Continuity Is Key to Success for Pac-12 Football Programs

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Continuity Is Key to Success for Pac-12 Football Programs
(Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

The teams in the Pac-12 North have won the last four conference titles, placing them clearly ahead of their counterparts in the South.

Any number of factors go into establishing a successful football program: Recruiting, game-day preparation, strength training, cultural attitude.

In the Pac-12 North, continuity is the foundation of the conference’s championship teams.

At 12-2, 12-1 and 9-4, Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State finished last season with the conference's best records. Not coincidentally, all were led by coaches tenured in their respective programs. 

Once again, those three teams are atop the Pac-12. 

They've done it with consistency at the top. Mike Riley is the conference's longest-tenured coach, having been at Oregon State for 11 seasons. Stanford and Oregon have dealt with regime change by staying in-house. 

David Shaw said on Tuesday’s Pac-12 teleconference call that remaining on the course set by Jim Harbaugh is central to Stanford's continued success. 

"It's huge to have as many guys coaching to stay here in order to continue the progression that we started laying in 2007," he said. "It's hard to do that if you weren't here and didn't see how we got to where we were. 

A Stanford alumnus, Shaw was on the ground floor of the program's transformation into a national powerhouse, following Harbaugh from the University of San Diego, and he wasn't the only one. 

Outside linebackers coach Lance Anderson also made the trip north. Anderson fills the vital role of admission liaison in addition to his defensive duties. 

Running backs coach Tavita Pritchard experienced the process on the opposite end, as the starting quarterback on the Harbaugh regime's first team in 2007. 

Under Harbaugh, Stanford went from finishing last in the conference to appearing in three straight BCS bowls. He left behind a fully stocked cupboard, and as his successor, Shaw has kept it so.

"A lot of people could have come in here and had success right off the bat with the team that was here [after Harbaugh left for the NFL's San Francisco 49ers]," Shaw said. "There were a lot of mistakes that could have been made that we didn't make because we knew our guys. We didn't go over the top...we stayed in their comfort zone, so they could be productive."

An era when fanbases and boosters long to keep up with their neighbors has the landscape constantly evolving. Coaches are regularly moving, and programs change their philosophies accordingly.

In the Pac-12 alone, seven coaches are in their first or second season—and that doesn't count USC, which will hire a new leader in the offseason. 

USC attempted to follow the model of continuity when Pete Carroll left for the NFL after the 2009 season, hiring former assistant Lane Kiffin. He had been away from the program for three seasonsa veritable lifetime in football terms and a different change of power than at Stanford or Oregon. 

With the Trojans now in the hunt for a new head coach, five of the Pac-12 South's teams have undergone large-scale change in the last two years. Todd Graham, Mike MacIntyre, Rich Rodriguez and Jim Mora had minimal, if any, ties to their programs before coming into the conference. 

The sixth South team, Utah, has an experienced head coach in Kyle Whittingham—but it has been a Pac-12 member for just three seasons. 

With so much turbulence, it's no wonder the Pac-12 North is the more dominant division. Now the entire conference is chasing what has been intrinsic within the cultures at Stanford and Oregon.

A new coaching staff can produce one successful season. But producing more than one is a much more difficult endeavor, particularly during times of change.  

Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich is one of those seven conference newbies. However, it's his fifth year with the program—and he's a branch from a tree rooted more than two decades in the past.  

“It's a unique thing in college football,” Helfrich said of Oregon's line of succession at the Pac-12's preseason media day.

Oregon's celebrated for a revolutionary style that's modernizing the game, but it can be traced directly back to 1989. 

/Getty Images

That's when longtime Ducks head coach Rich Brooks hired Mike Bellotti as offensive coordinator. Bellotti succeeded Brooks in 1995. Four years later, he hired current defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, and in 2007, added Chip Kelly as offensive coordinator. 

The addition of Kelly proved that continuity doesn't mean resistance to change—on the contrary, Kelly performed a complete face-lift on the program. 

The transition from Bellotti to Kelly preceded Oregon winning three consecutive conference championships. With Helfrich continuing on the same course, Oregon may have its best team yet. 

"Mark and I talked about [transitioning to head coach], and I think he's done it perfectly," Shaw said. "You have to completely take your ego out of it...where so many people from the outside say, 'How are you going to make this your program?' 

"It's not your program: It's the kids' program," he added. "The rest of it is making smart football decisions...and he's done it flawlessly." 

 

Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer for B/R. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.

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