BRUIN WEEKYes, yes - I know it's also Trojan week. No intent to disparage our suddenly-dangerous friends in cardinal and gold. It's just that the home game with UCLA gets us fired up like no other contest on the calendar, including Stanford. We'll break down the Bruins starting later today, and also have a look at the most satisfying Cal wins over UCLA in the past 25 years. For now, an historical overview.
For the duration of the Wooden era, the relationship was aspirational - i.e., Cal wanted to be UCLA in hoops. Then the Wizard yielded his empire, and bequeathed it to a series of unworthy successors (Gene Bartow excepted). There was the wholly unqualified Walt Hazzard, the almost wholly unqualified Larry Farmer, the eminently qualified but restless Larry Brown. Cal always lost against the Bruins, but it was fun to watch the Bears scrap and scrape with their more talented foes. Well, it was fun until the losing streak grew to 52 consecutive games.
And then this happened. UCLA fans scoffed that Cal would put so much emphasis on a single game - but this was the most important athletic victory of my time as a Cal fan. In some ways it was inevitable, as Cal emerged from a string of disastrous head coaches and finally hired a guy who would coach a few years before becoming a total disaster. But it hardly felt that way at the time, when Chris Washington, Dave Butler and Kevin Johnson passed, ran, and blocked their way to the 75-67 upset. The streak was dead.
The relationship between the two schools changed that night. Oh, UCLA was still usually better than Cal, but gone were the massive talent imbalances that characterized the previous three decades. Now Cal could hang with the Bruins; take their best shot on most nights. The Bruins have gone 28-15 v Cal since 1985-6, a clear advantage - but Cal has always had a puncher's chance in their matchups.
UCLA hired the despicable Jim Harrick, who was a delight to jeer and harass. He won a national title, but occasionally struggled against Cal, getting swept in 1994. The Bruins' gains were soon frittered away in the person of Steve Lavin - a cardboard character from a bad sitcom impersonating the head coach of the most storied program in the land. His oily duplicity and staggering ineptitude made rooting against UCLA a joy indeed.
Today of course all this history feels like just that - history. There's a new sheriff in Westwood, and he is the perfect antidote to decades of mediocre-to-poor stewardship. He takes no shit from anyone - not from his own players, and not from UCLA's famously hands-on alumni. He'll recruit the best players in the land and then sit their asses on the bench if they don't play his type of defense. He is in charge, and we're playing in his conference.
Makes a Bear nostalgic for the old days.