Ranking the first-year coaches

January, 14, 2013
1/14/13
1:15
PM ET
Here's a guess that everyone will agree that Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Penn State's Bill O'Brien turned in the three best first-year coaching jobs this fall. But how do the other 25 fall, a group that includes four from the Pac-12?

Athlon Sports graded each first year head coach, and the new Pac-12 coaches generally did well.

UCLA's Jim Mora ranked fifth and received an A-. Arizona State's Todd Graham was eighth and received a B+, while Arizona's Rich Rodriguez was just behind at ninth -- darn that Territorial Cup! -- and received a B+ also.

Washington State's Mike Leach lagged behind, ranking 18th, receiving a D. It wasn't a great first year for Leach in Pullman, but the Apple Cup win over Washington provided something positive to build on heading into the offseason.

Here's what was written about each.

Jim Mora, UCLA
What Went Right: Mora wasn’t the first choice for UCLA, but his debut season was very successful. The Bruins improved their win total by three games, claimed another Pac-12 South crown and defeated rival USC 38-28. Overall, not a bad season. UCLA returns most of its core next season, and the Bruins should be the early favorite to win the Pac-12 South for the third consecutive year.

What Went Wrong: The Bruins closed with three consecutive losses, including a disappointing 49-26 loss to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl. Mora’s strong suit is defense, but UCLA finished eighth in the Pac-12 in total and scoring defense. The Bruins are on the right track, but Mora and his staff still have plenty of work to do.
Todd Graham, Arizona State
What Went Right: The Sun Devils were on the doorstep of playing for the Pac-12 Championship. A 45-43 loss to UCLA in late October was the tiebreaker for the South Division title, but Arizona State still finished with eight wins and a huge victory over rival Arizona. The Sun Devils also crushed Navy 62-28 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. One of Graham’s biggest accomplishments was bringing discipline to the roster, as Arizona State finished 10th nationally in fewest penalties per game – a big improvement after ranking last in college football in 2011.

What Went Wrong: Just like many of the coaches in the top 10 of this ranking, it’s hard to criticize Graham for anything at Arizona State in 2012. Statistically, the Sun Devils have room to improve against the run and need to cut down on the sacks allowed next year. Barring any unexpected injuries, Graham has Arizona State positioned to start in the top 25 next season.
Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
What Went Right: Rodriguez was one of the best hires of last offseason and didn’t disappoint in his first year in Tucson. After winning four games in 2011, the Wildcats rebounded to post eight victories, including a New Mexico Bowl win over Nevada. Arizona nearly knocked off Stanford, defeated USC and beat Oklahoma State for a solid non-conference win in Week 2.

What Went Wrong: With the Wildcats having to adjust to Rodriguez’s scheme on offense and the personnel issues on defense, an 8-5 record was Arizona’s best-case scenario. Failing to score in a loss to Oregon was a disappointment, but the only real negative mark this year was a defeat to rival Arizona State.
Mike Leach, Washington State
What Went Right: The season got off to a rough start for Washington State, but it rebounded to win its next two games to start 2-1 before Pac-12 play. The Cougars recorded only one victory within the conference, defeating rival Washington 31-28 in overtime.

What Went Wrong: There’s no doubt Leach was the biggest disappointment of college football’s new coaches for 2012. Washington State was predicted by some to reach a bowl game, and Leach’s high-powered offense never really got on track. The Cougars also had a horrible loss to Colorado and suffered blowout defeats to Arizona State, Utah, Oregon and BYU.

Generally fair assessments. None of the four posted a season without hiccups, but Mora, Graham and Rodriguez produced higher win totals than just about anyone projected. Each program probably feels plenty of optimism for the future, which is the best thing a new coach can produce.

As for Leach, he, more than the others, was burdened with high expectations. Of the four, he was the only one who was expected to produce more wins with his new team than it got in 2012. That didn't happen. The Cougars play took a step backwards this season, one that included plenty of controversies.

While the enthusiasm for Leach is more muted -- realistic? -- now among Cougs, the odds remain strong he'll get things turned around. His track record speaks for itself.

And it's important to remember a good -- or bad -- first year only means so much. Or a second, for that matter.

Recall that Larry Coker nearly won consecutive national titles his first two years at Miami in 2001 and 2002. He was fired after going 7-6 in 2006. Pete Carroll went 6-6 his first year at USC and lost to Utah in the 2000 Las Vegas Bowl. Things went on an uptick after that.

Ted Miller | email

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