Pac-12 preview: Our assessment of the coaching Hot Seats, Cold Seats and nonexistent seats

Pac-12 preview: Our assessment of the coaching Hot Seats, Cold Seats and nonexistent seats

Scan the contract terms across the Pac-12, and one item leaps off the screen: Every coach will enter the 2023 season with at least five years of security.

Sure, terminations can strike at any point. But a coaching change following this season — or next season, for that matters — would assuredly carry a massive buyout for the coaches at the 10 public schools required to make the contracts available.

That suggests ultra-low levels of heat for each coach. But the Hotline prefers to gauge the seat temperature one or two layers down, where contract details fade and the reality of a win-now profession lurks.

(Please note: Salaries cited below are taken from published reports or school disclosures and are averaged for the duration of the term.)

Arizona’s Jedd Fisch
Contract: signed through 2027 (salary: $3.3 million)
Seat heat: Chilly as a late-November evening in Tucson: jacket and beanie required.
Comment: Fisch is not in any danger of losing his job, even if Arizona fails to reach a bowl game. But we view his third season as vital for the program’s long-haul trajectory into the Big 12. The Wildcats won five games last year. If they don’t add to the tally this fall, momentum will fade. And once it fades for the football coach at a basketball school, it’s difficult to regain.

ASU’s Kenny Dillingham
Contract: signed through 2027 (salary: $4.1 million)
Seat heat: The opposite of 31 consecutive days of at least 110 degrees.
Comment: The rookie coach has been charged with cleaning up the mess left by his predecessor, rebuilding the roster and leading ASU back to a level of prominence — a daunting combination that will require time (even in the era of the transfer portal). Add his status as a Phoenix native and ASU graduate, and Dillingham’s job security is rock solid for at least three years.

Cal’s Justin Wilcox
Contract: signed through 2027 (salary: $4.8 million)
Seat heat: Anywhere else, it would be toasty; in Berkeley, it’s merely room temperature.
Comment: We don’t believe Wilcox’s job is on the line, at least not now, but the Bears have clearly regressed. They were clobbered by COVID and further derailed by some questionable staffing decisions. Meanwhile, the chancellor (Carol Christ) is retiring next year, and the athletic director (Jim Knowlton) has other issues to address, including the athletic department’s future.

Colorado’s Deion Sanders
Contract: signed through 2027 (salary: $5.9 million)
Seat heat: Like objects in the passenger mirror, Sanders’ departure is closer than it appears.
Comment: It sure looks like Sanders is pulling triple duty as head coach, chancellor of the university and mayor of Boulder. But the soaring expectations have shoved his coaching acumen squarely into the spotlight. If the Buffaloes stagger through the season and he looks overmatched on the sideline, Sanders’ seat temperature will cool rapidly. On the other hand, if he wins big in Year One, he could be gone by Christmas.

Oregon’s Dan Lanning
Contract: signed through 2028 (salary: $7.5 million)
Seat heat: Chilly, but beware of global warming
Comment: Lanning won 10 games in his rookie season and just received a significant contract bump — barring a complete meltdown, he’s not getting fired. But given the way 2022 ended, with come-from-ahead losses to Washington and Oregon State, his seat could warm rapidly if Year Two ends short of expectations. Also, Lanning’s stewardship of the program will be judged against what the Ducks need for success in the Big Ten beginning next year.

Oregon State’s Jonathan Smith
Contract: signed through 2028 (salary: $5.1 million)
Seat heat: Same as the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-320 degrees)
Comment: The King of Corvallis could lose every conference game while wearing a stovepipe hat and disco shoes and loaded on LSD … and he would still be in line for another contract extension. In all seriousness, the issue for Oregon State is not Smith’s seat heat but his choice of seat locations. Will he stick around for the post-Pac-12 era? If Smith ever starts job hunting, there will be no shortage of suitors.

Stanford’s Troy Taylor
Contract: terms not disclosed
Seat heat: Like the crowds at Stanford Stadium, the heat on Taylor is nonexistent.
Comment: We aren’t sure anyone would notice if Taylor’s first season far exceeded expectations or plodded along at two-win clip, such is the level of apathy following the sharp downturn under former coach David Shaw. Add the challenges posed by the transfer portal and NIL — the school is not built to deal with either — and Taylor has a massive renovation project ahead regardless of conference affiliation.

UCLA’s Chip Kelly
Contract: signed through 2027 (salary: $6.2 million)
Seat heat: Room temperature in both Westwood and Manila.
Comment: Kelly received a two-year extension and salary bump this spring to provide security through the school’s transition into the Big Ten. But let’s not mistake the contract changes for an ice-cold coaching seat. The Bruins’ success last season (nine wins) was fueled partly by a soft schedule and did little to satisfy a constituency permanently scarred by the difficult initial years of Kelly’s tenure.

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USC’s Lincoln Riley
Contract: terms not disclosed
Seat heat: Cold as deep space … unless Riley flies too close to the Sun.
Comment: Anywhere else in the conference — and 97 percent of the schools across the Power Five — Riley’s job security would be beyond dispute following an 11-win inaugural season. But with a playoff berth in the crosshairs, conference showdowns looming against Ohio State and Michigan and USC being forever USC, Riley is one subpar season from feeling the heat.

Utah’s Kyle Whittingham
Contract: signed through 2027 (salary: $6.8 million)
Seat heat: Not applicable; Whittingham sits on a throne
Comment: The dean of Pac-12 coaches, Lord of the Lake and owner of back-to-back conference titles has lifetime job  security. Whittingham, who turns 64 in November, will coach until he decides enough’s enough. That could come after this season or after another five seasons. We long ago stopped trying to guess along with Whittingham’s love for competition and addiction to the grind.

Washington’s Kalen DeBoer
Contract: signed through 2028 (salary: $4.5 million)
Seat heat: Vladivostok, January, dead-of-night.
Comment: DeBoer received the expected contract bump during his sensational first season (11 wins) — a smart move by UW to keep potential suitors away. He must contend with elevated expectations this year, the Big Ten move in 2024 and a new athletic director at some point. But until there are signs to the contrary, DeBoer is only leaving Montlake when he decides to leave Montlake.

Washington State’s Jake Dickert
Contract: signed through 2027 (salary: $2.7 million)
Seat heat: If there’s no seat, there can be no heat.
Comment: Dickert is listed last here because we moved alphabetically through the conference (by school), but it’s an appropriate spot given the impressively low-level of drama that accompanies his job status. He did first-rate work on an interim basis in 2021 and led the Cougars to a bowl berth last season. WSU is happy with him, and he’s happy with WSU. Nothing to see. Let’s move along.

*** Previous installments in our season preview series:

My AP preseason top-25 ballot
The best game of every week
Projections for the conference race
Postseason picks: CFP and Pac-12 bowl games

*** Send suggestions, comments and tips (confidentiality guaranteed) to pac12hotline@bayareanewsgroup.com or call 408-920-5716

*** Follow me on Twitter: @WilnerHotline

*** 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.