Story by Jon Wilner
When we first assessed the Pac-12 coaching landscape, in early November, there were two openings.
Now, there are three.
Soon, there could be four … or five … or maybe more.
The level of tumult does not depend solely on victory and defeat on each particular campus.
External forces will impact the situation: The vacancies elsewhere; the supply of quality candidates for Pac-12 schools; the timing of bowl games and playoff dates for potential interviewees.
Our initial deep dive focused on the Pac-12 jobs we considered most likely to open. This version is more comprehensive. It examines the Hot Seat situation everywhere.
Listed from most likely to least likely to experience a vacancy (and alphabetically with ties).
Coach: Donte Williams (interim)
State of play: Poor, and deteriorating. The Trojans just gave up 62 points to UCLA and must win both remaining games to qualify for a bowl berth. Lose to BYU and Cal, and it would be their worst season in 30 years.
What’s next: Williams has told recruits that he’s getting the permanent job, according to a source immersed in the recruiting world. How he came to that conclusion, we cannot say. But it’s not happening. Yes, the Trojans would love to keep him, but not as the head coach. The search has remained mostly quiet since Clay Helton was fired Sept. 13, but there are two other blue bloods in the market for new leadership (LSU and Florida). One name offered to the Hotline this morning — in a speculative sense — is Dan Quinn, the former Pete Carroll assistant (in Seattle) who took the Falcons to the Super Bowl and is now the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator.
Chance of vacancy: 100%
Coach: Bob Gregory (interim)
State of play: Chaos. Jimmy Lake was dismissed on Nov. 14, which was one week after he was suspended, which was one day after he struck a player, which was … eh, never mind. Gregory will coach the Huskies in the Apple Cup, at which point the season will come to a merciful end.
What’s next: The coaching search is churning forward with the looming but unofficial Dec. 15 deadline (the early-signing period for recruits). Multiple industry sources believe the Huskies are aiming high, with the potential for having to reset their bar if the A-listers back off. Florida’s entrance into the market nudged UW down the pecking order. Name to watch, as we have maintained from the start: Justin Wilcox.
Chance of vacancy: 100%
*** Washington State
Coach: Jake Dickert (interim)
State of play: Remarkably calm. The Cougars are 2-2 since Nick Rolovich was fired Oct. 18 for failing to comply with the state vaccine mandate. They are bowl-eligible, have a chance to claim the North division title and are well positioned to win the Apple Cup for the first time since 2012.
What’s next: The search could end this weekend. As we explained earlier today, an Apple Cup victory might be enough to give Dickert the permanent job. If not, the Cougars could pursue one of the top names in the Mountain West or seek a proven coordinator with ties to the school or state.
Chance of vacancy: 100%
*** Arizona State
Coach: Herm Edwards
State of play: Sloppy. The four-loss Sun Devils have struggled to execute consistently on the field as they await the outcome of the NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting transgressions. They have one victory over a ranked opponent and thus far haven’t come close to making the competitive leap they sought when Edwards took over. In fact, his winning percentage in conference games is worse than that of his predecessor, Todd Graham, over an equivalent span.
What’s next: We continue to believe a change is more likely than not, either because Edwards decides to retire or is forced out. Recruiting is in the gutter because of the threat of sanctions, and a barrage of players could transfer out as soon as the season ends. Essentially, the program is frozen in place waiting for Edwards or the NCAA or both. What a mess.
Chance of vacancy: 75%
Coach: Kyle Whittingham
State of play: Pretty damn good. The Utes are fresh off a wipeout of No. 3 Oregon, perhaps the most impressive victory of their decade in the conference. They have won the South for the third consecutive non-COVID season and will face the North winner in Las Vegas for that long-sought championship.
What’s next: Our projections for a vacancy have increased dramatically in recent days, all thanks to the result Saturday night. Whittingham is now one game from leading the university to its first-ever Rose Bowl. Also, he has endured the deaths of two players; he turned 62 yesterday; he has loads of grandkids in the Salt Lake City area; and he just became the winningest coach in school history. Our opinion: If the Utes win the conference championship, the Rose Bowl will be his final game.
Chance of vacancy: 65%
Coach: Justin Wilcox
State of play: Good, and getting better rapidly. The Bears have won three consecutive games not impacted by COVID, including the right cross administered to Stanford. Beat UCLA (difficult) and USC (not difficult), and they will qualify for a bowl berth after starting 1-5. Aside from Utah, no team has improved more than Cal since early October.
