Pac-12 football: Coaching hot seat updates and the potential for massive turnover at the top

Washington head coach Jimmy Lake, center, stands with teammates on the sidelines against Montana late in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Seattle. Montana won 13-7.

Washington head coach Jimmy Lake, center, stands with teammates on the sidelines against Montana late in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Seattle. Montana won 13-7. (Elaine Thompson, Associated Press)



Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

Four years ago, the Pac-12's coaching carousel spun at a rate rarely seen in conference history.

Five teams changed head coaches, a vertiginous stretch that began with Gary Andersen quitting on Oregon State in October and ended with Kevin Sumlin taking the Arizona job in January.

This year could make the 2017 cycle look like amateur hour.

It's not difficult to envision five coaching vacancies, and we can get to six or seven without much stretching of the imagination.

Here's our view of the landscape, from the perspective of maximum tumult:

Vacancy No. 1

Team: USC

Coach: Vacant

Seat heat: N/A

What happened: The Trojans fired Clay Helton on Sept. 13, following a blowout home loss to Stanford, because expectations for the program "would not be met without a change in leadership," according to athletic director Mike Bohn.

What's next: A quiet search is ongoing, with USC expected to make a hire in the first half of December. In our view, Cincinnati's Luke Fickell (hired by Bohn at UC) and Baylor's Dave Aranda (from Southern California) are two names to monitor. Others will surface as December approaches, but be careful what you believe — there will be plenty of smoke.

Chance of a vacancy: 100%

Vacancy No. 2

Team: Washington State

Coach: Vacant

Seat heat: N/A

What happened: WSU dismissed Nick Rolovich on Oct. 18 for failing to comply with the state COVID vaccine mandate. Rolovich refused to get vaccinated, and his request for a religious exemption was denied by the university.

What's next: As with USC, the Cougars are quietly getting organized for the end-of-season drive to identify their preferred candidate(s) and negotiate terms. We expect the vetting and interview process to include questions nobody ever expected to ask. (For example: Do you believe Bill Gates was involved in the manufacturing of the vaccine?) Acting coach Jake Dickert will be a strong candidate if the Cougars play well down the stretch.

Chance of a vacancy: 100%

Vacancy No. 3

Team: Washington

Coach: Jimmy Lake (second year)

Seat heat: Scalding

What happened: Lake has suffered a series of self-inflicted hits, disparaging a peer institution (Oregon) and then striking a player on the sideline Saturday. (In response, the university suspended him for Saturday's date with Arizona State.) Add the Huskies' substandard performance on the field, questionable staff hires and a mystifying decision to punt late in the Oregon game, and Lake's future looks bleak.

What's next: The administration must decide whether to bring Lake back for 2022. Although it's rare for a coach to be terminated after one bad year, Lake's massive missteps last week have resulted in a steep erosion of internal support. The Hotline spent much of the season defending Lake and was against a dismissal barring an unforeseen transgression (NCAA violation, breaking the law, etc). We never envisioned it would take the form of Lake striking a player, but that certainly qualifies — and could lay the legal groundwork for a dismissal. He has embarrassed Washington with actions that call into question his ability to recruit, lead the program and properly represent the university.

Chance of a vacancy: 99%

Vacancy No. 4

Team: Arizona State

Coach: Herm Edwards (fourth year)

Seat heat: Hot

What happened: Edwards' future at the helm is in doubt because of an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations during the pandemic. The school already has placed three assistants on paid leave and pulled its chief recruiter off the road. You don't take those steps if the allegations are unfounded.

What's next: The Hotline believes a change in Tempe is likely: Either the 67-year-old Edwards will be forced to resign because of the recruiting violations, or he'll decide enough is enough and retire after four years, one pandemic and several unseemly allegations against his program. The prospect of departing before the NCAA rules on the case could be appealing. If Edwards is long gone when the hammer falls, the damage to his personal reputation — not to mention the sanctions against the school — might not be as severe.

