It makes you wonder, watching the Fresno State game, just how many more elite warriors are going to want to play at UCLA in the near future.
It makes you wonder just where the program "is at." Again, there's no real reason to take a detailed look at the Fresno State game, unless you're masochistic.
And with the team finishing their season with a horribly disappointing loss and ending with a 6-7 record, it's almost masochistic to even look at the season and the state of the program.
But we'll indulge just a little masochism.
There are really five areas of how a coach and his staff are judged. One is on-the-field success. Its won-loss record, with a little consideration for level of talent of the team and its quality of competition. Another is whether the team appears to be well-coached. Are they strong fundamentally or do they make stupid mistakes? Is the team improving and moving in a positive direction? Then there is the internal issues within the program; how healthy is the program from the inside out. Fourthly, there is recruiting. And then, there is the financial factor. Is the program putting rear ends in the seats and selling jerseys?
At the end of every year, every athletic director has to assess these four primary aspects of a football program. And this year, you'd have to say that the UCLA football program struck out on all four of those elements.
On the Field
On the field, the team under-achieved. Many cite a lack of talent. And yes, there isn't the talent on this team to be ranked in the top ten nationally. But there certainly is enough talent to be among the four top teams in the Pac-10 and finish in the top 25 in the country. UCLA has comparable talent to Oregon, Oregon State or Cal. You could make a case that UCLA is comparable in talent to Washington State.
But even if you concede that this squad had only average talent, it still under-achieved on the field. It produced one of the worst offenses in UCLA's modern history.
And looking at it from a pure won/loss perspective, this team was extremely lucky. It finished 6-7 but very easily, given the quality of its play, could have been much worse. UCLA beat only one team with a winning record this season, Cal, at 8-6.
In their six wins, they beat five other teams with records of: 1-11, 6-6, 6-6, 2-10, and 5-7.
In those six wins, UCLA's opponents have a combined record of 28-46, a 37% winning percentage.
Plus, UCLA also lost to two other teams with losing records: Colorado (5-7) and Stanford (4-7).
This year's team was lucky that its schedule had an unusual amount of poor teams on it. The schedule ended up being very, very soft, with seven of its 12 regular season games going against teams without winning records. Two teams (Illinois and Arizona) had a combined record of 3-21. And against those two teams UCLA's combined margin of victory was only 6 points. UCLA also only squeaked by San Diego State (10 points), Cal (3 points), and Arizona State (7 points), with both SDSU and ASU playing without their starting quarterbacks.
It might have been quite a bit different. If, say, the teams on the schedule were just an average team for that program (it was only Colorado's third losing season in 19 years, with Arizona and Illinois fielding two of their worst teams in decades), or a few bounces go against UCLA (an Illinois field goal that hit the upright, or a Rod Leisle interception for a score against Arizona), or UCLA played Oregon State instead of Arizona.
Eliminating the loss against Fresno State since they wouldn't have made the bowl game without 6 regular-season wins, this season's record very easily could have been 4-8, or worse.
I think it's difficult for anyone to really think that the 6-7 record – or a potentially worse record – was an accurate indication of the talent on this team. Given how weak UCLA's opponents were, there was enough talent on this team to go 8-5. It was, in fact, the record that Bob Toledo had last season with a comparably talented team. Compared to last year's team, this team on offense lost its two offensive tackles, but returned the rest of the offense virtually intact, except for the loss of Tab Perry to academics for the season. It then also added its best running back in Maurice Drew. On defense, UCLA replaced the loss only two starters, Marcus Reese and Ricky Manning. You could make the case that Justin London was better than Marcus Reese and that, while Manning was quit a bit better of a player than Matt Clark, his loss at one cornerback position didn't impact the defense that much. And overall, returning the majority of its starters from last year's team the individual players are all a year better and more experienced, and should naturally be better.
So, given comparable talent to last year's team, you could also make the point that UCLA's schedule was easier this season than last, or at least comparable. UCLA had enough talent to beat the teams it did, but also beat two of the three among Colorado, Stanford and Fresno State. In those games, UCLA clearly had more talent than their opponents.
It's safe to say that this team under-achieved, given its talent. Looking at the big picture, the talent level of the team, and the quality of its opponents, UCLA should have been 8-5 this season.
