In fact, this one might have been a worse overall experience. In the last two USC romps, UCLA fans went into the game with some realistic feeling of hope. This year it was weeks of dread. It was a 22-point line.
But again, instead of getting into a blow-by-blow of the game, let's use this opportunity to dispel some ridiculous assertions we've been hearing lately. As they say, the first step on the road to making yourself better is realizing your problems, right?
Ridiculous Assertion: UCLA is young and inexperienced.
I hate to break it to you, but so is USC. USC cut apart UCLA with true sophomores. The Trojans start only four seniors on offense, and three on defense. Yes, you could say that the offensive line has three of those seniors, but does a fairly experienced offensive line really make the defensive backs play well? But if it's just about experience, why is it that it seems that USC's young players are so much better than UCLA's? It can't really be talent, can it? If so, why is it that UCLA recruited offensive linemen that even USC considered better than Lenny Vandermade – but Vandermade ended up a better player? The quarterback for USC, Matt Leinart, if you ask anyone with any ability to judge talent, is just a moderate-to-good talent. He was as a recruit at Santa Ana Mater Dei and he still is merely that. He also had never thrown a pass in a college game before this season. You're trying to convince me that the difference between Leinart's production and that of Drew Olson and Matt Moore is talent or experience –just because he has had a year-and-a-half longer in Norm Chow's offensive system?
Man, I want some of that Kool-Aid.
It's not that UCLA isn't young and inexperienced. They are. But that isn't a valid enough excuse for how poorly they performed this year, as evidence by how well USC's inexperienced youth performed.
Bottom Line: It's plain and simple: It's not a matter of experience and talent. It's a matter of coaching, scheme and development.
Ridiculous Assertion: Karl Dorrell has gone 6-6 this season, the same record as Pete Carroll in his first year and not too far off from the record of Bob Stoops in his first year at Oklahoma in 1999, which was 7-5. So, he's done similarly to Carroll and Stoops in his first year.
You really don't want to go here. You don't want to compare Dorrell to Carroll and Stoops.
Carroll inherited a team that went 5-7 the year before he took over. He started out 1-4 in his first year, but then finished 5-2, which included a 27-0 drubbing of UCLA. Oklahoma, the year previous to Stoops taking over, went 5-6. They, in fact, hadn't had a winning season for five years before Stoops took over and went 7-5 in his first year. Dorrell, in comparison, inherited a team that returned 15 starters and went 8-5, and it did so while having lost all confidence in its coaching staff and with the program in disarray.
And then, this is where you really don't want to go: In his second year, Carroll went 11-2, won the Orange Bowl, and ended the year ranked #4 in the country. Stoops went 13-0 and won a national championship.
If you cite Carroll and Stoops, you're putting an awful lot of pressure on Dorrell to produce some incredible results next year.
No, you don't want to go there.
And even beyond the records and rankings, as Steve Waters has said, it's really a matter of whether the team has actually improved in its first year under a new coach. Let's even concede that you can throw out records since you can never compare the level of competition. What you can gauge, though, is whether USC or Oklahoma looked improved in their first years under Carroll and Stoops. Has UCLA looked improved in its first year under Dorrell? Has it gotten better as the year progressed? Has it played up to reasonable expectations, given the talent on the team? One of the biggest barometers is penalties. USC went from a penalty-prone Paul Hackett team to Pete Carroll's disciplined team. Oklahoma was a mess of penalties in 1998 under John Blake, compared to Bob Stoops' first year in 1999.
With probably still a bowl game to play, this season UCLA has committed 104 penalties and been penalized for 921 yards. Last season, after 13 total games, Bob Toledo's last team was penalized 78 times for 756 yards.
Bottom Line: While putting in new systems that the players are still learning, there should still be an immediate, marked improvement in the team in its first year under a new head coach. That's generally the mark of a good coach taking over a down-trodden program.
Ridiculous Assertion: You have to give Dorrell time to recruit his own players.
This is just a generally accepted age-old adage, that a coach needs time to recruit his own players to his own system. And why does everyone accept it? It's more of another excuse the coaching fraternity and their media minions (made up of ex-coaches and sell-out commentators) repeat over and over.
It's not really a matter of a coach recruiting his "type" of players, but just basically recruiting better players. That I basically agree with – that you have to see if a coach can recruit. But heck, isn't that obvious?
If a coach does well in recruiting, he's not, in a few years after taking the job, getting his "type" of players, he's just generally getting better players. You think how well USC has done in the last 12 months in recruiting is because Carroll has gotten his "type" of players? What a crock. He's just plainly getting very talented players, not his "type." And again, it's all about the coaching. Recruits decide to come to your school when they see your program is being successful and recognize a good scheme. The perception of good coaching is what you need to recruit.
