-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, sometime in the 19th century
"But enough about your pop, Coach [Mora]. I want to adore you, too, and the way to my heart is turning UCLA into what they should be....The Bruins have become the Virginia of the West, the team that yields the fewest results from its advantages. You're the guy to change that. You're the one to start convincing kids of what adults know intrinsically — that your school sits in one of the most pleasant neighborhoods in the United States and that the Rose Bowl is a gorgeous, historic stadium."
-- John Brandon, Grantland.com, Sept. 6, 2012
My man Longfellow definitely didn't have UCLA football in mind when he wrote his 1800s Ode to Self-Scouting, as neither UCLA, nor football, yet existed. But I'd say he nails the dilemma of the Bruin program--the sleeping giant that keeps hitting snooze--as well as Brandon did last year.
It's always been a bit of a delicious agony, in a way, following UCLA football. One can never fully write it off. It's just too much of a potential gold mine: the locale, the talent base, the name, the history. But who can really believe, either? The situation has always screamed opportunity, but for a quarter century it's mostly been opportunity squandered.
The question always seems to loom: when will UCLA football's production match its potential? But that's only going partway.
The real question: will it ever?
This year, I'd argue, there could be an answer to that question. Not only is the upcoming season the most fascinating in 15 years, but in many ways, it's the most crucial.
Many pundits are hedging their bets. Nice team. Maybe top 20. They're a year away, they say. And I know the arguments: it's only Mora's second year, the Bruins are still young, still inexperienced, the schedule is brutal. Rational points, sure. The sensible opinion is that 2014, with its easier Pac-12 schedule and what figures to be a more experienced squad, is the one to point to.
But I would argue something else. If a Mora-led UCLA is to take its place as a legit contender on a national level, my opinion is that it needs to happen now. Not in Year Three, or Year Five, or whatever year it is when everything lines up just right. Not in some hazy future that may never happen. Now.
Elite head coaches who have a reasonably stocked talent cupboard don't need four or five years to reach the upper echelon. In fact, they usually don't even need three. In many cases, the signs are evident right away, and the huge leap is made in the second year.
Here are three fairly recent examples. Yes, these are some of the most storied football programs ever. No, UCLA is not in their league, historically. But even the biggest of the big boys fall on hard times and need a turnaround. And it always, always, always comes from finding the right coach.
The Mess: By Sooner standards, the post-Barry Switzer Era was a terrible bottoming out. It started with four forgettable years of Gary Gibbs (2-15-1 against rivals Texas, Nebraska and Colorado), then one season of Howard Schnellenberger (who predicted that "they will write books and make movies about my time here" but who resigned months later after going 5-5-1), and was capped by three seasons coached by John Blake, a former Sooner player who had never been a head coach at any level and who was an NFL position coach at the time of his hire. Turned out, Blake couldn't coach a lick (12-22) but was a pretty good recruiter and left some decent talent for the next coach.
The Hire: Oklahoma tabbed Bob Stoops, a former college defensive back who became a defensive-minded coach, who brought an aggressive, attacking defense, and an offensive coordinator (Mike Leach) who ran a dynamic spread offense.
Season 1 (1999): 7-5, immediate improvement. Optimism abounds.
Season 2 (2000): 13-0, national champions. Of note, Oklahoma started the season ranked 19th. Also of note, they played a vicious October schedule that included wins over Texas, #2 Kansas State, and #1 Nebraska, shocking the nation by winning all three games.
The Mess: Zero national championships, plus unprecedented and embarrassing failure against its two archrivals (0-12-1 against Notre Dame from 1983-1995, 0-8 against UCLA from 1991-1998). Ted Tollner, Larry Smith and John Robinson all had their moments, but all were replaced after multiple mediocre seasons, and USC made only one Rose Bowl after 1989. When Paul Hackett went 19-18 in three seasons before being fired in 2000, it was suggested, out loud even, that perhaps SC's glory days were over.
The Hire: USC was then rebuffed by a few candidates before stumbling onto Pete Carroll, a former college defensive back who became a defensive-minded coach. Carroll had been a mediocre NFL head coach for a few years, but his enthusiastic and dynamic personality translated incredibly well to the college game.
Season 1 (2001): 6-6 regular season, but Trojans win 4 of last 5 games, culminating in a blowout of UCLA.
Season 2 (2002): 11-2, Orange Bowl champions. Quarterback Carson Palmer wins the Heisman, and the stage is set for seven consecutive BCS Bowl appearances.
The Mess: The Tide limped along in embarrassing fashion, going from Mike Dubose to Dennis Franchione, who left the program after two seasons to take the Texas A&M job, to Mike Price, who was removed as Alabama's coach in 2003 before ever coaching a game, after a strip club scandal. Alabama then settled on a former Tide player, Mike Shula. He had never been a head coach at any level, and was an NFL position coach at the time of the hire. There were no strip club incidents, but Shula lost to Auburn all four years, the only Alabama coach never to beat the Tide's hated archrival.