Did the team appear to be well-coached? Even conceding that the talent wasn't elite on the roster and that the coaching staff was new and needed time to work out some kinks, it's easy to conclude that the team had some considerable coaching question marks. The offensive scheme was the big question, and doesn't need to be disected at this point. The lack of production from the offensive line – it can't really be just a matter of a lack of talent, can it? There is an element of coaching that contributes to the lack of production from the offensive line. Then there is the problem with the play-calling – the sometimes mind-boggling play-calling. There was also the boneheaded organizational mistakes – wagging in plays incorrectly, getting the right personnel on the field, etc. Most observers gave the coaching staff the benefit of the doubt early on, but it continued right through the bowl game, which, as even the coaches themselves would tell you, is inexcusable.
Then there is the question of leadership. Head Coach Karl Dorrell is well respected by his players and within the athletic department as a good person, but he definitely showed his inexperience in stepping up and leading this team.
Perhaps, though, the most damning of the coaching assessment issues: Did the team improve over the course of the season? You'd have to give this one a resounding no. The team appeared to be in more disarray against Fresno State than it did early in the season. It lost its last five games of the season. At no time this year did you get the sense that the offensive scheme had potential – that it was a case that the scheme had promise and it was just a matter of time before the players executed it correctly. Given the season to learn how to execute it, and three more weeks of bowl practice, the offense looked perhaps its most woeful against Fresno State.
Dorrell will go a long way in appearing that he's taking steps to improve the coaching quality, at least from a perception standpoint, if he makes changes to the coaching staff. Sources still insist that offensive line coach Mark Weber, tight ends coach Gary Bernardi, and linebacker coach/special teams coach Brian Schneider could be the coaches most likely to go. Sources also indicate that it's still very likely that Steve Axman will not be the offensive coordinator next season.
It leads you to the big, general coaching question: Even if you're a good person of integrity, and you work 20 hours a day, and do things the right way, does that guarantee success? Don't you need to do that – while also having the inherent and unusual talent to succeed on the elite level? After observing how this team was coached this season this is definitely a question. You have to give Dorrell some slack since it was his first year as a head coach. There are many things he has conceded himself that he has to learn. He tried to change his approach a bit for the bowl practices, trying to be more fiery and involved with the players. But is that all just window dressing? How much of being a good coach do you have to learn, and how much is just natural talent? And shouldn't the head coach at UCLA have both? At UCLA, do you really have the luxury to learn how to become a head coach on the job? It could very well be that Dorrell just doesn't have the coaching chops to be a head coach at this level. Or it could be that he could grow and develop into a coach that does, but UCLA is not the place to grow and develop it.
The Program Internally
Thirdly, there is the internal issue within the program. Generally the players respect Dorrell and believe him to be a man of integrity. But as the season wore on, and the losses started to mount, that could only motivate the players so much. These are players that suffered through the crash of another coaching staff. They were willing to buy into Dorrell and his plan, and generally still are. But players – people – only have so much tolerance and fight in them. They burned quite a bit of it on Toledo, which didn't leave them much to hold onto. While Dorrell's character has been an improvement over Toledo, there is now the creeping question within the program about the quality of the coaching. While there is no excuse for giving up, as I said, there is only so much fight that each person has in them. The players in the program have expended so much after Toledo and now after this season, that there is an understandable amount of uncertainty now within the program. There are also questions about the quality of coaching at certain positions. All of this has caused a more-than-usual amount of rumblings about players transferring, and has contributed to some players considering trying their hand at an early NFL jump. With a very disappointing 6-7 season there will naturally be this kind of uncertainty, but it has been intensified by Dorrell's inexperience. The players, even though they've clung to their own optimistic mindset and fight, naturally will question whether a first-year coach, given this season, does indeed have the chops to be successful at this level. It is perhaps one of the most critical aspects of a program's success – whether its players are buying into it 100% or not. And it's a question now whether Dorrell has that kind of support.
In regard to the recruiting issue, there has been a vast shift in strategy and approach, born out of both a different coaching staff as well as desperation. Right now, UCLA's approach to recruiting is truly one that has departed from its recent history, and one that really departs from conventional logic. This recruiting season, UCLA is trying to push through a considerable turnover in talent. It intends, through transfer, medical problems, and academics, to bring in up to 29 new players into the program. It has tried to get some immediate, quick help from the JC ranks, in an unprecedented way for UCLA football, taking so far commitments from six JC players.
