This is more of an overview of the program, three games into the Karl Dorrell era.
The theme here is this: The future, unfortunately, could be now.
Karl Dorrell taking over the UCLA program this season is not a usual situation for a new coach. It's fairly uncommon that a coach would take over a program that comes off a winning record from the previous season (8-5 in 2002). It's not usual for a coach to actually have a team that has solid to good talent like the 2003 edition of the Bruins.
So, that presents some opportunities for the new coaching staff, but also some pressure. It's the age-old issue of whether the cupboard is bare or not. While some could argue about the level of talent on the team (but then again you can find some UCLA fans who can argue about anything), from watching other Pac-10 teams in the first four weeks of the season, UCLA has conservatively one of the three most talented teams in the conference. This football team has probably less questions about talent and depth than any UCLA football team in the last five years.
It's not like the basketball team that new head coach Ben Howland inherits – one in pretty much disarray with some obviously big questions when it comes to talent and depth. Howland has a definitely longer honeymoon than Dorrell because of the lack of material he has to work with initially. For Dorrell, he can't really use the term "rebuild" that so many new coaches use (and that Howland can easily wield) because he has the kind of talent on the team that many coaches would wish they could have once they re-build.
So, that excuse is unavailable to Dorrell. But, in addition, he's also inheriting the normal disgruntlement of the fans after having to watch a previous coach tailspin into getting fired. When a coach is fired, fans of any program have usually gone through at least a couple of years of painful fanhood. For UCLA fans it was four years, from 1999 through 2002. You might even be able to start the disgruntlement era a bit earlier, beginning on December 5th, 1998, when UCLA lost the infamous game to Miami, keeping it out of the national championship. Including the Miami game, up until this week against Oklahoma, UCLA has gone 26-26. That's a .500 record in four and a third seasons and not one win over rival USC. For a program like UCLA, which does have a natural and earned history of success in high-major college football, that's cause for considerable fan disgruntlement.
You combine the fact that the cupboard is not bare with four and a third seasons of disgruntlement, it's easy to see why the Bruin natives are considerably restless. And you have to give the disgruntled UCLA fan a break. Being a UCLA fan in the post-Miami era has been a hair-pulling, Valium-popping type of experience. All in all, UCLA fans are amazingly composed in their disgruntlement. Yes, there are some that are using streams of epithets and want to burn down the Morgan Center, but mostly UCLA fans are fairly rational and balanced for disgruntled fans. We've made this case before, but if this were Alabama football or Kentucky basketball, the Morgan Center would be cinders by now, and death threats would be the normal order of the day at the UCLA switchboards.
So, while the disgruntlement that Dorrell undoubtedly senses from the UCLA community is not as bad as it could be with other college sports programs, it is still there, and still presents an considerably issue and ensuing pressure.
There is also another pressure that doesn't apply to all new head coaches. Howland, for example, is a proven head coach on the high-major stage, and he doesn't have to prove his coaching chops to UCLA fans. If Howland's teams struggle for a couple of years, fans, writers and most on-lookers won't be as quick to chalk it up to coaching and would more readily blame it on something else since Howland has proven he can coach. Dorrell, having no experience as a head coach, doesn't get that kind of slack. Until he achieves some considerable success as a head coach (perhaps at least a trip to the Rose Bowl or another BCS bowl and wins over USC), there will always be the doubts about his ability to be a head coach.
The issues, then, that provide Dorrell pressure are: 1) The cupboard of talent isn't bare, and Dorrell doesn't get the slack time of having to "rebuild", 2) UCLA football fans have gone through a very harrowing four and a third seasons that have widdled down their patience and enthusiasm for the program, and 3) Dorrell isn't a proven head coach and doesn't get the built-in slack time of one who is.
And getting back to our theme –"the future, unfortunately, could be now" – another considerable area of pressure on Dorrell is recruiting. Since having taken over the program in December, Dorrell has done well in recruiting. He and his coaching staff are obviously dynamic recruiters, being able to convince some talented and highly-sought prospects to sign with UCLA in February and then this spring and summer to verbally commit without having seen Dorrell coach a game. The staff has been successful in recruiting because 1) It is UCLA they're selling, which is a pretty good product to sell 2) There is a natural buzz and intrigue with a new coaching staff. A staff and a program is always better in the imaginations of recruits' mind than the reality. And 3) The new coaches are good recruiters. Selling points #1 and #3 you can probably consider constants, but selling point #2 isn't. That's the selling point that the new staff has more or less lost in the first three games of this season. That selling point has now been replaced with the reality of how the team looks, how the offense plays and how the coaches coach. And so far, through the first three games, you couldn't call it a selling point. So, Dorrell and his staff have made it harder on themselves in recruiting in the short-term. Of course, a winning, solid season in 2003 will turn around selling point #2 pretty quickly. A losing season mired in coaching questions pretty much loses you selling point #2, and selling point #2 is strong enough to drastically hurt selling points #1 and #3.
But there are other reasons why the future is now in recruiting for UCLA. One huge reason is that the program didn't recruit really well in the last two years, particularly at offensive line. While many question the talent of the current UCLA offensive line, the truly distressing thing to ponder is: What happens when this line moves on? If we're taking about cupboards now, you might begin to use the word "bare" in regards to the offensive line in two years or so. Yes, in 2005, Ed Blanton and Mike McCloskey will be seniors, but there are only four other scholarship OLs currently on the roster that will be on the roster in 2005. UCLA has gotten only two OL recruits in two years – Alex Potasi and P.J. Irvin. And it wasn't like they only took two because they were overflowing with OLs. In recruiting, the state of a position is how it projects a couple of years down the line, and in doing that projection UCLA is in a recruiting crisis at offensive line. It's a crisis that could be hard to fix, unless UCLA brings in some impact JC OLs or freshmen in 2004 who amazingly are talented enough to be able to make big contributions and possibly start as redshirt freshmen in 2005. It's all pretty well documented how much the offensive line affects the success of a team, and without talent on the OL, Dorrell is going to have a huge challenge to be successful in the very near future.
