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The Conference’s 10 Biggest Football Coach of the Year Snubs

How and Why the Voters Got it Wrong

By Ryne Schill, for SportsPac12


As the new year began, and the bowl games were played out, a glaring injustice became apparent. The Conference coaches had made a mistake. Not on the field, but in their voting for the 2019 Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
Clearly, Oregon’s Mario Cristobal deserved the honor more than Utah’s Kyle Whittingham. The Ducks defeated the Utes in a head-to-head showdown to win the Conference title, and finished with a better overall record after winning the Rose Bowl.
But guess what? Those games don’t figure into the voting, though they absolutely should.
The way a team finishes the season, particularly in the championship game and a bowl, matters just as much—if not more—than anything that happens during the regular season. If a team comes out flat in a bowl game and gets their butts handed to them, that’s on the coach. 


10. Mario Cristobal, Oregon (2019)

I guarantee you if the voters of the Coach of the Year award were allowed to re-vote after what they saw in the Alamo Bowl and the Rose Bowl, Cristobal would win by a landslide. Especially since the Ducks weren’t picked to win the Conference, as the Utes were.

That’s not to say that Whittingham didn’t do a terrific job. An 11-3 season is nothing to sneeze at, and by all accounts, a win over Oregon would have sent the Utes to the Playoff. 

Kyle Whittingham at Pac-12 title game. | Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

But therein lies the main problem with this award, which began in 1975. It’s voted on before the most important games of the season are played. There’s also no clear criteria for earning it, and no accountability when coaches choose to turn it into a political statement, or a popularity contest, as they appear to have in 2019.

Instead, voters reward things like the way a team has improved from the season before, and the perceived ‘value’ of those wins. For example, a 10-win season would be valued much more highly at Oregon State, which hasn’t had much historical success, as it would be at USC, where a lore of national titles make 10-plus win seasons feel like the norm. 

Another issue is the tendency of voters to change it up each year, by not awarding the trophy to the same coach in consecutive seasons.

All of which means the Conference’s best coach occasionally gets overlooked. That isn’t right. The Pac-12 Coach of the Year honor should reward the best coaching performance, regardless of the politics, and what happened the year before.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the award should always go to the coach with the best record. A season should be evaluated in its entirety, not just on selected pieces.

With that in mind, here are my choices for the nine other biggest snubs in the history of the Pac-12 Coach of the Year award, with Cristobal coming in at No. 10.

9. Chris Petersen, Washington (2016)

Chris Petersen celebrates 2016 Pac-12 Title. | Theron W. Henderson/Getty Images

Making it to the College Football Playoff wasn’t Enough

Coming off a disappointing 7-6 season, Petersen led the Huskies to a Pac-12 Championship in his third year at Washington, notching wins over rivals Washington State and Oregon, while also snapping a 12-year losing streak against the Ducks.

His 12 regular-season wins earned the Dawgs an invitation to the College Football Playoff, and their only losses were to USC and Alabama.

Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre won the award instead.

Admittedly, MacIntyre’s 10-4 campaign marked a remarkable turnaround for the beleaguered Buffaloes, who had won four, two, and four games over the previous three seasons, respectively.

However, those four 2016 losses came against their four toughest opponents: Michigan, in a non-conference matchup; South contender USC; Washington in the Pac-12 championship game; and Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl.

No question about it: Petersen should have gone home with the award.

8. Bill Walsh, Stanford & Mike Price, WSU (1992)

Bill Walsh on Stanford sidelines in 1992. | Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

A Couple of Great Seasons by Stanford and WSU get Discounted

Stanford’s Bill Walsh and Washington State’s Mike Price should have won the award before Arizona’s Dick Tomey in 1992.

The Cardinal’s Walsh (yes, that Bill Walsh) finished the first season of his second stint at Stanford with 10 wins, a co-Pac-10 Championship, and a victory over Penn State in the Blockbuster Bowl.

Wazzu’s Price posted a five-win improvement over his previous season, finishing 9-2, with a victory over Utah in the Copper Bowl.

