Wednesday, November 01, 2006

STATE OF DENIAL? - A LOOK AT UCLA FOOTBALL

On the one hand, UCLA has a storied football tradition, thanks to a litany of star players ranging from Kenny Washington to Bob Waterfield to Gary Beban, Kenny Easley and Troy Aikman. Their version of the "50 Greatest" list would have a lot more All-Americans and NFL Hall of Famers on it than Cal's. They've been to lots of Rose Bowls, and their powder blue-and-gold jerseys are instantly recognized from coast to coast.

On the other hand, how good has UCLA ever really been in modern history? Certainly a lot better than Cal, and much better than most other Pac 10 teams - but have they ever been a truly dominant program? The answer is yes, but you have to go back fifty years to a time when teams could win national championships running the single wing.

Recently, dead-from-the-neck-up ESPN analyst Bill Curry wrote a piece suggesting that Karl Dorrell could get UCLA back to the glory of the Terry Donahue era. One problem with that - a sizable portion of the UCLA fan base wouldn't be satisfied with a return to the Terry Donahue era, and they're quite open about it. Donahue went 151-74-8 in his 20 years in Westwood - that translates to about 7-4 or 8-3 in an average year. These Bruins are looking for, I don't know, John McKay or Don James-style domination of the conference. That's why last year's 10-2 record didn't matter to Dorrell's critics - I mean, Terry Donahue went 10-2. It's no big deal.

I like their spunk, though. Passion is a good thing, and you shouldn't settle for second-best. Look at UCLA hoops - they hired the right guy, and bingo - a spot in the NC game and the prospect of two decades of domination in front of them. But I'm afraid with respect to the football program, their eyes are a bit bigger than their stomachs. There's at least two problems:

* The UCLA football fan base is largely a mellow bunch, despite the zealots. We've all seen the crowds arriving with three minutes left in the first quarter (traffic, my ass) looking to be entertained for a few hours. They want a winner, of course, and attendance figures will dip a bit if they don't get one. They'll boo a bad performance, but they generally won't use the power of the pocketbook to demand change. This is West LA, not Tuscaloosa.
* UCLA is cheap. Well, so is Cal, but even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while. The blind squirrels at Berkeley tied Tedford down by augmenting his UC-system base to the tune of a $1.5m base plus incentive goodies, making him one of the highest paid coaches in the conference. UCLA is at the bottom of the list; Dorrell make less in base than Mike Riley, if that's any indication. Not that he deserves more, of course.

For these reasons the folks at Bruins Nation face an uphill climb. I could be wrong, but I'm betting that the wheels have to completely come off for AD Dan Guerrero to buy out the three years remaining on Dorrell's contract and pony up for a big-name coach. BN may disagree, but I'd bet a good chunk of change that Dorrell could be saved by winning any one of his last four games and finishing 5-7. If he can pull an upset against Cal or SC, he's almost certainly returning to Westwood, where most experts believe he'll have the talent to go bowling next year. And so the cycle begins again.

For UCLA fans, then, the choice is crystal clear. They should come to the dark (blue) side this Saturday. A Cal victory is the ultimate win-win proposition, bringing each of our programs one step closer to the Promised Land. If UCLA can manage the upset, then no one goes home happy.

Except Karl Dorrell, that is.

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