While on one hand, you have to respect that the coaching staff recognizes that it needs an immediate upgrade of talent and is actively trying to do it. It has done a very good job in recognizing JC players that it could recruit. With UCLA generally having a hard time finding JC players who could qualify academically to play at UCLA, the coaching staffs of the past have more or less not pursued JC players. This year, though, this staff has done whatever it could to recognize the very small pool of JC players it could recruit.
But on the other hand, even though the staff is making the effort to bring in an infusion of new talent, is there really a chance that any players coming in next year are talented enough to make an immediate impact? Most of the time, in college football, it's very unusual that a true freshman is good enough and physically mature enough to make a big impact. It's also fairly unusual that JC transfers are good enough to transform a team in one season, with one recruiting class. UCLA, with uncertainty around its program and a disappointing seaason, hasn't been able to get involved with a great deal of elitel recruits. It has, then, taken commitments from some fairly unheralded prospects, both JC players and high school seniors. It's a question, then, if these players are talented enough to really make an impact next season. Has the coaching staff out-evaluated many of its fellow coaching staffs and discovered some "sleepers"? Conventional wisdom would leave you skeptical.
So, with recruiting, in how it reflects on a coach's accomplishments, this recruiting season has been a mystery, but most likely better described as a shot in the dark. You have to concede, with recruiting, it's impossible to foresee how the players this staff has taken will impact next season. But again, conventional wisdom would leave you to believe that the approach to go after JC prospects and unheralded high school prospects is mostly a shot in the dark. It's getting players that it knows it can get, and hoping that they can coach them up and make them better than their high school reputations. The real issue, though, again, is whether this will impact the team next season. Because if it doesn't, it might not matter.
Then there is the bottom line issue of money. Is the program putting people in the seats at the Rose Bowl? This season, UCLA had its worse seasons for home attendance in recent years, averaging just 56,635 per home game. In 2002, even if you throw out the 91,000 that were in attendance for the USC game that year, UCLA still averaged 60,258 – in a season where the head coach was fired.
Looking ahead to next season, you'd have to anticipate that UCLA would have to have a better-than-expected season for its home attendance to improve. First you'd have to logically think that, coming off this 6-7 season, interest will be lukewarm next season. The lackluster offense from this season isn't one that will bring out big crowds looking to get entertained.
But it just isn't the left-over residuals from this season that could impact attendance next year. The home games on the schedule don't look to be big draws. UCLA's home schedule includes Oklahoma State and San Diego State, two schools that won't draw big crowds. Its home conference schedule includes Arizona, Stanford, Washington State, and USC. Besides the USC game, there isn't a school here that is a big draw. UCLA, if it fields a similar team to the one this season, or say worse, could be looking at a particularly sparse Rose Bowl next season. A sparse Rose Bowl hits UCLA where it lives – in the pocket book – and would be a huge strike against Dorrell.
Also, like with the players, UCLA fans have spent a great deal of their tolerance through the worst five-year period in 40 years of UCLA football (not since the early 60s under head coach Bill Barnes). Since the Miami game in 1998 (and including that game), UCLA is 31-31. It has only been ranked in the top 25 for two weeks in the last two years, and not at all this year. It's the longest span of UCLA not being ranked in the top 25 since the end of the Terry Donahue era and the first year under Bob Toledo. But then Toledo went the next two years without ever experiencing a week off the top 25 rankings. Going through the end of the Toledo era, and then Dorrell's first year has created a good amount of disgruntled UCLA fans. Some sources from inside the Morgan Center have indicated that the uproar and complaint level in the last month over the football program has been close to that of Toledo's program last December. It's difficult to see, barring a hugely successful season next year, that fans will be flocking to the Rose Bowl and supporting the program financially.
Overall, it's not hard to come upon the conclusion that Karl Dorrell, with this first season, now has some considerable pressure on him. He'll have to produce in his second season, in all five of these aspects. He'll have to simply have a winning record, and probably something better than just 6-5 in the regular season. He'll have to shore up all the perceived coaching issues and mistakes, and at least appear to be running a tighter, more disciplined ship. A winning season will itself help some of the internal issues of player morale and support. But Dorrell will have to prove pretty quickly next year that his offensive scheme can produce, or he could lose that support quickly. In recruiting, for the team to be much improved next season, he'll have to prove that his alternative approach to recruiting this season paid off – that some of the JC players and even true freshmen are good enough to make an immediate impact. And, he'll have to generate some interest in the program, presumable with some early decisive wins and a more productive offense.