Tomey led his team to a 6-5-1 record, capped by a loss to Baylor in the John Hancock Bowl.

Granted, Tomey’s Wildcats posted three impressive wins over No. 11 UCLA, No. 8 Stanford and No. 1 Washington, while also suffering a one-point loss to then-No. 1 powerhouse Miami. So in terms of big games, he had a great year. Unfortunately, Tomey’s team stumbled against lesser teams.

Bottom line, voters couldn’t see past those impressive wins over the Bruins, Cardinal, and Huskies. Tomey snared the award based on a handful of games, rather than the entire season.

7. Clay Helton, USC (2017)

David Shaw Sneaks One Past the Voters

The 2017 USC football team is a good example of one that history has undervalued, due to unfulfilled expectations.

Coming off a thrilling Rose Bowl victory over Penn State, the Trojans boasted the Heisman front-runner to start the season, with Sam Darnold at quarterback.

Losses at Wazzu and Notre Dame derailed USC’s high expectations, but the Trojans still finished 11-3, winning the Pac-12 in Clay Helton’s second year as head coach.

Amazingly, he lost the Coach of the Year award to Stanford’s David Shaw.

This one still confuses me, even though Stanford had two Top-10 wins. Shaw was a repeat winner, something the voters generally avoid. On top of that, he had a worse record (9-5) than Helton, and the Cardinal lost to USC—twice.

Neither team won their bowl game, but just based on having the better record, and the head-to-head victories, Helton should have received the award over Shaw.

6. John Robinson, USC (1979)

John Robinson after 1979 Rose Bowl. | Richard Mackson/SI via Getty Images

Duck Dodges National Champion Loaded with Hall of Famers

The Oregon Ducks of the 1970’s were not the Ducks of the 2000s. They were awful, and it seemed at the time that they would always be a Conference bottom-dweller. 

Enter Rich Brooks. 

In his third year as head coach, Brooks led the Ducks to their first winning season in nearly a decade, posting a 6-5 record. Was this what won him him the Coach of the Year award? And did he really achieve a winning season?

The California Golden Bears don’t recognize Oregon’s win over them that season, due to UO’s alleged use of an “ineligible player” during the game. The Bears claim the contest should have been forfeited, and so it is, in their Media Guide. To this day, many in the Bay Area insist Oregon’s breakthrough winning season didn’t come until the following year.

Even more telling, perhaps, the Ducks didn’t have to play the Trojans that season. The all-but-certain loss would have derailed any hope of a winning campaign.

Nobody can argue that the 1979 Trojans weren’t among the all-time great teams in Conference history. Led by fourth-year head coach John Robinson, the Trojans fielded a plethora of Hall of Famers, including Marcus Allen, Ronnie Lott, Bruce Matthews, Anthony Munoz, and Jeff Fisher. 

USC finished 11-0-1, beating No. 1 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, and won a share of a national title.

Brooks laid the groundwork with that first winning season for what Oregon football would eventually become, and he earned the award outright in 1994. But Robinson should have taken home the Coach of the Year honor in 1979.

5. & 4. Terry Donahue, UCLA (1982 & 1987)

Terry Donahue coached UCLA from 1976-1995. | Bernstein Associates via Getty Images

The Other Westwood Wizard Gets Disrespected Twice

Terry Donahue is most likely the greatest coach in UCLA football history, and yet he only won the Coach of the Year award once. He should have won it at least three times, with the 1982 and 1987 seasons being counted among the best in Bruins history.

In 1982, Donahue led UCLA to a 10-1-1 season, with a Pac-10 championship, and a victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. 

And yet he lost the Coach of the Year award to Cal’s colorful Joe Kapp, whose Bears finished 7-4. While Kapp had a nice season, his resume paled compared to that of Donahue, whose team Kapp lost to head-to-head.

The details were different, but 1987 brought more of the same. UCLA finished 10-2, and might have had a chance to win a national title if not for a loss to an 8-4 USC team in the crosstown Battle for the Victory Bell.

