Pac-12 coaching turnover lingers into title game

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STANFORD, Calif. (AP) -- Stanford's David Shaw grew up a coach's son, so he sympathizes anytime someone in his profession is fired. Lately, there have been a lot of opportunities to express condolences.

The inaugural year for the expanded Pac-12 Conference turned out to be a one-shot deal for a third of the league's football coaches, heating up this week with three more getting fired. The dismissals will even impact the first league championship game Friday night and give the new-look conference a sideline makeover next year.

"The bottom line in this business is there are decision-makers who have to make tough decisions," said Shaw, who earned Pac-12 coach of the year honors this week. "They have to make tough decisions on who they hire and when to let someone go. I think every single one, every time a guy is let go is a tragedy, because I think there are a lot great coaches, in particular in this conference.

"I think this is one of the best coaching conferences there are in America. When a guy loses his job, in the back of my mind I'm thinking, `God, if he got one more year, you never know what he could have done.'"

UCLA's Rick Neuheisel, Arizona State's Dennis Erickson and Washington State's Paul Wulff all lost their jobs this week. Mike Stoops was fired from Arizona on Oct. 10, and the Wildcats already have hired former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez to take over the program.

"It's sad," Oregon's Chip Kelly said. "I think all of the coaches in the Pac-12 know each other. We spend a lot of time on media days. And in our league, we have to take a media tour (to New York), so we spend a lot of time with the guys. It's an unfortunate time."

The coaching carousel is even overshadowing the inaugural championship game.

Two days after a 50-0 loss to neighbor Southern California, the Bruins (6-6, 5-4) blasted Neuheisel out of town - sort of. Neuheisel will lead UCLA against No. 8 Oregon in Eugene on Friday night with a chance to earn a spot in the Rose Bowl.

The Trojans won the South Division but were ineligible to play because of a postseason ban stemming from NCAA sanctions.

Offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will be the interim coach if the Bruins receive a bowl berth, leaving Neuheisel in an odd position for a championship game: A lame duck against the Ducks.

"I hope I'm not a distraction," Neuheisel said. "I hope I'm some sort of help in respect to the planning and how we go about it. We've been knocked down before this year and somehow, some way, we've always responded. I hope we'll respond the same way. I'm going to hope like heck I'm not a distraction."

At the very least, Neuheisel and most of his colleagues getting axed shouldn't have been surprised.

UCLA is 21-28 in four seasons under Neuheisel. Stoops had lost 10 straight to Football Bowl Subdivision schools and Erickson took the fall after going 31-30 in his five years in the desert, although he'll be allowed to coach the Sun Devils in a bowl game.

The Wulff watch at Washington State dragged out for weeks, and even the head coach thought he might have been spared. The Cougars were dogged by injuries as they struggled to a 4-8 record this season, doubling last year's win total.

"We stick together and don't eat our own. I believe the innocence of WSU has been lost," said Wulff, who was 9-40 in four seasons in Pullman - the worst winning percentage of any coach in the program's history.

The turnover should be settled in the conference for now.

Oregon State's Mike Riley, California's Jeff Tedford and Colorado's Jon Embree appear safe for now despite sub-par performances this year from each program. And even though Utah had a shaky start in the Pac-12, Kyle Whittingham is considered one of the country's top coaches and should have time to transition the program to the BCS conference.

All still know how quickly things can change.

"Two years ago, we were playing for the conference championship, and we're not in a very good place today," said Riley, whose Beavers finished the season 3-9. "I know those guys well. I'm thankful for myself and our staff to still be working so that we can get this thing going again."

For most, just keeping up with coaching colleagues getting tossed has been tough enough.

"Dennis got fired, I think the world of him. I think Rick's a great person. That personality that you see on TV is the same personality you see when we're together," Kelly said. "It's just an unfortunate part of the business. I feel for him. I feel for Mike Stoops. I feel for Dennis Erickson."

Then a reporter informed Kelly that Wulff also had been fired.

"He did?" Kelly asked. "That's crazy. Crazy, crazy, crazy."

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AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson in Portland contributed to this story.

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