What’s next: Maybe nothing, maybe everything. Wilcox is deeply frustrated with the COVID situation, and we don’t blame him. There have been approximately 800 major college games played this fall. Only two were impacted by COVID: Cal at Arizona, and Cal vs. USC. Yet the Bears are 99% vaccinated. Is the frustration enough to prompt a move if a better job comes calling (hello, Washington)? We suspect it is.
Chance of vacancy: 45%
Coach: Chip Kelly (permanent)
State of play: The Bruins just walloped USC to secure the first winning record of Kelly’s tenure. A victory over Cal would give him eight wins — by any measure, that’s real progress. Is it enough to satisfy a significant chunk of the fan base that is weary of sub-elite performance? Probably not. But it might be enough for the administration.
What’s next: We have downgraded the likelihood of a vacancy in Westwood based on the upturn in UCLA’s win total. To make a change, the Bruins must have someone better in mind and a solution for the Kelly buyout: It drops from $9 million to zero, but not until Jan. 15. One possibility: As a condition for returning, Kelly must fire defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro, whose unit is loaded with talent but has underperformed.
Chance of vacancy: 40%
Coach: Mario Cristobal
State of play: The magnitude of the loss in Salt Lake City cannot be understated — and we’re not talking about the margin of defeat, folks. That was a trajectory-changing, tenure-altering result, one that could very well make Cristobal reconsider his future in Eugene and his options elsewhere.
What’s next: In our estimation, the likelihood of Cristobal leaving has increased substantially, for two reasons: 1) The loss at Utah will undoubtedly make him question the ceiling in Eugene; 2) The options in his home state. Florida just fired Dan Mullen, and Miami, his alma mater, dismissed its athletic director — the presumed first step toward the firing of coach Manny Diaz. Combine those developments with the shellacking in Salt Lake City, and Cristobal could cast an eye homeward.
Chance of vacancy: 35%
*** Oregon State
Coach: Jonathan Smith
State of play: If you’re an OSU fan, things are just dandy. The Beavers are bowl-eligible for the first time since 2013, they have an ideal coach for their resources and recruiting pool, they just might win the North this weekend, and they get to watch other schools endure coaching chaos.
What’s next: We have downgraded (from slim to almost none) the possibility of Smith jumping to Washington, and USC never felt like the right fit. With UCLA seemingly less likely to open — Smith is from Pasadena — the Beavers have inched closer to getting through the hiring cycle without losing the perfect coach.
Chance of vacancy: 10%
Coach: David Shaw
State of play: As bad as it has been since the Walt Harris era in the mid-2000s. The Cardinal has lost six in a row since the Oregon upset and is headed for seven straight with Notre Dame coming to town. The issues are myriad but start with talent — or lack thereof.
What’s next: To be clear: Stanford isn’t firing Shaw for the second losing season of his tenure. Not happening. Could he leave for the NFL, if a franchise came calling? Eventually, but probably not anytime soon. Also, it’s tough to imagine Shaw leaving his alma mater after a losing season. It’s reasonable to think he would rather depart after success, with the program in solid shape.
Chance of vacancy: 0.1%
Coach: Jedd Fisch
State of play: Finishing his first season in Tucson, which has been forgettable in virtually every regard save that his team hasn’t quit on Fisch or his staff and has shown improvement in several areas.
What’s next: Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. We’re fairly certain that Fisch can elevate the program to respectability (five or six wins per season) but not yet convinced he can raise the bar to the eight- or nine-win level. And that’s no shot at Fisch. He has been on the job for 10 months, has a massive rebuild ahead, and Arizona is a tough, tough gig.
Chance of vacancy: 0%
Coach: Karl Dorrell
State of play: An impressive first season (2020) under impossible circumstances has given way to the reality of the CU coaching job for the better part of the past 20 years. The Buffaloes, who have struggled on offense to a much greater degree than expected, were eliminated from a bowl berth two weeks ago and have one winning season during their Pac-12 existence.
What’s next: There will be no change at the top. After three head coaches in 18 months, the Buffaloes picked Dorrell partly because of the stability he offered. We expect some staff changes, especially on offense. But Dorrell isn’t going anywhere. In fact, that would be the worst move CU could make.
Chance of vacancy: 0%
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