Pac-12 Coaching Surprises; Conference Championship Games on Tap This Weekend
No one expected Chris Petersen to resign as head coach at Washington on Monday.
Perhaps even fewer—including this writer—anticipated that Clay Helton would be retained at USC.
With the hiring of new Athletic Director Mike Bohn a few months ago, virtually every college football writer, columnist, blogger and broadcaster thought Helton was gone. In fact, earlier this week, Sports Illustrated leaked a story that he’d been fired.
Wrong! In announcing his decision to retain the coach he inherited, Bohn said Helton's "commitment to our student athletes and leading with integrity is vital to restoring our championship program."
New president Carol Folt reportedly also favored keeping Helton, perhaps because firing him would’ve cost her school almost $20 million in severance.
The question is, how much will USC lose in ticket sales and donations if big donors and season ticket holders walk?
I don’t pretend to know Helton, but he’s seemed like an honest, stand-up guy the few times I’ve chatted with him. And he’s a refreshing change from predecessors Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, both of whom frequently behaved like immature frat boys.
However, given the pressure and high expectations that come with coaching at SC, and the fact that his current recruiting class has been damaged by the uncertainty surrounding his status, Helton’s reprieve may be short-lived.
Bruins' Decline: Speaking of LA coaches, the decline of the once proud UCLA program under Chip Kelly has been nothing short of a disaster. As we wrote at the time, it's never a good idea to hire a big name coach who has been to the top of the mountain and reaped huge paydays.
Kelly coached in the national championship game with Oregon, the NFL playoffs with the Eagles, bagged eight-figure contracts with the Eagles and 49ers, and collected even more coin as a broadcaster. His demeanor on the sidelines at the Rose Bowl is often that of a man sitting on a beach.
Kelly’s teams have gone 7-17 in two years, and the Bruins have endured four straight losing seasons, their worst stretch since 1921-24.
My old pal Roger Noll, the famous Stanford sports economist, noted that in those days one of the West’s successful programs was at Cal Tech (which just happens to be his alma mater). The Battling Beavers' home field was the Rose Bowl from 1922 til the 1960s. Before that, they played at Tournament Park, the original home of the Rose Bowl game.
Back then UCLA was known as SBUC, Southern Branch of the University of California. The school name was changed to UCLA in '27, and the program started to win in the mid-1930s.
Cal Tech, meanwhile, had just three winning seasons from 1932 until 1977 (famously losing 35 straight at one point), when the football program was suspended after only 15 students tried out for the team. The next year football became a club sport, free of NCAA regulations, and Caltech has flourished in that environment, occasionally suiting up 45-year old graduate students.
Maybe that's closer to what college football is supposed to be?
Conference Championships: We’ve written about our distaste for conference championships games on many occasions—believing they should be eliminated to facilitate an 8-team playoff—but they are upon us.
For the first time in awhile, tomorrow's Pac-12 Championship Game has playoff implications. If No. 5 Utah beats Oregon convincingly, and No. 2 LSU beats No. 4 Georgia in the SEC game, the Utes have a good shot at landing the No. 4 seed.
On the other hand, if No. 6 Oklahoma routs No. 7 Baylor in the Big 12 Championship, the committee may award the Sooners the final playoff berth.
I’ll be rooting hard for the Utes tomorrow night, and I expect them to beat the Ducks. As written earlier, Kyle Whittingham is one of the best coaches in the country and he deserves his day in the sun. (I also think Oklahoma will beat Baylor in a close, high-scoring affair that won't give them the Sooners enough juice to jump Utah).
I just hope more than 25,000 fans show up tomorrow night at Levi’s Stadium. Many may choose to avoid the commute traffic on a Friday night in Santa Clara.
Best Kept Secret: San Jose State quarterback Josh Love was named Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year. The former walk-on passed for 3,923 yards this season, third best in the country, and also ranked among the top 10 in total offense, completions, and passing yards per game. He led the Spartans to a 5-7 record, their best in the last five years.