Sleeping Giant or Average Joe?

<b>EDITORIAL</B>: Our resident columnist <b>Charles Chiccoa</b> kicks around the notion of UCLA being a Sleeping Giant in college football...

I love reading the premium BRO message board, which is the true home of the Bruin hardcore. BROthers Arty and Danno, among others, recently questioned the widely held assumption that Bruin football is a "sleeping giant." They believe "the single biggest element necessary for success is completely and totally absent – an institutional commitment to winning." Though understanding that "the raw material for a powerhouse program is definitely present," their feeling is that UCLA's athletic and academic administrators are a decisive obstacle to the Bruins becoming a dominant Pac-10 program, let alone a consistent national power. For myself, I doubt this and suspect their proposition is more a reflection of frustration and anger than a judicious treatment of the facts. But it's certainly a good and timely question.

We can all agree that, next to Stanford, UCLA likely has the highest academic standards for athletes in the Pac-10. UCLA also lacks an institutional sugar daddy, someone like Phil Knight, with which to dazzle incoming adolescent jocks with all that great "stuff." And even if it did, would UCLA exploit and indulge this plutocrat to the extent Oregon has? Probably not… but then Oregon isn't violating NCAA rules, after all, so who's to say UCLA should absolutely be above that sort of thing? But these two factors alone still shouldn't prevent UCLA becoming the football power we all want to see, which is to say UCLA's natural advantages outweigh this somewhat amorphous lack of "commitment."

You can never underestimate the importance of circumstance in the workings of the universe. We like to think individuals, strongmen if you will, can mold events to their purposes. In our own little world of Bruin sports we think of someone like J.D. Morgan as having been that kind of individual. He helped clear John Wooden's plate so that "the coach" could focus entirely on "teaching," ultimately creating a one-of-a-kind dynasty, something previously unimaginable and surely never to be repeated in American sports history. J.D. also brought back Tommy Prothro to resurrect the football program out of that late ‘50s, early ‘60s malaise. And he became a power figure within the NCAA. On the other hand, J.D. also made a couple of questionable hires, i.e., Gene Bartow and Terry Donahue (I wonder what his search process looked like regarding those two?). There were even whispers, at the time, questioning why he was on the road with the basketball team while Leonard Tose was romancing the highly emotional Dick Vermeil right from under his nose. It's also believed that J.D., with his bombastic managerial style, apparently offended some in the administration who believed he was usurping too much authority for himself and the athletic department.

Chance seems not to have combined much in the Bruins' favor since those magical few months between 1948 and '49 when both John Wooden and Red Sanders were lured west against their own best judgment (the famous downed telephone lines in Wooden's case and the less familiar story that Sanders wished to renege on his commitment once Vanderbilt came up with the offer of a lifetime contract). SC, on the other hand, fell into the arms of John McKay - a complete unknown who turned out to be a genius - then recently stumbled over what was thought to be one more generic NFL retread who had the sweet inspiration to hire Norm Chow, arguably the greatest offensive coordinator in college football history… then had the wherewithal to keep him satisfied instead of watching him bolt to become a head coach himself. Hopefully we'll all live to see the day Pete Carroll won't have his Chow to play with. Anyway, such are the ways of "the curse."

But to return to the original question: If not an institutional commitment to winning, then what exactly has been the Bruin problem? I think you can guess the answer. It may not be "all about the coaching," but coaching is, by far, the biggest part of it. When Dan Guerrero came to the administration with a strong recommendation to dump Lav and hire Ben Howland, I doubt there was much, if any, opposition. Granted, Lav The Imposter was finished, deader than Franco at the time, but DG was certainly able to close on a "big name" ace to replace him. I don't know what realistic candidates DG had to replace Big Bob, but I doubt he felt any serious interest from the likes of "Mooch" or Spurrier. Perhaps Mike Price may have been a possibility despite his pledges of loyalty to the Palouse. Of course we know about Greg Robinson and Mike Riley, but neither of them stirs the blood, nor does Price for that matter, even without his Alabama monkey business. And so DG took a flier on Karl Dorrell… and we're all going to have to await developments for at least another year.

Sanders turned the football program around on a dime. He made UCLA into a national power and he kept them there. Prothro did the same thing to a lesser degree. And there's no telling what Vermeil might have built had UCLA been more careful of losing him. (This may have been more the fault of complacency than any lack of commitment. In any case, had it occurred across town you'd had to have believed SC would've made his decision to leave much harder. In that sense, I suppose, you might score one for commitment.)

Considering the Bruins' advantage in sitting atop a recruiting gold mine; considering the fact that Bruin recruits still do not need impossibly high SATs and GPAs (which is to say UCLA, despite not admitting academic cripples, still has a more than a sufficient pool of eligible talents to draw from); considering the beauty and location of the campus, the national profile of the university, the richness of its athletic tradition, its first rate academics, the Rose Bowl as its home field, etc., etc., there's no real obstacle to football success other than winning on the field, which any good coach should still be able to accomplish. If a mediocrity like Terry Donahue or a mutt like Bob Toledo could come within a hair's breath of making the Bruins into a national power, imagine what a real winner might do. Maybe even make Pete Carroll squeal like a piggie.

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