UCLA Took the Leap

UCLA didn't make it to a BCS bowl game this season, but Jim Mora succeeded in guiding the program to the next level...

In late August, on the eve of the 2013 football season, I wrote an editorial about UCLA's football's turnaround (Is it UCLA's Time?) under Coach Jim Mora as he entered his second season in Westwood. Though the smart money for a possible Bruin leap from good team to great one was on 2014 -- easier schedule, better talent, more experience -- I contended that the future was now. That if Mora was the elite coach Bruin fans hoped he was, he could potentially take UCLA to rarefied college football air in only his second year. And I cited recent examples (Bob Stoops, Pete Carroll, Nick Saban) of exactly that.

Three months later, it's time to render the verdict. Did Coach Mora and his program take The Leap?

In a strict sense, no. I implied The Leap would mean double-digit wins and a BCS bowl berth. But UCLA finished 9-3, with no division title, and headed to the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. The Bruins are ranked a respectable but not eye-popping 17th.

And yet … subjectively this season felt more significant to me than "9-3 and the Sun Bowl." A lot more.

As I tried to put this season into perspective, two moments from my history as a UCLA football fan kept coming to mind. Why? Maybe because history matters. Context can be crucial. Maybe because knowing that backstory of your team is part of the joy and the pain of caring about this stuff at all.

I doubt my two memories are what anyone else would pick. There are more obvious Sliding Doors moments for UCLA football -- Karl Morgan sacking Scott Tinsley in 1982, Rout 66, December 5th, 1998, 50-0 — but these are what resonated for me when I think about the 2013 UCLA football team.

1. November 21, 1987

It's my freshman year at UCLA, and I'm completely fired up to attend my first UCLA-USC game. My buddies and I drive from the Rieber Hall dorm to the LA Coliseum. Half the stands are blue, half red. The car keys are jingling when the SC marching band enters through the peristyle. It's college football at its most electric. And the boys and I are overly confident: in the previous five years before coming to college, I've watched on TV as the Bruins won three Rose Bowls and beaten USC 4 of 5 times.

The 1987 Bruins are 9-1. It's maybe the most talented UCLA team ever. After steamrolling most of its opponents, UCLA seems (to my biased eyes) like a budding dynasty.

USC is 7-3. Good, but not great. I'm anticipating an easy UCLA win, which would send the Bruins to the Rose Bowl. I daydream of the potential numbers: UCLA's fourth Rose Bowl in six years. Five wins against USC in the last six years. Top 3 final ranking.

And then the game happened.

But before we go there, I want to give the context of the situation a little more detail. When I say this might have been UCLA's most talented team ever, I mean it. Check it:

* UCLA's quarterback: Troy Aikman. One year later he was the #1 pick in the NFL draft, and would go on to win three Super Bowls, and make both the NFL and College Hall of Fames.

* UCLA's star inside linebacker: Ken Norton, Jr., a centerpiece of the Dallas Cowboys mini-dynasty of the early 1990s, who would win three Super Bowls alongside Aikman.

* UCLA's star outside linebacker: Carnell Lake, who was so fast and talented, his NFL coaches ultimately switched him to cornerback -- think about that for a minute -- and as a defensive back (he also played safety) he became a five-time Pro Bowler, won the 1997 AFC Defensive Player of the Year, and was voted to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 1990s.

* UCLA's star wide receiver: Willie (Flipper) Anderson set (and still holds) the all-time NFL record for receiving yards in a game (336).

* UCLA's freshman nickel back, Eric Turner, ended up as the #2 overall pick in the NFL draft four years later, the highest a defensive back has ever been drafted in the modern NFL era.

The list goes on....Gaston Green (UCLA's all-time leading rusher until 2012, NFL Pro Bowler), his backup Eric Ball (MVP of the Rose Bowl as a freshman), James Washington (two Super Bowl rings), Roman Phifer (three Super Bowl rings), Mike Lodish (an NFL-record six Super Bowls, won two rings), , Marvcus Patton (four Super Bowls). Hell, UCLA's fourth-string running back, James Primus, was drafted in the ninth round.

