Diverse coaches key Pac-10's rise
With the hiring last year of Larry Scott as commissioner, the Pacific-10 Conference all but announced that the league would abandon the status quo.
To look at his résumé, Scott had no business in the Pac-10. He came from professional tennis. He hired marketing people. He commissioned a video that combines college sports and western Americana so artfully that you feel unpatriotic watching another conference. He brought all of his conference head coaches to New York in July to spread the Pac-10 gospel.
And there was that little realignment thing, the one where Scott nearly left the Big 12 for dead before walking away with, beginning next year, Colorado and Utah.
It turns out that Scott knew a little bit about being commissioner. Yet all that Scott transformed off the football field pales in comparison to how the Pac-10 has transformed on it. Two undefeated teams ranked in the top 10 will play Saturday night, and neither of them is USC. No. 9 Stanford travels to No. 4 Oregon (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).
That's right. Stanford and Oregon.
No. 14 Arizona, also 4-0, is off this week. Together, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona are the hotties who have made USC look like a dowager. USC, winner of seven consecutive Pac-10 championships until last season, is also 4-0. Yet the Trojans are way down at No. 18, stung by the NCAA's lash, a soft schedule and a slow start.
The Pac-10's quartet of unbeaten teams doesn't account for UCLA, which humiliated Texas 34-12 in Austin on Saturday. It doesn't include Oregon State, which has lost competitive games to No. 3 Boise State and No. 5 TCU.
"The depth of the conference has never been greater than what it is right now," said Arizona coach Mike Stoops, in his seventh season in Tucson.
Since the league expanded from eight to 10 teams in 1978, Oregon has been to two Rose Bowls and a Fiesta Bowl as Pac-10 champion. Stanford has been to one Rose Bowl. Arizona, zilch. Talk about abandoning the status quo.
Off the field, the Pac-10 made one hire and reshaped not only itself but triggered the reshaping of intercollegiate athletics. On the field, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona each made one hire and reshaped the way football is played on the West Coast.
If Scott has no business being in the Pac-10, neither do the coaches of the league's three highest-ranked teams.
In 2006, Stanford's Jim Harbaugh coached the San Diego Toreros, a non-scholarship FCS school.
In 2006, Oregon's Chip Kelly began his eighth season as offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, an FCS school, dreaming of the day when he might run a program like Division III Amherst.
And when 2007 ended, Stoops had been head coach at Arizona for four years and still hadn't had a winning season. Stoops had a record of 17-29 (.370). In an era when athletic directors are considered humanitarians for not running off struggling coaches after three years, Arizona stuck with Stoops.
Even now, after consecutive bowl seasons and a 4-0 start, Stoops' career record is 37-39. It's the first time that he has been only two games under .500 since he started 1-3.
Each coach has made his program over in his own unique style. Harbaugh, a second-generation head coach who played for Bo Schembechler at Michigan, has turned the Cardinal into a team that inflicts punishment.
"This is a strong man's conference," Harbaugh said, "and the strongest team will win the conference."
That Harbaugh has built a strong man's team under the restriction of Stanford's academic standards borders on alchemy.
"Harbaugh has sold those guys on the fact that it's OK to want to be the best in football," said former Washington State head coach Jim Walden, now an analyst on the Cougars' radio broadcasts. "You can be an athlete. You don't have to have your physics book in the shower."
Harbaugh took over a 1-11 team and, as of this week, has built it into a top-10 program. Under him, Stanford is 2-1 against USC. Since Kelly has been at Oregon -- two years as offensive coordinator, one-plus seasons as head coach -- the Ducks have the same conference record (21-7) as the Trojans. That includes last season's 47-20 defeat of USC.
Kelly has used speed, quickness and a high tempo to build the Ducks into the best offense in the nation. He has spread the field with quarterbacks Dennis Dixon and Jeremiah Masoli. This season, with sophomore Darron Thomas, Oregon has run some option.
"I'm not tied to any one style of what we do as long as we can be productive," Kelly said. "We have a quarterback who's good at it. If I had a thrower, I'd have no problem throwing it 70 passes. We're an equal-opportunity scoring operation and that's the only thing we're concerned with. How we do it doesn't mean anything to me."
On Tuesday, with a record of 14-3 and a Pac-10 championship, Kelly signed a six-year, $20.5 million contract extension with Oregon.
Stanford runs the ball down your throat, with a play-action passing game that takes advantage of quarterback Andrew Luck. Oregon prefers misdirection.
"When [Kelly] first started doing it, their athletes weren't comparable to USC," Walden said. "Now, not only are you deceiving people, you're doing it with damn near as good an athlete."
Stoops built the Wildcats with defense. They rank in the top five in the nation in scoring defense (11.0 points per game) and total defense (230.75 yards per game). Stoops also proved smart enough to answer the phone when quarterback Nick Foles, a former Arizona State commit and Michigan State transfer, wanted to come to Tucson.
That's three of the top four. Then there is USC, lurking quietly alongside the new powers. Football dynasties always come with an expiration date. The Trojans leapt so far ahead of the league in 2003 that it appeared as if the others might never catch up. But they did. They always do.
"They made everyone better," Stoops said of USC. "They made everyone commit to be all in or you're going to get behind. They raised the bar quite a bit."
They make four teams with 4-0 records. Since the founding of the league in 1959, it has never had that many unbeaten teams ranked that highly in the top 18 of the AP poll -- not as the Pac-8 and not as the Pac-10. Before it becomes the Pac-12, the Pac-10 is making its last season one for the record book.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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