something that will enhance the league. But it still boils down to players. Players are what it’s all about. I’m more interested in what players are on which teams rather than who is coaching them.”
Some of the new coaches are more fortunate than others in those inherited rosters. For instance, Kelly has only eight seniors at UCLA, and he lost star quarterback Josh Rosen to the Arizona Cardinals.
“We didn’t have a lot of guys in spring ball,” Kelly said. “There’s going to be some guys playing for us who just showed up.”
Cristobal and Sumlin are grateful to inherit two of the Pac-12’s eight returning starting quarterbacks. Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Arizona’s Khalil Tate provide a measure of security for their new bosses.
“It didn’t hurt, let’s put it that way,” Sumlin said with a grin when asked how Tate’s presence affected his decision to move to Tucson.
While Kelly’s progress will be fascinating, the league also will be glued to the performance of the 64-year-old Edwards, who ended a nine-year hiatus from coaching to take over for Todd Graham in Tempe.
Edwards already has made plenty of headlines for his headfirst dive into the college game, which has included threats to “cut” players who aren’t meeting his standards of commitment.
When the former Chiefs and Jets coach was asked what he thought about how his style has been received, Edwards drew a blank.
“To be quite honest, you’ll figure this out about me — I don’t know what happens in the outside world,” Edwards said. “I don’t read it. I don’t watch it. I am a football coach. When I’m not a football coach, I’m trying to be the best father I can be. That’s what I concern myself with. I don’t concern myself with the outside elements because the outside elements don’t coach the team.”