By my count, 26 players from the 1987 UCLA team were drafted by NFL teams. Between them, they won 13 Super Bowl rings, and combined for 22 Super Bowl appearances.

It was absurd. This team was loaded, and playing great. Losing really never entered my mind.

And then UCLA lost.

I won't revisit the details of the 17-13 shocker, but I defy you to find anything outside of genuine tragedy that can stun an 18-year old diehard sports fan into, basically, mourning. Yes, it's just sports. No one died. Life went on. And still, it was seriously awful. Easily the most painful sports fan experience of my life.

In the book Fever Pitch, a meditation on sports fandom by obsessive Arsenal soccer fan Nick Hornby, he retrospectively muses about the intensity of positive emotion -- the "unexpected delirium" -- he felt when his team won the 1989 England championship on a stunning and unexpected last-second goal. It was Arsenal's first title in 18 long years. Hornby had all but given up hope he would ever see a championship again. "None of the moments people describe as the best in their life seem analogous to me," he wrote. Not sex, not becoming a parent, not fulfillment of personal ambitions, not even winning the lottery (which "lacks the communal ecstasy of football"). He adds, "I can recall nothing else that I have coveted for two decades (what else is there that can reasonably be coveted for that long?)" And Hornby sums up by saying, "There is then, literally, nothing to describe it."

So that's how I felt trudging out of the Coliseum in 1987. Except the exact opposite.

See, I think at some level I knew what that game meant. My 18-year old brain sensed, even when UCLA was flat-out better than USC, that my Bruins weren't the program that unapologetically went for the jugular and seized greatness. I didn't want to admit it, but the Trojans seemed, above all else, more prepared to do whatever it took to win.

(Along those lines, one year later: When UCLA lost to SC in the 1988 game, mere weeks after the Bruins had been ranked #1 in the nation, I wasn't even really that surprised. Crushed, sure. Disheartened, absolutely. But I'd be lying if I said I hadn't kind of expected it. And as my buddies and I slogged out of the Rose Bowl, we passed two men in their fifties, USC fans, relaxed and self-satisfied, smoking victory cigars. They watched our silent march, and saw the stricken looks on our faces. One of them took a slow puff on his cigar, shook his head, and said, not unkindly, "They're going to break your hearts, boys." We didn't say anything. What was there to say?)

2. December 4th, 2010.

USC has just beaten UCLA for the 11th time in 12 years. It is the hopelessly overmatched Rick Neuheisel's penultimate year as UCLA coach. The game had been boring, and inevitable. Of course, I deluded myself into thinking UCLA had a chance anyway. I was lamenting a few key plays, a bounce that went USC's way, doing the whole "if-only" thing. My buddy Weiss, who'd heard enough, let loose into the cold night air as we walked out of the Rose Bowl. "Why are any of us surprised?! Seriously. Why? Don't you get it? We. Suck. At. Football. UCLA... doesn't... CARE!"

I hated to hear it, but Weiss sure seemed right. Despite two-plus decades of perspective since that 1987 heartbreak, despite the eight-game winning streak in the 1990s, despite the old truisms -- these things go in cycles, you never know how it will play out, these are still 20-year old kids and things can change quickly -- I worried, deep down, that this thing that I cared way too much about truly might not get fixed anytime soon.

Even with the UCLA name, the history, the sunshine, the Rose Bowl, the bright lights of L.A., even with Pete Carroll's departure....it really might not happen. If anything — as ridiculous as this may sound to some—it felt like we diehards cared more than the people running the show.

CUT TO—Now

So why those two brutal memories? One a shocking heartbreak of youth, the other a more subtly demoralizing admission of middle age?

There's some symmetry, I think. 2013 reminds me of the 1987 team's talent level. This squad is awash in athleticism, and most of the players are freshmen and sophomores. It is, truly, a renaissance. But UCLA's 35-14 win at the Coliseum exorcised, for me, some ghosts from 1987.

