Is Bellotti better than Don James?

It was last week's blog article by Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News that stunned me into reality. The respected columnist wrote an interesting piece that listed the top ten coaches that the Pac-10 Conference has produced in the past twenty years.

The name leading the list was no surprise — USC's Pete Carroll was #1. The string of dominant teams and Heisman winners he has put together warrants that respect. It was also good to see Cal's Jeff Tedford situated at #4. Considering that he took over a 1-10 team in 2002 and transformed it into a perennial conference contender, he certainly deserves accolades.

I was also pleased to see Washington's current coach Tyrone Willingham appear #6 on the list. Wilner wrote, "Obviously, Willingham isn't on the list because of his first two years in Seattle. But there is no way to argue with what he did at Stanford. Despite facing the highest admission standards in Division I-A, Willingham took the Cardinal to the Rose Bowl. And in his final three years on The Farm — once the roster was filled with his recruits — he was 17-7 in Pac-10 play. Stanford has been to just seven bowl games in the past 28 years, and Willingham is responsible for four of them."

I also agreed whole-heartedly with Wilner's take on former UCLA coach Terry Donahue. He wrote, "In my mind, Donahue underachieved in Westwood from 1987-95. He had all those players within two hours of campus, a terrific academic institution to recruit to and a mediocre crosstown rival. And yet, during that span, Donahue finished first or second only three times — and two of those came when he had Troy Aikman."

However, the part of Wilner's column that left me thunderstruck was seeing Oregon's Mike Bellotti ranked No. 2 — ahead of Washington's Don James, at No. 3. Admittedly, I am biased about Coach James. I just wrote a book about the guy, for crying out loud. And Oregon currently has a football program that is the relative envy of Washington — that's for sure.

But up until now, I have always considered James to be the greatest coach in Pac-10 history - with Carroll closing fast. I also thought that Bellotti's best seasons came from being propped up by offensive mastermind Jeff Tedford — his coordinator during the 2002 Fiesta Bowl onslaught over hapless Colorado. But Wilner really did his homework. His column is convincing and it altered my perception of Bellotti. My appreciation deepened for what Bellotti has accomplished in his twelve year stint in Eugene.

But is Mike Bellotti truly a better coach than Don James? I considered Wilner's sterling assessment of the Oregon coach.

"Since taking over for (Rich) Brooks following the 1994 season," wrote Wilner. "Bellotti has won eight games or more seven times. His program, with its sustained success, awesome facilities, and community support, is the model for the schools not located in recruiting hotbeds of Los Angeles and Seattle. Yes, the Ducks have gotten a ton of help from Nike in the latter part of the 1990s and early 00s, but guess what: Much of that help came as a result of Bellotti's success. Think Phil Knight would have plowed all that money into a team that won five games each year?"

There is no arguing with those facts. But what about Washington's national championship from 1991? Given my undeniable status as a Husky diehard, was the success from that one season clouding my judgment? Wilner also cited that the Washington program was 'out of control' for a few years under James. But certainly Wilner was aware that neither James nor any of his assistants were sanctioned for having done anything against NCAA rules?

I therefore decided to do my own research. I wanted to come face-to-face with the truth myself. What I discovered startled me - and a feeling of disbelief settled in. It seems that Bellotti is not only better than James — he might be one of the greatest coaches of all time.

Let's take a quick look at the numbers:

By God, Jon Wilner had it right. The numbers bear it out. Mike Bellotti is a better and more accomplished coach than Don James. In a world constantly in flux and overturning all notions of common sense, Wilner's column reminds us that things are never as they seem.

Next thing I know, someone is going to tell me that Boise State is favored to beat Washington in Husky Stadium.

Click here to read Wilner's article:
Derek Johnson can be reached at

His website is Top Stories