Petersen bombshell shakes the ranking of PAC-12 Coaches

Chris Petersen to Washington is another shock wave along the PAC-12 fault line, but it doesn’t mean Oregon football is going to fall into the ocean.

A tough conference just got tougher as the Dawgs have added a coach who is smart, organized and a proven winner.

Thing one and thing two: these two coaches turned the PAC-12 house upside down with surprise visits this week. The last time they met head-to-head, Sark beat Pete, but on a different scoreboard, Chris Petersen is winning by one million dollars (Dean Rutz, Seattle Times photo).


Petersen, a former UO receivers coach many fans and boosters coveted when Mike Bellotti left and then again when Chip Kelly left, was 92-12 in 8 years at Boise State. He had two undefeated seasons, four Top Ten finishes, and Fiesta Bowls win over Oklahoma and TCU. He was 2-0 against the Ducks, both beatdowns, physical dominations, embarrassing upsets. Overall he was 8-2 versus the PAC-12 as the head man of the Broncos, including bowl wins over Washington and Arizona State.

He knows how to win and how to coach. Word is that former defensive coordinator Josh Wilcox could replace him at Boise, and BSU DC Pete Kwiatkowski will be joining Petersen’s new staff in Seattle. 

Over the years Petersen has rejected overtures from UCLA and USC, and many thought he would never leave The Gem State. He was one of Pat Haden’s top choices for the Trojan job before they settled on Steve Sarkisian. The Huskies are going to pay him 3.6 million dollars a year, making him the 11th highest-paid coach in the country, a full million more than they were paying Sark for his annual 7-6 records. Expectations will be commensurately high.

Given the startling week in PAC-12 football, with Sarkisian going to SC, Petersen replacing him, and Todd Graham and David Shaw squaring off in the conference championship game, it’s evident that the PAC-12 has become a cradle of coaches, so much so that collectively, their lifetime winning percentage is a gaudy .619. Everybody out here wants to win, and stands ready to compete hard for supremacy, not just on the West Coast, but in a steadily rising national perception. A conference that has always been a dogfight with a self-cannibalizing 9-game conference schedule becomes even more daunting.

How would you rank the PAC-12 coaches? It’s worthwhile mental exercise, part of knowing your enemy and assessing your strengths, two of the key principles in the art of war.

Coaching means more in college football than any other sport at any level. Great college coaches shape a program and define it, infuse it with their personality. It’s part of why Nick Saban makes $5.5 million a year. Statues are erected and streets are named after the great names of college football, and the genius to lead men and create advantages is rare and makes legends: Bo. Woody. Dad Gum. The Man in the Houndstooth Hat. There’s a handful of guys in NCAA history who, as Bum Phillips once said about Don Shula, “He can take his’n and beat your’n and he can take your’n and beat his’n.”

But one thing to remember is, the ability of the head coach, while extremely important, is just one factor in the success of a program. Helfrich is going to continue to grow in the job. Kelly wasn’t a finished product in his first year as a head coach either. The 2009 team went 10-3 with four narrow escapes and a letdown game, one win that hinged on a dribbler Nate Costa plucked off the turf to make a tying extra point in a game the Ducks won in double overtime.

The Ducks have tremendous athletic ability and talent, a great overall staff, great facilities, and a winning tradition. All of that puts them in a better overall position than several of the coaching geniuses around the conference.

I respect Coach Petersen. I don’t know how any Duck fan couldn’t. But he may be less of a savior than he appeared to be in the WAC/Mountain West. He’ll do a solid job at Washington, but there is no reason to panic about Mark Helfrich’s ability or potential as a head coach. He’s a smart guy with a good football mind, a solid work ethic and excellent organizational and people skills. He’s proven himself to be a solid recruiter, a key part of the job that Kelly didn’t particularly embrace. His first two hires, Matt Lubick and Ron Aiken were quality selections, although only Lubick has paid dramatic dividends as yet (he transformed the receiver corps this season, refined Josh Huff’s game so dramatically that The Huff is finishing off one of the top wide receiver seasons in school history.) Aiken has an impeccable resume but so far hasn’t made the impact on the defense we saw from Jerry Azzinaro. Not sure about the cohesion on the defensive staff this year. They need an improved comprehensive plan.

10-2 suggests MH has the potential to be a very capable head coach. This team sent two first round draft picks to the NFL (Long, Jordan), replaced a 1700-yard rusher and 225 tackles at linebacker. De’Anthony Thomas missed four games, and Marcus Mariota played hurt all through November. Mariota’s injury in particular crippled this team. It limited what they could do. It shook their confidence and destroyed their rhythm. Chip Kelly might have coaxed a perfect season out of this group, but Mora, Petersen, or RichRod? I think they’d have gone 10-2 also.

Off the top of my head, I’d rank them:

  1. David Shaw
  2. Jim Mora
  3. Chris Petersen
  4. Todd Graham
  5. Rich Rodriguez
  6. Mark Helfrich
  7. Mike Riley
  8. Kyle Whittingham
  9. Mike Leach
  10. Steve Sarkisian
  11. Mike McIntyre
  12. Sonny Dykes

All of them, however, can scheme and coach. The bottom two have as much football knowledge as any of them, but they are limited by talent and facilities.

Given his relative inexperience, Helfrich is probably no better than 5th on anyone’s list, even though his short-sample winning percentage (.833) ranks third. But a healthy Marcus Mariota could make any coach on it look awfully smart in a given year.