After three consecutive seasons (2006-09) in which the Pac-10 sent six teams each year to the NCAA tournament, the conference has struggled to find its identity. Last year league managed to send only two teams to the dance, its worst showing in 22 years. Coming into this season expectations should be higher, but in reality the Pac-10 is looking at yet another disappointing year. No one factor can be blamed for the league's poor performance, but the lack of talent and an inability to attract top-tier recruits over the past few years has certainly played a large role.
Pac-10 recruiting has suffered in part because of an unusually high number of coaching changes. Since the 2007-08 season no fewer than seven Pac-10 schools have changed coaches. Only Arizona State (Herb Sendek), Washington (Lorenzo Romar), and UCLA (Ben Howland) have held onto their head coach over that span -- and you may have noticed that's no guarantee of success either. In 2007 Bruins assistant Kerry Keating left Westwood for the head coaching position at Santa Clara. He was/still is considered one of the best recruiters in the country, instrumental to landing the likes of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love.
To put this amount of change in perspective, it's helpful to compare the current average coaching tenure in the Pac-10 to the other major conferences.
Change you can't believe in
Average head-coaching tenure
Big East 8.1
Big Ten 7.1
Big 12 5.0
Programs feel the effects of a coaching change immediately after it occurs, of course, but many times the most devastating effects are felt in the one to two years leading up to the change. Typically rumors will dominate the recruiting conversation when a coach is on the way out -- or is perceived to be.
Most coaching changes come as no surprise to the school, fans, or anyone following the program. Whether the change occurs because of under-performance or over-performance, the rumor mill begins early. High school juniors and seniors want to know that the coach who recruited them will actually coach them. Players will run from change or even the potential for change.
This dynamic has really hurt the Pac-10. With the possible exception of USC, where Tim Floyd's resignation came as a shock to many, each program that has made a coaching change recently has felt the harmful effects of prior anticipatory speculation on its recruiting. According to ESPN.com's rankings, in 2009 just two conference schools, Washington and UCLA, landed top-25 recruiting classes. What a drop-off from the year before, when the Pac-10 boasted four top-25 classes, two in the top 10.
Additionally a coaching change often leads to the departure of student- athletes currently on scholarship. By my count 17 players have fled the Pac-10 for other conferences over the past year. Most notably Oregon lost five student-athletes, including the highly touted Michael Dunigan, after hiring Dana Altman to replace Ernie Kent. The Ducks lost the bulk of their top-tier 2008 recruiting class, and consequently will struggle to reach .500 this year.
Of course there's a chicken-and-egg issue here. Maybe there'd be fewer coaching changes if the Pac-10's teams performed better. If the league wants to recruit top talent from across the country, they need to win games, particularly big non-conference games. Schools view non-conference games as recruiting opportunities in regions not covered in league play. Last season's poor performance against non-conference opponents hurt the Pac-10's credibility on the national recruiting front. Just to touch a few sore spots: Arizona lost to San Diego State and required overtime to beat Lipscomb. Arizona State lost to Jacksonville in the first round of the NIT. Oregon lost at Portland and at home to Montana. Oregon State was embarrassed by Seattle University, to go along with losses to Texas A&M Corpus Christi, Sacramento State, and Illinois-Chicago. Stanford lost at San Diego and at home to Oral Roberts. UCLA suffered tough home losses to Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State. USC lost to Loyola Marymount at home.
Winning games you're supposed to win and winning on the road are vitally important to recruiting successfully outside your region. Basically to be relevant to recruits in the state of Texas, Oregon State and Stanford at a minimum need to beat Oral Roberts and Texas A&M-CC. Losses do nothing but make recruits look elsewhere. Granted no conference is going to have a perfect non-conference record, but few "power" conferences will post such poor numbers as the Pac-10 did last year.
After all the coaching changes, the poor recruiting classes, and the weak performance in non-conference games, how does the Pac-10 stack up going forward? I don't think anyone, including myself, expects the Pac-10 to regain its 2008-09 status overnight, but there is a lot to be excited about.
First and foremost it appears that the days of constant coaching changes have come to an end. The Pac-10 now hosts future hall-of-famers Ben Howland and Mike Montgomery, exciting up-and-comers Johnny Dawkins and Craig Robinson, as well as Dana Altman and Sean Miller, successful head coaches looking to make a big impact in a new conference.
A turnaround in recruiting can already be seen by looking at the ESPN.com 2010 and 2011 recruiting class rankings. In 2010, three Pac-10 teams have cracked the top 25: UCLA (15), Stanford (18), and California (24). And looking forward, 2011 also appears to be a good year: Arizona (9), Oregon (18), and Washington (19) all have top 25 classes.
With six teams landing top-25 classes over a two year period, the talent the Pac-10 has lacked should begin to return. No doubt there will be growing pains. Actually there have been growing pains, as evidenced by California's five-point first-half performance against Notre Dame or USC's early-season loss to Rider. But just you wait until 2011-12. The Pac-10 will rise again.
Sam Rayburn was a member of the Cal basketball team from 2004 to 2008.