Replacing NFL-bound Pac-12 coaches

Attain postseason glory. Lose your head coach to the NFL. When Stanford had to replace Jim Harbaugh in the wake of its Orange Bowl triumph, it marked a newsworthy but uncommon event in conference history. From Dick Vermeil to Rich Brooks to Pete Carroll, plenty have heeded the Sirens' call of the pros once they found considerable success in what we now call the Pac-12.

David Shaw aims to join a prestigious group of protégés who, upon getting promoted from their assistant posts, became fine head coaches. Terry Donahue and Mike Bellotti have their pictures framed on walls of that club. Not only did they build established programs, they exceeded the success of their NFL-bound predecessors.

The Pac-12 thrives in markets where schools coexist alongside pro franchises. This makes it unique to, some say better than, the other BCS conferences. The proximity also lends itself to upward mobility. Stanford alone has seen four head coaches, more than any other Pac-12 combatant, go from its sidelines directly to the NFL ranks.


Once John Ralston left for the Denver Broncos, Jack Christiansen inherited 13 new starters and the perception that Stanford's run atop the Pac-8 had run its course. "No one here feels our cycle is over," he said defiantly before his 1972 debut.

Yet the popular "Chris" never did duplicate his predecessor's success. Winning 30 games in five years wasn't enough to prevent the former Ralston assistant (and 49er head coach) from being fired. But compared to what a pair of other coaches faced in the future, no one else left The Farm with more goodwill on his side.

The moment when Cardinal players carried Christiansen, fired just days earlier, onto the Memorial Stadium turf in 1976 remains forever part of Big Game lore. Rod Dowhower enjoyed no such moments. Bill Walsh's successor, Dowhower resigned after the 1979 season. He proved unable to staying Walsh's course in collecting victories or charming boosters. This inability to win and influence led some alums to tag him with the unflattering nickname of "The Big Farmer".

Walsh received nothing short of a coronation upon being named Denny Green's replacement in 1992. Celebration following the 10-3 Blockbuster Bowl season gave way to just as much frustration over his second tenure's final two seasons. There existed an overwhelming sense of disorder upon his 1994 resignation. Ty Willingham had a fine mess on his hands to clean up.


David Shaw hopes he's at Stanford to stay, stated at his introductory press conference that he just completed "[his] last head coaching interview." Terry Donahue felt just as at home in his new gig in 1976.

Donahue succeeded Dick Vermeil, whose salary jumped from $35,000 in Westwood to $170,000 with the Eagles. "My dream was to be a head football coach at UCLA," Donahue said at the time. Like Shaw, Donahue cut a low profile during his playing days at his alma mater. The former walk-on defensive lineman served as UCLA assistant under both Pepper Rodgers and Vermeil before being hired at the impossibly young age of 32.

He was an instant success, going 9-1-1 in his first regular season. Only a loss to USC denied the Bruins a second straight Rose Bowl trip. He retired 19 years later – still impossibly youthful, college football's Dick Clark – with 98 career Pac-10 victories. That's still a record. Only Bobby Bowden had a higher postseason winning percentage than Donahue's 70.8% mark (8-3-1 bowl record).


Comedy gold, NFL Films-style: Clips of John McKay patrolling the Tampa Bay Buccaneer sidelines and quipping with sportswriters.

Coaching lesson, Cardinal and Gold-style: John Robinson keeping USC a national powerhouse once McKay left for Tampa.

"Coach McKay left me a good team. Most coaches when they quit usually leave the next guy nothing," was how Robinson explained his early success in 1976.

Robinson served as McKay's offensive coordinator for three years (1972-74) before moving to the NFL ranks, assisting former high school teammate John Madden with the Raiders. A loss to Missouri in his USC head coaching debut led to some unflattering fan mail. ("You goddamn stupid jerk," one note read.)

He recovered in spades, winning his next 15 in a row. He was Pete Carroll before Pete Carroll, capturing multiple Rose Bowls before moving to the NFL as the Trojans dealt with NCAA sanctions. Lane Kiffin hopes he fares better than Robinson's successor. Ted Tollner (0-4 versus Notre Dame, a career winning percentage at USC barely better than Paul Hackett's) remains a four-letter word in Trojanland.


Three men vied for the Ducks' head coaching job in 1995 after Rich Brooks resigned to lead the St. Louis Rams.

Denny Schuler was an Oregon grad and longtime defensive assistant under Brooks. Following Bill Walsh's resignation, former Stanford offensive coordinator Terry Shea threw his hat in the ring. Their main competition was Chico State's former head coach.

Mike Bellotti had earned a sterling reputation as an offensive whiz in his years under Brooks. He resigned in 2009 with 12 bowl berths and a Pac-10 championship. No Pac-10 team won more games between 1995 and the start of Pete Carroll's USC dynastic run in 2003. He hired Chip Kelly, recruited five-start prep athletes and oversaw the Ducks ascension from Cinderella story to West Coast powerhouse.

Oregon State

John Callipari knows the drill. Ditto Lou Holtz.

Failing in the professional ranks doesn't mean you can't rediscover your winning ways back on campus. Oregon State needed a new coach once the 49ers replaced Steve Mariucci with Dennis Erickson. The Beavers then called upon the coach who ditched them five years earlier for the San Diego Chargers.

Mike Riley fell flat in San Diego, but so it goes with Ryan Leaf in charge. He returned to Corvallis, where he had earlier led the Beavers to respectability in 1997 and 1998, and his since reached bowl games in six of eight years. Some Stanford fans remember he was a finalist for the Cardinal's head coaching job in 2002 before it went to Buddy Teevens.

As for Erickson, who took Oregon State to 2001 Fiesta Bowl glory, consider this factoid. He's beaten Stanford as head coach of three different teams (Washington State, Oregon State, Arizona State). Only the late Larry Smith (Tulane, Arizona, USC) can also make that claim.

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