2010 comes to mind because that might have been my personal low point, the least hopeful I'd ever been about UCLA football. And while turnarounds abound in college football, for the program to have come so far, so fast under Mora is shocking -- in a good way.

The state of UCLA football in 2013 goes beyond statistics and facts. To me, it's the way that Mora and his staff are transforming the entire culture of UCLA football that feels so different.

For one, Mora has essentially re-branded UCLA football. Current players talk about Mora's first address to the team in 2012, which went something like, "People in the NFL think UCLA football is soft, and has always been soft. I'm not soft. And we're not going to be." And he meant it, instilling a toughness and grit that had always been lacking in Westwood. Mora also believes that UCLA will play for -- and win --a national title, and gets you to believe it, too. He changed the away uniforms with hardly anyone noticing (and they're better). He practically changed the team colors to black-and-blue, and truly is the core reason that the money is rolling in for a football-only facility.

I've always believed in the telling detail. And under Mora this year, there have been many:

--In the days after popular walk-on receiver Nick Pasquale is tragically killed in a car accident, Mora publicly strikes the right notes of grace and protectiveness of his players, in leading the team through a dark time. One week after Pasquale's death, the Bruins have to play, and fight back from a 21-3 deficit, on the road in Lincoln, Nebraska, to score 38 straight points and win one of the most stirring games in UCLA history. It culminates with Coach Mora looking into the camera for the post-game interview, his voice cracking and speaking directly to Pasquale's parents, saying, "We did it for your son." Seriously, what more do you want out of your leader, and your team — hell, out of sports itself— than a moment like that?

(And by the way, is there any UCLA team in my lifetime that goes into Lincoln, under those circumstances, and pulls out a win like that? I don't think so.)

--Brutalized by injuries at running back, out of desperation the UCLA coaches give some carries to star freshman linebacker, Myles Jack ... who proceeds to become a national sensation over the next few weeks as he makes highlight reel plays and scores seven touchdowns over UCLA's final four games. Jack is awarded the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Honors... on defense AND on offense. It's a feat that is literally unprecedented, and I have to wonder if it will ever happen again, anywhere.

--Early in the USC game, after an ejection for offensive tackle Caleb Benenoch, himself a backup forced to play because of injuries, UCLA is now without its top four offensive tackles. Backups to backups are playing, against one of the hottest teams in the country. Old UCLA would never have won that game. The 2013 Bruins win, fairly easily, still looking like the bigger, more physical, tougher team. It's almost stunning.

--The Bruins are so young and thin they end up playing 17 true freshmen this year. In one game, they start a staggering seven true freshman players. All are school records. And still, they ultimately come within a play or two of making the Pac-12 championship.

--Two days after the season finale vs. the Trojans, the University of Washington job opens up. It's Mora's alma mater, his "dream job." At the old UCLA, Mora would have been off to Seattle within 24 hours. But things are changing now. And so Mora signs a lucrative, six-year contract extension, negotiates big raises for his staff, fends off USC trying to poach his top assistant coach and ace recruiter... and even convinces "Trojan For Life" Kennedy Polamalu, an elite running backs coach and terrific recruiter who was fired by USC's Lane Kiffin only nine months ago....to come coach at UCLA with Mora.

Taken in total, the turnaround that Mora began last year in his initial season was consolidated this season. Recruiting is gathering momentum and he figures to close on multiple big-time prospects again this year as he's done in his first two Februarys. Assuming Brett Hundley returns for his junior season, UCLA should be a top 10 team from day one of the 2014 season. And there is not one game on next year's schedule that doesn't seem eminently winnable.

Optimism is gushing from all the UCLA fans I know. Some of us are donating to UCLA football for the first time. It seems warranted. Like you can trust it. Like 1987 and 2010 probably aren't going to be happening anytime soon. Not under this coach.

To me, that's the leap.


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