Week 2: Important Lessons Re-learned

It’s always better to hire a coach who’s on the way up, rather than one who’s on the way down.

I hired, fired and worked closely with a lot of coaches during my career in athletic administration. I was on the Stanford search committee that hired Bill Walsh in December of 1976 and cast the deciding vote in his favor (he won by one vote over Paul Hackett).

I made my share of mistakes, for sure, but there were a few things I learned. One was to hire coaches who still had the fire in the belly and had something to prove. The other was to avoid coaches who’d been to the mountaintop, had participated in championship games, been fired a couple of times, and had huge bank accounts.

Exhibit 1: Bill Walsh. Walsh was 45 years old when we hired him and had never been a head coach, other than with the semi-pro San Jose Apaches. He’d been an assistant at Stanford and Cal, then with the Oakland Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers. He came to the Farm with a chip on his shoulder, because he’d been passed over so many times for NFL head coaching jobs. He wanted to prove all those GMs wrong.

He did. Two Stanford bowl victories and three 49ers’ Super Bowl championships later, Bill had established himself as one of the greatest coaches of all time.

Ironically, Bill also proved the second part of my theorem when he returned to Stanford from 1992-1994. After finding success in his first year (with a stellar team inherited from Denny Green), he went 4-7 and 3-7-1 the next two seasons. He'd found his bliss, but after finding Super Bowl glory and broadcasting and video game sponsorship dollars, the fire was gone.

Exhibit 2: Chip Kelly. The former Oregon, Philadelphia Eagles and 49ers coach had coached in the national championship game, the NFL playoffs, and made a ton of money in coaching and broadcasting. Along with several others, I predicted his UCLA hiring would be a disaster.

And it is. Last year Kelly’s Bruins went 3-9. This season, they opened with an embarrassing 24-10 loss to Cincinnati (the same team that was shut out by Ohio State a week later). On Saturday the Bruins lost 23-14 to San Diego State.

That's two straight losses to non-Power Five teams. Kelly's offense, once the talk of the college football world at Oregon, is a shadow of its former self. Fans are deserting the program in droves; Saturday's crowd was one of UCLA’s smallest ever in the Rose Bowl.

Kelly's seat gets hotter by the minute. With Oklahoma up next, followed by Washington State, he’s staring at 0-4.

Exhibit 3: First year Colorado coach Mel Tucker. Tucker’s Buffaloes shocked Nebraska 34-31 in overtime on Saturday. Tucker is a highly-respected journeyman who served as an assistant at Michigan State, Miami, LSU, Ohio State, Alabama, and Georgia—as well as for the Cleveland Browns, Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL.

He has a solid defense and some big-play offensive weapons in quarterback Steven Montez and receivers Laviska Shenault and K.D. Nixon. The Buffs could surprise a lot of teams this year.

Exhibit 4: Justin Wilcox. In his first head coaching gig, the former Boise State, Tennessee, USC, Washington and Wisconsin assistant has turned around a moribund Cal program that featured the nation’s worst defense under Sonny Dykes.

Which brings us to lesson No. 2.

A great defense will keep you in any game, and Wilcox is proving that old adage at Cal.

On Saturday night, the Bears shocked Washington for the second straight season, edging the Huskies 20-19 in Seattle in a game delayed over two and a half hours because of thunder and lightning.

The thunder in the game was provided by the Bears' defense, which completely shackled Washington QB Jacob Eason, the Georgia transfer, who had played so well the week before against Eastern Washington. All-America linebacker Evan Weaver had 18 tackles.

And the Bears continued to run the ball effectively, gaining 192 with Marcel Dancy and Christopher Brown Jr. leading the way.

Cardinal Collapse: While Cal boasts one of the two best defenses in the Pac-12 (along with Utah), Stanford is recovering from a 45-20 pasting by USC.

Stanford was up 17-3 at one point and 20-10 at the half, but the Trojans stiffened and quarterback Kedon Slovis went on a tear. The 18-year old freshman is really good, but he was aided by Stanford's complete lack of a pass rush. The Cardinal held USC to 3 points last year, but gave up 45 and 492 yards this time.

Stanford could have a long season. The Cardinal's remaining schedule is marked by a lot of good quarterbacks. If Stanford doesn't develop a pass rush, it will be picked apart by Oregon's Justin Herbert, Washington's Eason, WSU's Anthony Gordon, Colorado's Montez and Notre Dame's Ian Book.

The running game is average, so quarterback K.J. Costello, expected back next week after missing the USC game with an apparent concussion, is going to have to carry the team.

Mouthful: Stanford offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard has the longest title in college football. He is the Andrew Luck Director of Offense and Kevin M. Hogan Quarterbacks Coach.

Playoff Hopes Fading: Washington's loss to Cal and Oregon's earlier defeat at the hands of Auburn, have significantly narrowed the Pac-12's playoff hopes. It looks like resurgent USC and pre-season favorite Utah are the only teams with a realistic shot at the playoff.

Mark your calendar: The Trojans host the Utes on Friday night, Sept. 20 in the Coliseum in what may be the biggest game of the year in the Pac-12.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com

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