The Bicentennial was not a good year for Bruin athletics. John Wooden retires in 1975. Dick Vermeil jumps to the pros in '76. J.D. Morgan hires a thin-skinned hysteric, "Clean Gene" Bartow, thereby setting in motion the infernal machine which ultimately gives birth to that unnatural child, "The Lav." J.D. then hires the thirty-two year old straight arrow, Terry Donahue, a good enough line coach, from all accounts, but not the guy to sustain the hard-fought momentum Dick Vermeil and Tommy Prothro had contributed in the recent eleven-year struggle with John McKay. Young Terry begins his career with knees shaking at the prospect of facing Arizona State's old-school, bogeyman Frank Kush (his Bruin players aren't nearly as impressed, stomping the ‘Devils, 28-10), then closes his UCLA career with a horrendous 51-30 beating at the hands of "powerhouse" Kansas in the friggin' Aloha Bowl.
Donahue always seemed like a better politician and schmoozer than he was a football coach. The son of a doctor, he is, I suspect, the sort of guy who has an instinctive way with his elders, which may account for his inexplicable rise... failing ever upwards. He was savvy enough, however, to turn the offense over to Homer Smith, along with hiring such talented assistants as Tom Hayes and Bill Rees. Without such help it's doubtful he would have lasted the full twenty and made (cough, cough), the Hall of Fame! At least we got those three great Rose Bowls back in KD's glory days. What we didn't get was a national profile, which, I assume, is what Dan Guerrero has hired KD to produce.
What constitutes a national profile? For starters, the Bruins will need to defend their home field. They also need to find an element of intimidation when opponents visit the Rose Bowl (something like playing at Oklahoma or at Miami). I wouldn't advocate shamelessly running it up, a la Spurrier, but there ought to be more attention paid to the sort of consistency that automatically produces impressive scores (and less worrying over hurt feelings). The Bruins will certainly need to start living at the top of the Pac-10, which doesn‘t mean winning it every year, but does mean consistently appearing in the key conference game each year, with a shot at some BCS bowl. You play in enough BCS bowls, you're bound to get in the big one, and even Phil Fullmer was able to grab the brass ring once. Non-BCS bowls are strictly "feel good" stuff. Bruin fans can tolerate the occasional Holiday Bowl, but please, no more Vegas Bowls.
Then, of course, there's always the problem of SC. It's been clear for some time that the first school to hire the right coach would snatch a national profile, and, with it, a chance to put some distance between itself and its crosstown rival. (Because of the tradition and location of both schools I don't look for one to ever bury the other. Only a John Wooden can accomplish such a feat.) Until the Miami disaster, most of us believed UCLA had separated itself from SC. Though it would be foolish to compare Pete Carroll to Big Bob, there may be something of the same mirage effect in SC's current exalted status and the Bruins false status during the twenty-game win streak. SC's monster recruiting class will likely insure against any such nightmare as Toledo put us through, but... two or three losses this season, some instability at the quarterback position and a loss to the Bruins would do wonders. It's not as if we haven't seen this sort of whiplash effect before, and it's not as if SC went undefeated last year, even with Carson Palmer and Troy Polamalu. Carroll has, after all, lost to teams that were either very well coached or very well quarterbacked. They were lucky to face two completely one-dimensional teams at the end of the regular season, then draw a grossly overrated quarterback, in Brad Banks, for the Orange Bowl stampede. Despite having retained Norm Chow and pulling that #1 recruiting class, it's not as if SC is Tiger Woods. Is all this realistic? We'll see. In any case, KD was not hired to be another Donahue, plugging along at a .667 clip, whining and sandbagging while delivering just three decent Bowl bids in twenty years. Bruin football has been respected before and can be respected again. The key, as always, is the head coach.
For myself, I'm glad Guerrero didn't go for any of the three Mikes (Riley, Bellotti or "rollin' baby" Price). The latter two have always struck me as a bit overrated, and both have succeeded with too many JCs and questionable "characters," who probably wouldn't qualify at UCLA. We're all familiar with the plaintive cry (excuse) that UCLA is at a crucial recruiting disadvantage in not being able to go after academic cripples. Whatever disadvantage there is in not being able to bring in a kid like Lawrence Phillips is compensated for by being able to bring in such prizes as Maurice Drew, Kevin Brown, Justin London, Matt Ware, Marcedes Lewis, Tyler Ebell, Manuel White, Mike Seidman, Mike Saffer, Robert Thomas, DeShaun Foster, and on and on, all the way back to Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson. And this is not to mention the hundreds of "sleepers," such as Danny Farmer, Weldon Forde, Roman Phifer, Mike Sherrard and "Skippy," all of whom qualified and chose to become Bruins. I also suspect that Freddie Mitchell wasn't the only Bruin blue chipper not likely to become a future Jeopardy champion. It can't be repeated too often: UCLA's problem is not the talent on the field. If you win they will come.
KD, undeniably, has the charm of the unknown. The more we see and hear him, the easier we feel about him. By now, we've become familiar with his stand-up, confident style. The national media, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have a clue about him. Nearly everyone (particularly the media) wants to see black coaches succeed, just as nearly everyone wanted to see black quarterbacks succeed. The quarterback question is history, and I don't doubt that the coaching question will follow. I was amused when I read about some black Midwestern writer worrying over Dorrell possibly letting down the side due to his inexperience (and, I suspect, because the writer was only vaguely familiar with his name). But, to me, black isn't the first word I associate with KD. Knowledgeable, progressive, fearless would be more like it.
Except for the question mark at quarterback, a new coach couldn't ask for a sweeter opportunity. The defensive front is formidable, and the defensive backfield looks aggressive and hungry. The offensive skill positions are talented and stacked, and though the offensive line may be thin, several of them can play more than one position. And what are the odds of both Drew Olson and Matt Moore failing? Especially with the experience they gained last year and working in an offense designed to get the ball off quickly. I worry more about picks and fumbles than I do completions. I would also hope that both are made aware that backup quarterbacks often overtake starters once the pressure of the season unfolds, not to mention the fact that quarterbacks have been known to get knocked out of games. Then again, KD might actually alternate them. Something else to keep in mind will be the quality of losses. No one's expecting the Bruins to go undefeated this year, but it would be disheartening to see anything like the train wrecks we've seen before in places like Norman and Lincoln (and the Rose Bowl).
Anyway, I'm making travel plans for the opener. Something told me to stay away from Palo Alto and Berkeley the last couple of years, but something is telling me to be in Boulder September 6th. It's time Bruin football caught a break. As a kid, I vividly remember trudging home from a friend's house after watching the '56 Rose Bowl loss to Michigan State. UCLA got called for "coaching from the sidelines" (fifteen yards) when they had possession (and at least a tie) in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. This put them in a hole which forced a punt, and Dave Kaiser won it for the Spartans on a long, last second field goal. Two years before that, the Bruins had blown another Rose Bowl to the Spartans on a blocked punt by Ellis Duckett and a punt return for touchdown by Billy Wells. In the following years Red Sanders would "come and go," John McKay would come out of nowhere, Vermeil would prematurely steal away to the NFL, while Donahue would hang around for twenty years, then bequeath us his offensive coordinator for seven more. In five years time we'll either thank our lucky stars that San Diego St. whiffed on KD, or some of us will be singing "We Won't Get Fooled Again." The way I feel right now, I wouldn't bet on the latter.