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In Pac-10, It’s Coaching Chaos

The Pacific 10 Conference introduced its 2003 class of football coaches at Wednesday’s annual media day and, frankly, some of them could have used name tags.

“Hello, I’m Keith.”

“Hello, I’m Karl.”

“Hello, I’m Bill.”

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It’s a good thing the news conference was convened at a hotel near LAX, given new Pac-10 coaches are being flown in by the hour.

For example, Keith Gilbertson was officially named Washington’s new coach Tuesday, replacing the ousted Rick Neuheisel, giving him less than a day to sign his four-year contract, shower and get through airport security en route to Los Angeles.

“This kind of situation is stranger than reality TV,” Gilbertson said.

It used to be in college football you worried about the stability of the players: what they were doing off the field, whether they were going to class, how they would handle the scrutiny that comes with celebrity.

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In the Pac-10 these days, however, it’s the coaches who need bed checks and a compliance officer.

You know it’s wide-out weird when the familiar face Wednesday was Arizona Coach John Mackovic, the least likely coach to keep his job after last year’s fiasco in which 40 some-odd players (and some not so odd) stormed the university president’s office to protest Mackovic’s reportedly brutal coaching tactics.

Somewhere, huddled with his legal team, Rick Neuheisel has to be wondering, “I got fired and he didn’t?”

Next on Jerry Springer: “Dysfunctional Pac-10 coaches and the players they left behind.”

No surprise that this recent outbreak of collegiate chaos is tied to money. Coaches are the real stars in college and salaries have escalated to the point where the whistleblowers are subjected to a different scrutiny.

“I never wanted to be in politics,” Gilbertson said. “But in a lot of ways these jobs become like political appointments.”

There has been so much turnover in the Pac-10 that Mike Bellotti, entering his ninth year at Oregon, leads the conference in seniority.

“I think it’s pretty scary, to tell you the truth,” Bellotti said.

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How the new-look Pac-10 got this way:

* Bill Doba, Washington State. He replaced Mike Price after Price bolted to Alabama and was then fired in a 10-alarm scandal that started in a strip joint and ended with two lawsuits totaling $40 million.

Doba, the Cougars’ low-key former defensive coordinator who turns 63 in the fall, now leads the defending Pac-10 co-champs while Price, down on his luck, is living in Ryan Leaf’s cabin in Coeur d’Alene.

On becoming a head coach, Doba confessed, “it is something I didn’t think would ever happen.”

* Karl Dorrell, UCLA. Never a head coach before, he takes over for Bob Toledo, fired last year after leading the Bruins to the intolerable: a winning season that ended with one of only two Pac-10 bowl victories (USC posted the other bowl win; its coach retained his job).

* Mike Riley, Oregon State. Except for that huge NFL paycheck, Riley regrets leaving what he built at Oregon State in 1999 to coach the Chargers. While he was flailing away in San Diego, Dennis Erickson took the Oregon State players Riley recruited and whipped Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.

“I never really resolved leaving in my mind,” Riley said Wednesday.

Well, shoot, what are the odds Riley would get a chance to return to Corvallis after Erickson left to coach the San Francisco 49ers?

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Welcome back, Mike, for now.

* Gilbertson, Washington. Age 55, he was perfectly happy calling plays and running out his career clock before shockingly being thrust into his dream job under complicated circumstances.

“Do I wish it happened?” he asked. “Hell, no.”

Gilbertson became BMOC after Neuheisel was officially fired Tuesday for gambling on NCAA basketball games.

Gilbertson, the team’s offensive coordinator, inherits a squad that probably would have been picked to win the conference had Neuheisel remained the coach. (In a close tally, the media chose USC to finish first ahead of Arizona State and Washington.)

Gilbertson might seem like a stopgap hire, given he went 20-26 during a four-year stint at California from 1992 to ’95, but he was really the only choice to take this wounded team into the season.

He is also of Washington stock, having been born and raised in Snohomish, outside Seattle. After dealing with an outsider in Neuheisel, roots count.

“Sure I’ve got some mixed feelings about it,” he said of taking over for Neuheisel. “The guy’s a good guy, I liked working with him, he was good to me. I’m torn.”

Gilbertson appears tough enough to handle whatever comes. This is a man, after all, who endured a three-year stint as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Express of the defunct United States Football League.

Gilbertson recalled Wednesday the time Express owner William Oldenburg fired a plate of food at his coach, John Hadl.

“And John threw it right back at him,” Gilbertson said. “I’ve seen a lot of things.”

Gilbertson, in his third stint on the Washington football staff, also knows he’ll never face anything worse than the ordeal of Curtis Williams, the former Husky player who died of complications after a paralyzing football injury.

“There is really nothing that compares with that pain,” Gilbertson said.

“I wasn’t even his position coach and I think about him every day.”

Gilbertson did not seek the Washington job but, in a bizarre bit of fate, it sought him.

“No one could see it coming,” he said of events that led to his hiring.

The only thing left for Gilbertson to do now is the best he can.


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