The Hire: Alabama hired Nick Saban, a former college defensive back who became a defensive-minded coach. Though he already had won a college title with LSU, he was fresh from a middling two-year stint as an NFL head coach. His intense style proved much better suited to the college game.
Season 1 (2007): 7-6, definite improvement, despite some inexplicable losses (Louisiana Tech, anyone?)
Season 2 (2008): 12-0 regular season, Sugar Bowl berth
[Of note: this pattern was familiar to Saban. In 2000, he took over LSU, coming off a horrid 3-8 season. Season 1: 8-4. Season 2: 10-3, Sugar Bowl champs.]
The Mess: One season after coming within minutes of a BCS Championship game berth, UCLA began a historically awful stretch. Bob Toledo went 23-22 over his final four seasons as UCLA was clearly surpassed by Carroll's USC program. Next was Karl Dorrell, who had never been a head coach at any level and was an NFL position coach at the time of his hire. His 35-28 record flattered the actual product on the field. Last was former UCLA player Rick Neuheisel, also an NFL position coach at the time of his hire. He went 21-30 and lost all four games to USC, the last one by the score of 50-0. But he did recruit some notable talent for the next coach.
In all, UCLA lost to USC 12 of 13 games during that stretch and did not play in a meaningful bowl game.
The Hire: The Bruins stumbled onto Jim L. Mora, a former college defensive back who became a defensive-minded coach (okay, this is just getting weird), who had a middling record in a few years as an NFL head coach, but whose temperament, energy and passion quickly seemed like a natural fit at the college level.
Season 1 (2012): 9-5, Pac-12 South Champs, beats archrival USC, comes oh-so-close to Rose Bowl berth in narrow loss to Stanford.
Season 2 (2013): ?
The parallels of Stoops, Carroll and Saban to Mora and UCLA are compelling (and maybe even a little eerie with the whole college DB thing). Of course, there are no guarantees that Mora will come anywhere close to the above-mentioned coaches. These are no-doubt legends, College Hall of Famers. But they weren't always. And that moment where they made the leap into elite territory, is where Mora and his team may be sitting right now.
From the opening play of last season--a 72-yard touchdown run by Brett Hundley--to me it just feels different than any time since 1997-98. Like things are pointing to that jump. And, I'd argue, it needs to happen now. Because the Bruins, under Mora, seem to be developing a brand. Not a contrived, forced slogan or ad campaign, but an actual, organic real identity. The narrative--a decade of being down and out in L.A., turned around by the right coach and set up for sustained success--is taking shape.
In a completely scientific poll that I thought up in 30 seconds, I asked several good friends from across the country, who all love college football but are fairly agnostic about UCLA, what was their honest impression of the program.
Their replies were fairly similar. A sample:
"Their outside appearance is amazing--Rose Bowl, sunshine, cheerleaders, baby blue with gold helmets. Unfortunately, the rep is that they never look as good as they do walking out of the locker room....On the field, I can't think of a clear identity. What do they do? Offense, defense, fundamentals, run and shoot, smash mouth? But the USC sanctions and Mora hire have the thing turned around."
-- Tom, Tex.
"They have an aura of a great program but, especially as an East Coaster, they are a non-factor over the last five-plus years....seems like there is more hype last year and this year, though."
-- Eric, Fla.
"I think UCLA Football has been underwhelming the world for like a decade or more. Is it coaching? Recruiting? My guess is coaching. Not specifically last year as they may be building something great."
-- Mark, Calif.
"Soft, uninspired, not committed prior to Mora. Much better since Mora."
-- Josh, North Carolina
This, I'd argue, is how people perceive a college program that is legitimately turning around. And when it happens, it doesn't take long.
Prime examples of this are the two teams currently ruling the Pac-12: Oregon and Stanford. Both Top 5 teams, and national championship contenders.
But go back about a decade, and take a look at these teams in the five seasons from 2002-2006.
Stanford: 16 wins, 40 losses. Four of those years they finished 8, 9, or 10th in the Pac-10.
Oregon: 37 wins, 25 losses. Four of those years they had 5 or more losses. The Ducks lost all four bowl games they played in.
Then, 2007 happened, and the gridiron fates of two universities were altered. Stanford hired Jim Harbaugh . Oregon hired Chip Kelly, first to run the offense, then as head coach. Since 2009, the two teams have combined for seven BCS bowl games. Oregon's record: 46-7. Stanford's: 43-10. They have two of the most recognizable styles and brands in the nation. It's what they've made themselves.
UCLA is about five years behind them. But maybe, just maybe, Mora has the Bruins on a similar path -- a path taken by Stoops, Carroll and Saban. The path where potential and natural advantages are actually translated into real achievement.
We shall see. And soon.