Unfortunately, that loss also gave USC’s Larry Smith the upper hand when it came to the Coach of the Year, despite Donahue finishing with a better record.

While Donahue did win one in 1985, his two best seasons at UCLA ended with the award going to some one else.

3. Mark Helfrich, Oregon (2014)

Mark Helfrich after 2014 Pac-12 title game. | Brian Bahr/Getty Iimages

Robbed by the Rich despite one of the Greatest UO Seasons 

In his second year as head coach, Mark Helfrich led Oregon to what might be the greatest season in program history.

The Ducks suffered an early loss to Arizona, but ultimately rolled to 13 wins, including a Pac-12 Championship rematch victory over Arizona, and a Rose Bowl win over Florida State in the very first College Football Playoff game. 

If that wasn’t enough, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota became the first Duck to win the Heisman Trophy. Only a loss to Ohio State in the national championship game prevented the Ducks from achieving the ultimate storybook season.

And that should have delivered the Coach of the Year award to Helfrich, right? Wrong.

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez won the award after leading the Wildcats to 10-4 record, including a 1-1 mark against Oregon, and a loss to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. A wonderful season, to be sure, but not in the same class as Oregon’s. 

Helfrich got absolutely robbed by Rich Rod.

2. Mike Price, WSU & Pete Carroll, USC (2002)

Mike Price coached at WSU from 1989-2002. | Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

Jeff Tedford Beats Price and Carroll without Beating Either

In 2001, the Cal Bears had one of the worst seasons in the history of their football program, winning just one game. So when Jeff Tedford led the team to a 7-win season in 2002, he deserved plenty of praise. 

His peers recognized him as Coach of the Year, and to many, it seemed justified. But when you put it into context, two other coaches were more deserving. 

USC’s Pete Carroll produced an 11-2 season, a Heisman winner in Carson Palmer, and topped it all off with national title by destroying Iowa in the Orange Bowl. Washington State’s Mike Price produced a 10-3 season, beat USC to split a Pac-10 championship, and went to the Rose Bowl.

In addition to claiming half of a conference championship, both coaches claimed victories over Tedford’s Bears.

One of them should have beaten out Tedford for Pac-10 Coach of the Year, despite his six-win improvement.

1. Every Other Coach in the (then) Pac-10 (1989)

Dave Kragthrope Wins with a Losing Record

The year was 1989, mediocrity had proliferated throughout the Conference, and the stage was set for Dave Kragthrope to pull off a feat that I would put money on never happening again. 

Kragthrope won the Pac-10 Coach of the Year award with a losing record after Oregon State finished 4-7-1, one loss worse than their record the year before.

So how the hell did Kragthrope do it? 

Pity, it turns out, was the answer. The voters gave him the award to recognize how difficult it was to coach the Beavers in the late 1980’s. Basically, decided that four wins at OSU in 1989 was worth 10 wins anywhere else.

And it probably was, at least back then. So to be fair, Kragthrope did a heck of job in Corvallis that year. But giving the award to him still made no sense.

Unless voters saw it as the easiest way out of a tough decision. 

USC finished 9-2-1 (good, but not USC good), while four other teams tied at 8-4. Nobody stood out, and USC’s coach Larry Smith had already won it two of the last three years. 

Voters had to think outside the box, and Kragthrope become the lucky scapegoat. 

Nobody will ever win this award with just four wins again, so that in itself, is a pretty amazing accomplishment. 

Which is why Kragthrope sits at No. 1 on this list. His 1989 Coach of the Year award snubbed the entire Conference, and looked even worse when he won just one game the following season. 

And More Snubs to Come…

So, there you have it. The 10 biggest snubs in the history of the Pac-12 Football Coach of the Year award. From Cristobal in 2019 to the Kragthrope Miracle in 1989. 

Each award tells a different story from the unique perspective of a different season, and each one left somebody feeling like they got the shaft. 

But it wouldn’t be an award without a good argument now and then. And seeing that we’re only in the 45th year, there’s bound to be more snubs to come.

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