The Pac-12 Hotline’s Jon Wilner takes a look around at some key story lines and developments in the Conference of Champions, including the departures of UW’s Chris Petersen and WSU’s Mike Leach.
1. Weighing the departures.
Together in the Pacific Northwest for six years, gone their separate ways in six weeks.
And like that, Chris Petersen and Mike Leach — two of the most successful and longest-tenured coaches in the conference — are finished in Seattle and Pullman, respectively.
Petersen: Swallowed by the grind and in need of recharging.
Leach: Headed to the SEC for a new challenge.
Here’s our question of the week: Which departure is a bigger blow to the conference?
We won’t know with any degree of certainty for several years — it all depends, of course, on the success attained by their replacements (Jimmy Lake and TBD).
And to be clear: We’re not debating whether Leach is a better coach than Petersen or vice versa.
To different degrees and via different methods, both have been tremendously successful over the past 15 years.
But the Hotline believes — to the extent that we can make an educated guess — that Leach’s departure is a bigger blow to the Pac-12 collective than Petersen’s exit.
It’s a bigger blow not because of each program’s ceiling, but because of the floor.
It’s a bigger blow not because of the likely victories, but because of the potential losses.
The Pac-12 needs playoff contenders — of that, there is no doubt. But a stout middle is also important.
Washington is far more likely to compete for the CFP than the Cougars, but Washington State is infinitely more likely than the Huskies to slip into oblivion.
Losing seasons in the Pac-10/12 era (i.e., 1978-present)
Washington State: 25
The Huskies have more resources, a larger recruiting base and richer tradition.
The Cougars, while not without pockets of high-level success over the decades (Rose Bowls in ’97 and ’02), possess a far smaller margin for error.
The Pac-12 has missed the playoff three years in a row and four of the past five. Its strength at this moment in time — it’s calling card on the Power Five stage — is unsurpassed competitive balance.
Without that expansive middle, of which WSU has been an essential piece for five years, there would be little left on the resume.
Leach’s successor will have far more difficulty maintaining the Cougars’ recent standard than Lake will keeping the Huskies on their current perch as one of the top programs west of Norman, OK.
Put another way:
Because the likelihood of the Cougars slipping substantially without Leach is greater than the likelihood of Washington attaining a higher tier without Petersen, we view the former’s exit as a greater loss.
2. Money matters.
Leach signed a four-year deal with Mississippi State worth $5 million annually.
That’s $1 million per year more than his WSU salary, based on the terms of the extension he signed in December.
And the incentives in Starkville (per the Clarion-Ledger)? Oh, my:
— $100,000 for being National Coach of the Year
— $250,000 for winning the SEC championship
— $1 million for winning the national title
But the number that caught our eye: $4.7 million, the reported salary pool for Leach’s assistants/coordinators.
That’s 35 percent more than Washington State’s staff pool in 2019, according to USA Today’s salary database.
Combine the compensation for Leach and his staff, and the Bulldogs will plow a tick less than $10 million annually into salaries for the coaches.
That’s comparable to the top-end allocation in the Pac-12 — Washington devoted $10.5 million to Petersen and his staff last year — and Mississippi State is, at best, the No. 11 or 12 football program in the SEC.
But the Bulldogs have the revenue to make it work, thanks partly to $44 million (approx.) in media rights payouts from the SEC.
The Pac-12 distributes about $31 million to its schools.
We don’t view Leach’s move as a full-force slap in the Pac-12’s face — not with the competitive allure for Leach, who has coached in the Big 12 and Pac-12 but not the SEC.
Had he jumped from Washington or Oregon to Starkville, that would have been an absolute right cross to the jaw.
But his departure, and the financial underpinnings of the new gig, help illuminate the resource disparity.
3. Speaking of staff salaries …
It’s a vital piece to the broader canvass for any given program.
The topic is addressed on the Hotline, but not often enough.
For readers unfamiliar, here is the staff compensation in 2019 (coordinators and assistants) for each of the conference’s 10 public schools.
The information is courtesy of USAT, which updates the fabulous database annually.
Washington: $5.9 million
Oregon: $5.0 million
UCLA: $4.2 million
Utah: $4.1 million
Cal: $4.1 million
Arizona State: $4.0 million
Washington State: $3.5 million
Colorado: $3.2 million
Oregon State: $3.1 million
Arizona: $3.0 million
The Huskies, although tops in the Pac-12, are only 10th nationally.
The Ducks, second in the conference, are 18th nationally.
Perhaps most telling of all:
Kansas — Kansas! — had a larger salary pool for assistant coaches than four Pac-12 programs.
4. Two down, one to go.
Cal moved first, with Bill Musgrave.
Then Washington jumped, with John Donovan.
Now, only Oregon remains from the group of three North programs that began 2020 with offensive coordinator vacancies.
We like Cal’s hire, because Musgrave’s background fits the style of offense (multiple, with tight ends) best suited for the Bears’ personnel and recruiting pool.
But Donovan, whose college stops include Maryland, Vanderbilt and Penn State, is a bit of a mystery, to be honest.
We know he’s not Kellen Moore or Mark Helfrich — two of the rumored names — and that’s about it, except:
He spent the past four years as an offensive assistant with the Jaguars.
Both the Bears and the Huskies turned to the NFL for their coordinators, which makes sense from sophistication, teaching and recruiting standpoints.
And it got us thinking about the background of the current playcallers across the conference.
Only three have extensive NFL coaching experience.
Here’s the list:
Arizona’s Noel Mazzone: Three years in the NFL
Arizona State’s Zak Hill: No NFL experience
Cal’s Bill Musgrave: 19 years in the NFL
Colorado’s Jay Johnson: No NFL experience
Oregon State’s Brian Lindgren: No NFL experience
Stanford’s Tavita Pritchard: No NFL experience
UCLA: No OC (Chip Kelly calls the plays)
USC’s Graham Harrell: No NFL experience
Utah’s Andy Ludwig: No NFL experience
Washington’s John Donovan: Four years in the NFL
Washington State: TBA
(All but Pritchard have coached at more than one school, and Harrell and Musgrave played in the NFL.)
Our guess: A few years from now, there will be more than three playcallers with the NFL experience on their coaching resume.
5. Draft dodgers.
Not all the top draft-eligible sophomores and juniors are turning pro.
Stanford, which has half its roster in the transfer portal (or so it seems), received a major boost Friday when Paulson Adebo announced he would return for 2020.
If he’s not the best cornerback in the Pac-12, Adebo is in the top two or three.
He’s two-time, first-team all-conference selection and future high-round draft pick, and he improves Stanford’s early-entry hit rate to 66.7 percent:
All-American tackle Walker Little is also returning, while tight end Colby Parkinson is turning pro.
And Stanford is hardly the only beneficiary of NFL draft rejection across the conference.
Oregon State edge rusher Hamilcar Rashed is coming back.
So are Washington cornerback Elijah Molden and defensive end Levi Onwuzurike.
And Oregon tailback C.J. Verdell.
And Colorado recover K.D. Nixon.
At this point, in fact, the exodus is moderate.
If that status holds through the deadline (late next week), the Pac-12 will have come out ahead in the early-entry game.