Also, overall, UCLA football recruiting is at a crossroads. UCLA, for the last seven years or so, has recruited fairly well. It's recruited well enough to stock UCLA with one of the most talented teams in the Pac-10 – while it was playing .500 ball over the last 4 years. But the gravy train is sputtering. That gravy train really didn't have as much to do with the last coaching staff as much as other factors that put UCLA in a very beneficial recruiting situation. The primary factor was that USC was down under Paul Hackett, John Robinson, Larry Smith and Ted Tollner (you talk about fans suffering, sheesh). That was a time span of 18 years. Recruits generally are 17 years old, so USC was down for an practically an entire generation of recruits. From 1990 to 2001, USC went to one Rose Bowl. So the kids UCLA was recruiting in the late ‘90s and early 2000s grew up with USC basically stinking. So, if you're a Southern California kid in the late 1990s ranging between the age of 10 to 17, say, what was the college football team you rooted for? Well, across town from USC there was UCLA. In 1997 and 1998, UCLA was the only football game in town, and the Bruins put together back-to-back 10-2 seasons and were one game away from the national championship. UCLA ended one season ranked 5th and the other ranked 8th. They were led by the exciting, Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Cade McNown, and had what former USC coach John Robinson said was the best college offense he had ever seen. So, if you're a SoCal kid between the ages of 10-17, old enough to be able process information well enough, you're a UCLA fan. For all of the recruitniks who read this site, it's been obvious. How many times has a kid in recent years said, "Well, I grew up a UCLA fan." Why? Well, yes, there are some instances that the family was just a dyed-in-the-wool UCLA family. But there was a huge amount of families and kids that adopted UCLA football because it was the only program in SoCal that had any kind of national success in probably a decade.
But as stated above, that gravy train is coming to an end. The kids who were in their formative years in 1997 and 1998 are still around, but dwindling. The player that just started high school in 1998 graduated high school in 2002. Now, recruits who are going to be high school seniors in the next couple of years were in high school and mostly paying attention to college football since UCLA has been struggling. And, then, on the other side of town, USC has risen from its considerable ashes. With UCLA struggling, USC has now becoming the program in SoCal that kids are growing up on and becoming fans of.
So, while it's painful to recognize, the tide in SoCal recruiting is turning. Right now, USC has it rolling in recruiting, but there is a good chance that the tilt toward USC is only in its formative stages. USC is doing well with recruits now that generally say, "I grew up a UCLA fan." What happens if they still have their program rolling and they're recruiting kids in a couple of years that say, "I grew up a USC fan." Shudder.
Of course, UCLA can still recruit well in the same universe as USC recruiting well. It's not really a matter of either/or. If USC and UCLA both put good products on the field (when's the last time we saw that consistently?) both would undoubtedly recruit well. It's a matter that USC's resurgence and resulting recruiting success is coinciding with the time of the Dorrell development phase, and that could be enough to keep Dorrell from getting the type of talent he needs to pull off the development.
Again, another imperative reason why "the future, unfortunately, could be now."
This brings us to basically the big, overall conclusion I drew from the Oklahoma game. UCLA, no matter how big of a blue you are, is a program right now that is in "development." It has kinks to work out in its coaching. This is not to say that it won't work them out, but every UCLA fan, even the most optimistic, has to concede that.
But the issue here is – with all of the unusual pressure on Dorrell laid out above – will Dorrell have the time and leeway to be able to go through the process of this development?
It comes down to Dorrell's offense. It will probably be a race between how fast Dorrell can get his offense to be successful and how fast all of the various pressure issues catch up to him. Let's even concede that the offense did what Dorrell said in the Oklahoma game, that it showed improvement and is on track (which, for many, is a big concession). Does he have the luxury of time to see it through? It appears that Dorrell will have to live or die with this offense. It took ninth months to get it installed; it'd be near-impossible to scrap it and install a new one. So, the questions are: Is it a matter of the players getting acclimated and comfortable to Dorrell's offense? How long does he have – how much is his window still open – to put a productive offense on the field? And the big question: With Dorrell basically living or dying with this offense, pretty much putting his young head coaching career on the line with it, is the offensive scheme one that inherently can work in college football?
It's difficult to quantify all of these very vague and fluctuating issues, but with them swirling around together and fueling each other, the questions arise: How long will Dorrell be given to be successful, by the fans – and by UCLA? Are the UCLA powers-that-be also part of the Disgruntled Bruin Fan Therapy Group? How much patience will those powers have with Dorrell? How big is his window of opportunity to prove himself? Is that window still wide open with the way the 2003 season has begun, or has it been closed a little?
With the cupboard-isn't-bare issue, the disgruntled-fan issue, the no-slack-for-an-unproven coach issue and perhaps the biggest issue – the recruiting issue – bearing down on him, how long does Dorrell have to get his offense "clicking?" How long is it before all of those issues gang up on him and any the recruiting momentum UCLA has had in recent years is lost?
The future, unfortunately, could be now.