In the first couple of season, once I got to see how Neuheisel functioned in these roles, I thought that if he could put together a winning program he really was the perfect guy for the job.
But this article is less about Neuheisel and more about what has seemingly been a lowering of the bar in terms of expectations for the UCLA football program.
I also want to say that I like UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero. He's a person with integrity trying to build a successful football program given some inherent UCLA limitations.
What Guerrero, though, has been saying this season publicly about his expectations for the football program has been perturbing. He has been saying publicly that the goal for this season is to get bowl eligible – to go 6-6.
When did this change? Not too long ago in UCLA football history, Guerrero was talking a completely different game. In 2002, when he fired Bob Toledo, Guerrero said:
-- "We need to raise the bar again. We need to start winning Pac-10 championships again."
-- "We want to have a national caliber program here. We think that we can compete for a Pac-10 championship every year. We think we should be one of the top programs in the country. Certainly top 25 every year, and beyond that, playing in major bowls."
-- "It's always good to set your sights a little beyond your grasp. It's also important to be realistic about what those are. As we look at the program, we're talking about winning Pac-10 championships, being a nationally ranked program consistently, to have an opportunity to be in the BCS mix."
In a Bill Plaschke article in the Los Angeles Times during that period, Plaschke characterized the new Athletic Director as someone who was instilling a very high standard of expectation at UCLA. In that article, among other things, Plaschke wrote that Toledo thought he did well in 2002 when his team finished in fourth place in the Pac-10, instead of where they were projected to finish at the beginning of the season, sixth. For Guerrero that wasn't good enough. In the article he said: "My question is, why are we rated as a pre-season sixth-place team?"
How can Guerrero go from these statements to the ones he's recently said about the goal this season, to finish 6-6?
It's not as if this is Neuheisel's first or even second season, because then the goal-of-bowl-eligibility statements might be rationalized. And I'm for completely allowing someone to have the time to build their program. I thought it was ridiculous when people were calling for Neuheisel's job after the first two seasons, or even after last season. Unless there are internal issues that are egregious, a college football coach should be given four seasons, to give him a chance at one full recruiting cycle, to coach his own players, and to coach experienced players that have been in the program a while. A decision can't be made until a coach is given those resources -- or more accurately builds those resources himself so he can be evaluated on those also.
A coach's fourth season is the time to evaluate. And it's not time to set the standard of expectation like it's the coach's first season.
What is going on here? Have Guerrero's parameters for evaluating a coach's performance changed?
As I've always maintained, I don't think a coach should be judged merely by his win-loss record. I think you have to also look at each game and determine whether the team -- given the talent it's putting on the field against its opponent -- is playing to its capability or under-achieving.
In other words, if a coach turns in a mediocre win-loss record in any given season, you have to be able to compensate if there were some circumstances beyond his control -- injuries, bad luck, etc. In the games, did the team not necessarily do well in terms of win/loss but did they play efficiently? Were they playing up to their talent level? Were they "firing out?" (Another one of Guerrero's phrases that he said as a standard of expectation). And then, was the coaching staff effective and efficient? Even take away whether the staff's style might not necessarily be dynamic, did they do their job cleanly and optimally?
And then, the fourth-season deadline also works to avoid any excuses. If a coach is in his fourth season, and the team isn't winning a good amount of its games but is playing up to its capability, and there are no extreme circumstances of injury, he is still completely responsible for the mediocre performance since these are the players he recruited himself. Even if there were injuries, the coach still had enough time to compensate in recruiting by his fourth season. If you recruited a player who went on a Mormon mission, it wasn't as if you weren't aware of it, and couldn't recruit to compensate for it. So, in the fourth year, there are simply no excuses.
These are the parameters for judging a coach, by his fourth season. They are 1) win-loss record, 2) did the team play to its capability and have the coaches done their job efficiently and cleanly?, and 3) internal and supportive factors. And pretty much in that order.
And I thought that was UCLA's parameters for judging a coach also. At least that's been its history under Guerrero.
When Guerrero -- or others -- say they are 1) judging a coach or a season merely by its win-loss record and 2) setting the win-loss bar so low for this season at 6-6, it smacks of trying to lower or change the parameters because there is another agenda going on.
It comes off that way because it's inconsistent with the policy of the past. Dorrell went 6-6 in 2007 and was fired – by Dan Guerrero. Dorrell ran a clean program and was a good guy, without any "underbelly" issues. You can easily, just if you go by win/loss and results, make the case that Dorrell was a more successful coach at UCLA than Neuheisel. Dorrell was 35-27 overall while at UCLA, and had at least one very good season, in terms of win/loss, in 2005 going 10-2. He only had one losing season, his first one, when he went 6-7, and he still went to a bowl game that season. His teams were bowl eligible for all five of his seasons at UCLA.
Comparatively, if Neuheisel goes 6-6 this season, he will have a cumulative record at UCLA of 21-28. He will have had two losing seasons in four years, and both of those seasons were only 4-win seasons. He will have gone to just two bowl games (in 2009 and then this season).
