The Cranks Recede

<b>Editorial</b>: Our resident crank, <b>Charles Chiccoa</b>, can't remember a time when UCLA fans could respect their basketball and football coaches as much, and his crankiness is in remission. Savor the moment, at least while neither coach has yet to play a game...

When was the last time you felt so much goodwill surrounding Bruin football and basketball?  UCLA now has a relatively young athletic director who, in less than a year, was able to cut loose the deadwood primarily responsible for making the Bruins a regional also-ran, not to mention a national joke.  Certainly events worked to Dan Guerrero's advantage.  One shutters to think what would have happened had Bob Toledo beaten SC and Washington State, or had Steve Lavin, through some sort of divine intervention, made it to the Final Four.  Though sorely tempted, most of us couldn't bring ourselves to root against the Bruins, even though we understood that a few key wins (well, in Lav's case, more than a few) might have saved either of these mopes.  Today, Ben Howland and Karl Dorrell are the cookies we got for enduring that pain.


Howland is the best thing to happen to Bruin basketball since Larry Brown (and he appears far more stable than the jumpy, somewhat bi-polar Brown).  You'd have to be a crank of pathological proportions not to be happy with this hire.  Any competent professional would have been an upgrade from Lav, but this guy is premium, having produced impressive programs in far less fertile ground than Westwood.  


Whenever a school loses a legendary coach, or even a first class coach (this was not Guerrero's problem), it frequently makes the mistake of trying to recreate the past by hiring from within.  George Dickerson, Bill Barnes, Bob Toledo, Larry Farmer, Walt Hazzard, and Lav all had very direct links to the Bruin family, and all were disasters.  Gary Cunningham, though not a disaster, was temperamentally unsuited to be a head coach and thus proved to be a mistake.  Pepper Rodgers and Jim Harrick had indirect family links and were also disasters. 


Dick Vermeil served under Tommy Prothro for only one season in Westwood (then two more with Prothro when Tommy traded up for the Rams).  Personally, I'd rate Vermeil even above Prothro as runner up to the immortal "Red" as best in Bruin football history.  Losing Vermeil to the NFL, after only two seasons, was probably the second worst break in Bruin football history, right behind Red's immortal boner in the Lafayette Hotel.  Terry Donahue, the most fortunate son in Bruin history, and with impeccable family ties,  is also the most over-rated coach in Bruin history.  It's worth noting that the two "wizards," John Wooden and Henry "Red" Sanders, had absolutely no links to the Bruin family when they came west.  To be fair, neither did another mistake, Gene Bartow.


Dorrell is obviously a different proposition from Howland: unproven and largely unknown, but with a huge potential upside.  He's an old Bruin, of course, but with a difference: his outsider influence in the form of Mike Shanahan and the NFL.  Bob Toledo, despite his time at Oregon and Texas A&M, and his bogus rep as an offensive genius with a bag full of dangerous trick plays (which, often as not, blew up in his face), was very much a poor man's Donahue.  Which is to say he was basically conservative, with offensive talents that ran more to self-justification than to on-field schemes.  Terry hired better assistants and paid more attention to them, thus extending his Bruin career to the last limits of endurance.  Toledo crashed and burned due to his own pride, self delusion and, apparently - incredibly! - his complacent laziness.  Both he and Lav might have been out the door even earlier had Pete Dalis been a younger man, not dealing with imminent retirement.


What a  pleasure it is to have two such presentable coaches as Howland and Dorrell.  After suffering Harrick and Toledo - virtually inarticulate if not for their handbook of coaching cliches - and then Lav, with his inane, nightmarish jabbering...what a revelation.  To hear Bruin coaches who not only have something to say, but can say it in their own words.  All I ask of my football or basketball coach is that he have brains and balls.  There are no signs that the new guys lack either. 


We're all aware of the honeymoon effect whenever a new regime replaces an unpopular, played-out old regime.  The French were happy enough to watch Louis XVI lose his head, little suspecting the horrors of  the Robespierre crowd.  Forget Napoleon.  Even Toledo in tight pants would have looked good to the French after the Terror. 


Anyone remember "The Good News Bear?"  That was an article by one Alan Rifkin that appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine in early October '98, and pretty well caught the zeitgeist at the highpoint of Toledo‘s popularity.  Remember Toledo on the cover, smiling pleasantly, holding an armful of footballs?  Rifkin's overheated prose spoke of this "hardy, gregarious, backyard dad of bears;" "a risk taker, master of surprise;" "a sunny guy, gambling on destiny, reaching for the prize;" even "darling replacement."  George Farmer, ex-Chicago Bear and Danny's dad, said Toledo "reminds you a little of George Allen."  The writer then recounts Toledo's big-man-on-big-man drills prior to a 40-27 demolishing of Arizona the previous year.  "I put them on the white stripe,"  said Toledo, "And they tried to knock each other back until I said stop... I did that on Monday, I did it Tuesday, I did it Wednesday, I did it Thursday."  Then he put some white tape down on the locker room floor on Saturday.  "The players ran right over me and took the field," crowed the boss.  There follows some disparagement of his predecessor: a "forehead knotted with low-grade doubt;" a "deer in the headlamps;" "unmanned by luck and loss," and so on...  I ate it up, and so, I would guess, did some of you.


I don't expect this sort of deja vu seven years down the line, but it'll be a while before we know for sure.   After watching a great deal of spring practice it's easy to see how Guerrero could have been so blown away by Dorrell.  The guy is undeniably impressive.  His staff, the organization, focus, attention to detail, and emotional intensity of his practices; his aggressive, ambitious approach; his directness; even his willingnesss to consider that coaching no-no: rotating his quarterbacks.  Though Drew Olson had the more impressive spring in most people's eyes, it wasn't as though he clearly pulled away from Matt Moore.  If neither separates himself from the other, and both improve and play well in the fall, why not try rotating them?  It would at least lessen the chance of one of them transferring.  And alternating quarterbacks did work well for SC with Wacholtz and Otton   


The cupboard is not bare and Dorrell is certainly fortunate to be inheriting this personnel.  But unless the quarterbacks hit the field passing, and passing effectively, those eight-man fronts will still be dogging Ebell, Manny and (probably) Maurice Drew.  Dorrell's more horizontal, "west coast" approach, should lessen the pressure, but either Olson and/or Moore are going to have to present some vertical threat, too, in order to keep aggressive, fearless defenses (can you say Oklahoma) from snuffing them in the shallow zones.  Fortunately they have Bragg, Taylor, Perry, Marcedes, Ryan Smith, and Idris Moss to throw to.  The defensive front looks good and the pass defense looks smarter and more aggressive than anything within recent, or even long-range, memory.  If the rather thin offensive line holds up things could get very sweet.  The offense was moving some on the first-team defense toward the end of spring, and I particularly remember being surprised on one third -and-one in the spring scrimmage when the quarterback completed a subtle little flat pass for an easy first down.  New days, BROs.  Though KD hasn't won a game yet, I think I'll be going to Boulder.


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