Assistant Coaches Play Huge Role in the Rise of Pac-12 Football

Kyle KensingContributor IDecember 19, 2013

Oct 12, 2013; Tempe, AZ, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils offensive coordinator Mike Norvell watches warm ups before the first quarter against the Colorado Buffaloes at Sun Devil Stadium. The Sun Devils beat the Buffaloes 54-13. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

It takes a village to build a winning football program in Pac-12 country. To that end, head coaches have assembled standout support staffs, and the university athletic departments are working to keep talented assistants in the fold. 

Stanford head coach David Shaw half-jokingly said after the Cardinal's Pac-12 Championship Game win over Arizona State on Dec. 7 that head coaches and quarterbacks get too much credit and too much blame. 

Plenty of credit is given to the conference's head coaches for a season of unprecedented success. But top-level assistants have been integral to the Pac-12's current renaissance. That the Pac-12 is flush with outstanding assistants during the conference's strongest era is no coincidence. 

Take Arizona State, which promoted offensive coordinator Mike Norvell to deputy head coach on Wednesday, with a pay raise that The Arizona Republic reports approaches $700,000. Per 2013 salaries culled at USA Today, Norvell's new contract makes him the conference's second-highest-paid assistant.

Norvell's offense put up 41 points per game, up from a plenty impressive 38.4 points per game in 2012. The Sun Devils' high-tempo, spread offense helped pave the way for a Pac-12 South division title and appearance in the conference's title game.

At just 32 years old and driving one of the nation's most high-octane offenses, Norvell has a bright future ahead of him. According to a report, Norvell interviewed for the vacancy at Arkansas State earlier this week. 

Jonesboro, Ark., is the cradle of coaches lately. Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss), Gus Malzahn (Auburn) and, last week, Bryan Harsin (Boise State) all parlayed single-season success with the Red Wolves into more prominent gigs. 

Add in that Norvell is a branch on the same coaching tree that produced Malzahn, and Arkansas State seemed like the logical next step for the promising coach. 

In staying with Arizona State, Norvell sends a message that he has more to achieve with the Sun Devils after their excellent 2013. Likewise, the university's athletic brass is showing its commitment to the program's long-term success, which university president Michael Crow expressed via

Rewarding the skills of a master teacher like Mike Norvell is a demonstration of that commitment. Coach Norvell’s performance as offensive coordinator has been nationally recognized, and this promotion reflects the remarkable track record he has established in the last two years at ASU.

Norvell's deal isn't exactly in the same ballpark as that of another former assistant of Todd Graham—Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who made $1.3 million in 2013—but it's certainly substantial. 

One benchmark for Arizona State to clear is beating Stanford, which accounted for two of its three losses. The Cardinal's Derek Mason has coordinated a top-30 defense each of the last three seasons at Stanford, and top-10 defenses in 2012 and 2013. Mason's success built buzz that he qualifies as a head coaching candidate in his own right.

Of the formulas for Stanford's continued success in the last half-decade, Shaw has routinely touted the athletic department's commitment to keeping staff compensated—and that goes beyond just salaries, as Stanford provides the staff with the opportunity to live on campus. 

Hefty paychecks and perks don't immediately translate to victories in any facet of football, and that's clearly true for assistants. Among the highest paid entering 2013 were Brent Pease, who was just released as offensive coordinator at Florida and landed at Washington. Manny Diaz was also in the top 20 before his ouster from Texas in the season's first month.

The Pac-12 has its own examples, like former Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt. His $650,000 annual salary was among the conference's highest, up until his release after the Huskies gave up 35.9 points per game in 2011.

Of course, there are more examples of well-compensated assistants thriving. Holt's replacement, Justin Wilcox, was the Pac-12's highest-paid assistant in 2013. He more than proved his value in two seasons coordinating the Huskies defense, transforming it into one of the nation's most aggressive units.  

Nov 9, 2013; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies defensive coach Justine Wilcox during the 2nd half against the Colorado Buffaloes at Husky Stadium. Washington defeated Colorado 59-7. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Like Mason and Norvell, Wilcox is an intriguing candidate for a head coaching position in the not-too-distant future. His immediate future remains in limbo with former colleague Steve Sarkisian now at USC and Chris Petersen, with whom Wilcox coached at Boise State, now at Washington.

The program that lands Wilcox will get an outstanding defensive mind. In a conference known for its offensive prowess such as the Pac-12, elite defense comes at a high premium. 

Losing standout assistants is an inevitability of college football. In an industry as fickle as coaching, it behooves an assistant to pursue other opportunities when they knock. Stanford's seen it happen with former offensive coordinators Greg Roman and Pep Hamilton, both of whom are flourishing at the pro level, as well as with former head coach Jim Harbaugh. 

Sustaining success through turnover separates truly great programs. Still, it doesn't hurt to keep a great staff together as long as possible when building a great program. So long as the Pac-12's winning programs hold theirs together, the league's current prosperity promises to continue.


Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.