Yes, there were some other things going on in Dorrell's program. The players had lost confidence in the coaching staff, and the fan and booster support was dwindling. But it's not as if fan support is any different right now (or perhaps it's even worse). And you can't really make the case that Guerrero has lowered the bar for Neuheisel merely because the players like him, can you?
Guerrero, at that time, did the right thing to fire Dorrell since his program was under-achieving. He fired Dorrell simply because that kind of performance is below the expectation at UCLA for its football program. , the standard Guerrero himself had reflected publicly in numerous comments.
Would the present-day Guerrero, with the way he's talking, have retained Karl Dorrell?
If you apply Guerrero's old expectations, you have to be befuddled why the bar is so low for Neuheisel.
While, of course, it's a subjective thing to judge, but only a small majority of Bruin watchers would argue with the assertion that the team has under-achieved this season. And you'd have to say that Neuheisel and his coaching staff haven't been clean and efficient themselves. In fact, from what we've heard, Neuheisel runs a fairly disorganized program, one far more disorganized than the military-minded Dorrell, and it shows on the field.
If there's anything the UCLA program needs as a supporting factor to making it successful is to instill toughness. Players at UCLA naturally can be soft – with distracting L.A., the beach, the weather, the girls. So, even more than getting the players to like you, the most important aspect of a coach's program at UCLA would be to toughen up players, and counteract L.A.'s naturally laid-back culture.
In our opinion, this is the primary aspect of the program where, up until this point, Neuheisel has failed. His own laid-back personality, lack of organization, and inability to instill toughness is a deadly combination for the UCLA football program. While the players like Neuheisel as a player's coach, his personality also begets a loose and soft environment – which is just as debilitating as any character traits of Dorrell's or Toledo's program. For Neuheisel to be successful at UCLA he needs to change the culture of softness, and he's running out of time to do it.
So, again, why is the bar so low for Neuheisel? Is it that, if you go 4-8, does the bar then become 6-6 the next season? Does it, then, behoove a football coach at UCLA to go 2-10 in his first season, so the bar would then be 4-8 the next season?
Is Guerrero systematically trying to lower the fans' expectations for the UCLA program? Or is this a ploy for Guerrero to set the bar low so he can keep Neuheisel?
Is Neuheisel being given a longer leash because of other factors? Is it because, as we laid out at the beginning of this piece, Neuheisel does all of the other aspects of the job well? From what we've heard, this is very likely the case. We've heard that Guerrero likes Neuheisel – like everyone does – and ideally would like him to succeed. Guerrero also knows that other coaches, more than likely, wouldn't be able to do all the other things that Neuheisel does so well at UCLA. Toledo and Dorrell couldn't do them. And another coach probably wouldn't consider the UCLA head coaching job his ultimate destination, like Neuheisel does. And Guerrero also realizes that, if he did have to hire a new coach, he's not going to be able to do it at the price he got Neuheisel for. The landscape – and the enviroment at UCLA, after what would be three ultimately unsuccessful football coaches in a row – have dramatically changed. And then there's the buyout factor. From what we've learned, it would cost a considerable amount to buy out Neuheisel and his new assistants and their multi-year deals.
But let's keep the door open for Guerrero. Perhaps Guerrero's stance, both publicly and in booster circles, of the bar being at 6-6 and bowl eligible this season, isn't his true stance. If you think about it, if Guerrero said 6-6 isn't good enough during the season it would create a considerable stir, one that would be a distraction to the program. This might be Guerrero's way of doing what he can to minimize the furor during the season over a potential coaching change at the end of the season.
Bottom line, though: While all the supporting factors of a coach are important, and they should be taken into consideration, more weight has to be placed on what a coach's team does on the field, whether they win or lose and whether or not they play to their capability. Even if the team was tough, and all of the "underbelly" issues were perfect, you can't settle for a coach that does all of the supportive aspects of coaching well, but doesn't succeed on the field. The evaluation of a coach's job performance can't over-emphasize the supportive elements of his performance merely because the Administration is comfortable with them.
It's Comfortable Mediocrity.
Of course, we're only halfway through the season. Neuheisel still has a chance to make this a clearly successful season. But going 6-6 isn't it. Let's officially raise the bar here in considering it a successful season in terms of win/loss record, and put it at least at 7 wins. That's fair. 7 wins is a winning regular season. Not an inherently mediocre 6-6. And then let's continue to maintain the bar in terms of whether the team plays up to its capability or under-achieves. So far this season, as we've said, in our opinion, the team is 0-5-1 in this regard. But if it closes out the season with 6 games, whether they be wins or losses, in which the team plays up to its capability, it could finish 6-5-1, which would be acceptable, given it finished the season strong.
Let's not let the parameters – and the expectations – for the UCLA football program slide. Regardless of any other factors, a 6-6 record is not a winning or successful season, and it's not acceptable, and it shouldn't be by the UCLA administration. Hopefully Guerrero ultimately agrees, and he re-commits to the high expectations for the UCLA football program he professed himself. And if Neuheisel ultimately this season lives up to those expectations and standards, he deserves to retain his job.