The most important decision in determining UCLA's success on the football field and basketball court over the course of our lifetimes will be decided in the next six months.
It's not whom the programs might recruit, or which coach could be hired. Those are miniscule compared to the decision of whom will be the new Athletic Director to replace the retiring Peter Dalis.
It's key to understand the magnitude of this decision. The Athletic Director's personality, spirit, vision and work ethic are reflected in his athletic department. The football and basketball teams success are directly related to the athletic director, not only because of whom the A.D. hires as head coaches, but what he demands from them in performance, what he does to enhance the program in support and facilities, and where he envisions the programs to be in the landscape of college football and basketball.
Pete Dalis, when he retires in June, will have held the job for 19 years, from 1983 to 2002, a period in which the job and college sports changed beyond recognition. It's definitely a different world here in 2001 than when Dalis first took the job, and he readily admitted it in his press conference Monday. He also admitted that one of the main prerequisites for handling the job in the 21st century is having "vision." This was probably the most profound thing Dalis said Monday – recognizing that the job of UCLA Athletic Director, in this day and age, will take a visionary, a person who envisions how successful UCLA could be and goes out and gets done what it takes to realize it.
It's generally accepted among college coaches and college administrators, off the record, that UCLA is a Sleeping Giant. It has so many advantages that could contribute to establishing UCLA as one of the consistently dominating programs in both football and basketball in the nation. Among people in college sports, the refrain over the years is the same: UCLA could be the Florida State of the west coast in football (but with academics), and the Duke of the west coast in basketball. UCLA is the one unique situation of any university in the country that could mount programs in football and basketball equal to those of such perennial powers Florida State and Duke. Other schools simply don't have the potential, limited by location, recruiting base, academics, fan support, weather, lack of media, etc.
In football, UCLA has a unique opportunity – one whose window could be open for just a short time. Right now, UCLA is considered the #1 football school in Southern California, while USC has been floundering away for years. With USC struggling, it gives UCLA a phenomenal opportunity to be able to seize the hearts, minds and recruits of California. It's already taken place, to a degree, as evidenced by Bill Plaschke's recent article in the Los Angeles Times. But that's just scratching the surface. While USC is down, UCLA should be aggressive in taking over Southern California football, an aggressiveness that could only be spearheaded by a visionary Athletic Director.
For instance, Pete Dalis conceded that the biggest obstacle facing the football program is still the lack of an on-campus football stadium. UCLA currently has plans to build a state-of-the-art training facility, which is badly needed; UCLA has fallen behind somewhat in keeping up with the football facilities around the Pac-10 even, much less the country, and the new training facility will bring UCLA into the 21st century. The construction of the new Morgan Center was also a crucial step in modernizing UCLA's athletic department. But, for the football program, facilities will never be complete until an on-campus football stadium is built. Dalis headed a few efforts over his tenure to get the stadium built, but was shot down at various times. Dalis, Monday, said that the primary obstacle in building the stadium wasn't the Bel Air residents (as it was in the late 1970s when one effort to build the stadium was thwarted), but "money." Here's where a new vision comes in. UCLA needs its new Athletic Director to be able to take on the challenge of going out and raising the money needed to build an on-campus stadium. In the era of huge dollars being spent on stadium sponsorships, and just about any kind of sponsorship imaginable, it's time to again mount a campaign to build an on-campus stadium. And UCLA needs to find the man who is willing to take it on.
In basketball, Pauley Pavilion sorely needs renovation. It was once the palace of college basketball and needs to be again. Instead of sitting pat and telling yourself that a Pauley renovation can't be done, UCLA needs the visionary who will say, "Of course it can be done." Even if, as Dalis speculated Monday, that to do it you might need to raze Pauley Pavilion.
But in basketball and football, the vision needed isn't just to build facilities. It's more of mindset to push the programs to what they can be. UCLA has a tendency to accept status quo, accepting UCLA's general success and not pushing to see what UCLA could be. UCLA, because of its natural advantages, will always be successful in football and basketball to a degree. Coaches will always want to coach at UCLA. In fact, a year ago, one Internet website ranked the UCLA head coaching job as #1 in the nation, because of the many contributing factors. In basketball, while many try to float the assertion that college coaches don't want to coach at UCLA because they don't want the pressure of John Wooden's shadow, just about every college coach covets the UCLA head coaching job. Both the football and basketball programs will always get its share of talented recruits, just merely because of the advantages UCLA has in the recruiting wars. And there are so many other factors that contribute to UCLA being able to maintain its relative level of success. But, all of this, in a way, while it's very advantageous for UCLA, is also probably its thorn. With UCLA generally able to be pretty successful while on cruise control, it's quite easy for the athletic department to put it on cruise control themselves. After all, UCLA has the most national championships of any university in the nation, so the athletic department opinion is: "So, we have to be doing something right." But those national championships are due mostly to UCLA's natural advantages. UCLA's general success in football and basketball have also come while the athletic department is in cruise control. Yes, UCLA is successful in football and basketball, but most fans and followers of the program would readily admit that neither the football nor basketball program are among the elite in college football or basketball right now. UCLA hasn't won a national championship in football in 47 years. UCLA has been to one Final Four in basketball in 20 years. While UCLA consistently posts winning records, gets ranked most years in the top 25, and competes for a Pac-10 championship every few years or so in each sport, it's achieving this degree of success while on cruise control. What if UCLA had a new Athletic Director that shook up the athletic department a bit – took them out of cruise control and gave them a vision of what he sees UCLA could be, and demanded a work ethic to get it done. To use UCLA's advantages as a base of success to build on.
What's particularly amazing is how the fans, after decades of this, have accepted it also. For the last couple of decades UCLA's limited success in football and basketball has lowered expectations from fans considerably, and it's understandable. Why should UCLA fans expect more if they haven't seen too much evidence of it in 20 years? UCLA fans continually cite the list of excuses on why UCLA can't be the Florida State of the west in football and the Duke of the west in basketball (UCLA has higher academic standards, UCLA can't pay it's