Chance of a vacancy: 75%

Vacancy No. 5

Team: UCLA

Coach: Chip Kelly (fourth year)

Seat heat: Toasty

What happened: Chip Kelly's tenure has reached the tipping point after three-and-a-half disappointing seasons. The Bruins are 13-18 in conference play, have yet to reach the postseason and are facing the distinct possibility of a fully tuned-out fan base in 2022, when they have eight home games (including USC, Utah and Washington) and a chance for significant revenue generation.

What's next: The last three games could be decisive. UCLA is 5-4 overall and 3-3 in conference play. All three are winnable: Colorado and Cal at home and USC on the road. With a sweep, the administration could point to an 8-4 record (and high-end Pac-12 bowl berth) as real progress and justification for Kelly's return in '22. If the Bruins falter, a change might follow. The problem is Kelly's $9 million buyout. It drops to zero, but not until the middle of January.

Chance of a vacancy: 50%

Vacancy No. 6

Team: Cal

Coach: Justin Wilcox (fifth year)

Seat heat: Cool

What happened: The pandemic happened, the City of Berkeley happened and, of course, Cal happened. Wilcox has refrained from speaking his mind publicly, but sources indicate his frustration level has soared in the past week with COVID protocols forcing approximately 30 players and coaches to miss the Arizona game. And there's a good chance the roster depletion will continue this week against USC.

What's next: We wouldn't be surprised if Wilcox decides that he wants to coach for a university that's fully committed to a winning football program. Coaching at Cal is difficult enough when there's no pandemic: The fan passion is low, the admissions bar is high, and the bureaucratic hurdles are ever-present. But add the City of Berkeley's politicized approach to COVID and strict mitigation protocols, and Wilcox must be wondering if high-level football success is possible. His decision could be impacted by the available options. If Washington has an opening and makes an offer, he might bolt. (Also possible: The Huskies pursue Jonathan Smith.)

Chance of a vacancy: 40%

Vacancy No. 7

Team: Utah

Coach: Kyle Whittingham (17th season)

Seat heat: Frigid

What happened: Nothing, and everything. Whittingham is on his way to Utah's third division title in four years. He has endured the death of two players in the past 11 months. He has nothing left to prove and little left to accomplish, save for winning the Pac-12 championship.

What's next: Only Whittingham knows the emotional toll the tragedies have taken on his soon-to-be 62-year-old psyche, but it's clear that he feels a deep bond with this team that won't easily be rekindled in future seasons. A month ago, the Hotline wondered aloud if Whittingham might retire at the end of the season, particularly if he wins the conference championship and leads Utah to the first Rose Bowl in school history. There is nothing tangible to suggest he's even considering retirement. But it can't be completely dismissed until he confirms his return for 2022.

Chance of a vacancy: 10%

Vacancy No. 8

Team: Oregon

Coach: Mario Cristobal (fifth season)

Seat heat: Zero degrees (Kelvin)

What happened: Cristobal keeps winning, and other coaches keep getting fired.

What's next: The Hotline doesn't expect Cristobal to end up at USC, but there's another blue blood opening that might interest him: LSU. If the Ducks don't reach the playoff and the Tigers come calling, could he be tempted? Or might his alma mater, Miami, make a change and make an appeal to his heart?

Chance of vacancy: 1%


Jon Wilner's Pac-12 Hotline is brought to KSL.com through a partnership with the Bay Area News Group.


Jon Wilner has been covering college sports for decades and is an AP Top 25 football and basketball voter as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. He was named Beat Writer of the Year in 2013 by the Football Writers Association of America for his coverage of the Pac-12, won first place for feature writing in 2016 in the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest and is a five-time APSE honoree. You can follow him on Twitter @WilnerHotline or send an email at jwilner@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Pac-12 Hotline: Subscribe to the Pac-12 Hotline Newsletter. Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.

Jon Wilner

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