It's also easy for coaches and their media minions to convince the general fan of this needs-time-to-recruit-his-own-players statement. But here on BRO, where we are pretty sophisticated in the art of recruiting, it doesn't fly. For one thing, where is Dorrell going to get these players from in the class of 2004? We BROs know that it's not looking good currently on the recruiting front. UCLA hasn't gotten a commitment from a high school player since Ryan Graves verbally committed in August. When Carroll and Stoops came off their first years in their programs, they had a lot to sell, particularly some proven, dynamic schemes that showed some great potential. Dorrell doesn't have this. He will have a huge challenge in selling recruits on his system and program. Immediate playing time anyone? Hopefully he'll appeal to the recruits' arrogance, believing that they're good enough to turn around the program – next year.
That adage, about a coach needing time to improve recruiting, also is generally true at programs that were in the dumpster in recruiting and didn't already have good talent in the program. Most of the time when a program goes south, recruiting and the talent on the team has gone south for a while. But that's not the case with UCLA and Dorrell. While other less-knowledgeable fans might drink that Kool-Aid, the readers of BRO know that the general talent currently on the team could be far superior to anything Dorrell could bring in during the next couple of years, and that it might be improbable to expect Dorrell to improve on the quality of UCLA recruiting in recent years. As of right now, judging the current recruiting class, there are some good players in it, but it's really only halfway there (well, it was fairly good as of August). Dorrell would have to really finish off this class with some come-from-behind, upset recruiting by signing day in February – particularly at offensive line – if he wants to have a class that even has a slight chance of helping him soon.
Let's even say that Dorrell's coaching staff places heavy blame on the offensive line and offensive line coach Mark Weber, and Weber is fired. Let's say UCLA even brings in a very dynamic offensive line coach. If you're blaming much of UCLA's offensive struggles primarily on the talent at offensive line, there isn't much that the new OL coach can do to salvage the offensive line talent immediately. There just plainly isn't the kind of impact talent that UCLA would have a chance to get out there, and even if there were, the possibility of them coming in and making a huge impact in their freshman year on the offensive line is doubtful. It would probably be a longer process – of the new OL coach showing marked improvement on the field, which then inspires talented recruits to come to UCLA in the next couple of years. That's a process with some lag time, that could take too long to give Dorrell the kind of performance he'll need to make his offense work next year, or even the year after. And that's conceding that UCLA brings in a dynamic new offensive line coach that does bring in good offensive OL talent immediately.
Bottom Line: It's very unlikely that the offensive line's personnel problems, and actually, the personnel problems facing Dorrell generally, can be solved through recruiting anytime soon. Any big difference that difference-making recruits can make is probably still a couple of years away – even if the recruits were in this present class. For one, we know that there just aren't those kind of difference-making recruits available to UCLA this recruiting season. You can concede that the offensive line, for instance, could be improved through improved coaching next year and more experience, but any real marked improvement in the line next year will have to primarily come from coaching, not recruiting. Again, it's all about coaching.
Ridiculous Assertion: USC just has superior talent. It's all a matter of talent.
It's really hard to determine this in my mind. Of course, USC looks vastly more talented, but there was a similar discussion on the BRO premium basketball board last week about this issue: Won't a Ben-Howland-coached UCLA basketball team look more talented than a Steve-Lavin-coached team? Doesn't a Pete-Carroll-coached USC team look more talented than a Paul-Hackett-coached USC team? So, USC's players appear more talented while UCLA's appear less.
If you compare USC's talent head-to-head to UCLA's it just plainly isn't that much of a significant difference. Without breaking down each unit, you'd have to say that the defenses are very close. You could probably give USC the nod on offense, but that advantage is not a 49-22 difference (even with that padded score). Was there a 27-0 difference two years ago? Watching the last three UCLA/USC games it's easy to see that the marked advantage has been in the coaching and schemes, far more than the talent.
When the season began, I guess tinged with a little blue and gold bias myself, I thought USC wouldn't be as good as everyone was hyping them to be. It was mostly because I thought it would be a huge task to replace a Heisman-Trophy-winning quarterback in Carson Palmer with a slow-footed guy who had never thrown a college pass and replace some elite, veteran talent on defense. But they exceeded my expectations. I thought it would be a re-building year for them. Why? Well, they certainly weren't going to – and didn't – plug in more talent and experience than they had last year. You have to come upon the conclusion it's the schemes and the coaching.
And, as we know, USC is recruiting among the best in the country right now, if not the best. What happens when the legitimately superior talent they have in their pipeline gets plugged into the schemes on a more position-by-position basis in the next few years? If this is re-building, you have to shudder to think what they're re-building to.
(One good thing to take away from how good USC's football program currently is and how fast they got there from the abyss just a couple of years ago: It's very similar to what good coaching can potentially do for the UCLA basketball program.)
Bottom Line: The schism between USC and UCLA in the last couple of years hasn't been as much talent as it is coaching. In the next couple of years, if the trend continues this way, they'll have a huge edge in both.
Ridiculous Assertion (but really an Addendum to the last Ridiculous Assertion): It's all about talent, and not so much coaching.
One of the biggest realizations I've had since starting this job has been to now know that this assertion is bunk.
If it were just about talent, Steve Lavin would have been able to just roll out a ball onto the Pauley Pavilion floor and let it get picked up by Dan Gadzuric, Jerome Moiso, JaRon Rush, Matt Barnes, Jason Kapono, Earl Watson, etal, and they could have taken it to a Final Four. But that, in fact, is what Lavin did – just roll out the ball.
Coaches love to say it's all about the talent. It's one of their mantras. It's as if, in the coaching fraternity, they demand that you take an oath requiring you to always repeat that success is based so much on talent. See, if they do this then generally they take the onus and responsibility off themselves (not fully, though, since they are also ultimately responsible for the talent on their team too. But it does generally give them more leeway until they bring in their "type" of players, right?). These are the ideas college coaches want to get into the collective mindset of college sports people: "It's not about the coaching; College coaches don't have enough time year-round because of NCAA rules to really make an impact on the development of players; Yeah, coaching has some impact, but it's all about the talent."
Bottom Line: No matter how many times you hear coaching being de-emphasized, and talent being overly emphasized, don't let it fool you.
After you get through all of the clouds of ridiculous assertions, you get a better, clearer picture of the UCLA program. Now, this is not to say that Karl Dorrell has no chance to make his program successful. He has every bit of a chance. But the chance will come predominantly from coaching, not from recruiting, talent, or more experience among his players. He'll first have to make some changes in coaching, whether that's tweaking a system or hiring new coaches. And whatever they are, over the next year they are going to have to be changes that will:
1) be crucial in recruiting. They'll have to be strong enough changes that it gives recruits a coaching reason to come to UCLA.
2) make a big impact on spring practice.
And then, 3) have a huge impact on next year's season on the field. Point #3 here can't be over-emphasized.
It's all about coaching, and how coaching shows improvement. Not only does coaching directly affect how well your players perform on the field or court, it affects how well they develop, how talented they appear and, of course, recruiting. As a new coach, you have to show improvement on the field from the previous staff. In recruiting, you have to show improvement from the previous staff. Don't put any cart before the real horse, asserting things like you need to recruit well first to be successful on the field. No, you need to coach well first, to then help you consistently recruit well, to then have long-term success on the field.
While Karl Dorrell still has time to do this, he lost one year of a chance to do it. There is a question of how long he actually has for his coaching to show improvement on the field in order to keep his job, but there is no question it's less time than it was a year ago.
So don't be fooled by any of the ridiculous assertions, which are basically smoke and mirrors put out there by those who need to divert attention from the real truth. First and foremost, it's not recruiting, talent, or experience.
It's all about coaching.
While the post-game analyses have been fairly critical in recent weeks, including the one above, I wanted to end the regular season with a tribute to the current veterans on UCLA's football team.
As a UCLA fan and alumnus, you have to greatly admire them. They came to UCLA because of a love for the school, or what they feel they could accomplish while here – or both. They fought through the crash of one coaching staff. They've continued to stay positive and fight throughout the current controversial season. For what they've given, you'd have to say they haven't been given the equivalent back in terms of coaching and the football program. Players like Dave Ball, Mat Ball, Brandon Chillar, Rodney Leisle, Ryan Boschetti, Steven Vieira, Matt Ware, Craig Bragg, Asi Faoa, Manuel White, Ben Emanuel and Eyoseph Efseaff have weathered some of the most adverse times in UCLA football history and persevered. In other times and circumstances, they very well would have been celebrating Pac-10 championships and Rose Bowl wins. We as UCLA alumni and supporters should be proud of the type of young men they are, and the character they've shown. We should feel prouder of these young men for representing UCLA than others who won championships. They've proven, truly, that in the many ways it really counts, they are champions.