The UCLA football program had gone through probably its best month in over three years and then ended the season by placing an incredibly bitter taste in everyone's mouth to take with them for nine months by losing to Wyoming in the Las Vegas Bowl Thursday, 24-20.
It was as if the UCLA football program were your boyfriend. And for the last month he's been hinting he was going to get you a diamond ring for Christmas. And you wake up Christmas morning and you unwrap a blender instead.
It can be a deal killer. For many Bruin fans, it very well might.
But just keep telling yourself: "UCLA got Ben Olson. UCLA got Ben Olson." It's the only way to make yourself feel better.
In fact, it's a very strange dichotomy of feelings right now. There is that feeling when you wake up the next morning and you get hit with that realization, "Wait, they really did lose to Wyoming, didn't they?" But on the other hand, for the last several days there has been the other realization that hits you every once in a while: "Hey, they really did get Ben Olson, didn't they?"
Only UCLA fans could experience both the dream and nightmare simultaneously. It's a unique experience, being a UCLA fan, isn't it?
Analyzing the game, there are a few takeaways:
-- Wyoming, in fact, wasn't very good, but you could see they were playing on adrenalin. Heck, when the head coach is motioning to the fans to cheer, you know this is an emotional thing for the entire state. Wyoming, from a talent perspective, was easily a couple of touchdowns inferior to UCLA, but their emotion in just being in this game, getting the chance to beat a Pac-10 team, drew them even.
-- UCLA's game plan wasn't as bad as many are portraying on the message board. In analyzing Wyoming, it was clear that UCLA should devise a game plan that emphasized running the ball. Even if the running lanes were plugged early on, it would bear out that UCLA would wear them down and win the game on the ground in the second half. It was a sound game plan. Even in UCLA's last drive, when it was trying to eat up clock, there was a dilemma. Do you make your back-up quarterback, David Koral, try to execute on a first- or second-down and complete a pass, or do you stick with the running game, which was showing definite signs of being able to move the ball, and then possibly take a chance that Koral would have to execute on a third-and-long? Koral had completed some passes and had some very good moments, but did you want to push your luck? UCLA's coaches probably knew that Koral was playing way over his head in completing those two touchdown passes and didn't want to put him in too many situations where he could fail. It was a sound decision to stick with the running game, and it was working, for the most part.
The call Dorrell made to make Wyoming punt the ball again in the fourth quarter, the punt that Craig Bragg muffed, was a good decision. It was the aggressive decision. So many UCLA fans always maintain that they'd rather see the coaching staff be aggressive and then make mistakes rather than play it conservatively. Well, this was a moment where the coaching staff was aggressive, and it didn't work out. If you're a crank that always voices disapproval about UCLA's conservatism and lack of aggressiveness, you can't discredit Dorrell's choice of making Wyoming punt the ball again. You can't have it both ways.
It's obvious that UCLA lacks experienced talent. They lack enough talent that a not-very-good Wyoming team, a middle-of-the-pack Mountain West conference team that is particularly young, could give UCLA a game merely because of its emotion. UCLA should always have enough talent to be able to counteract a Wyoming-level team running on adrenalin. But, this year's team simply doesn't. It lacks the talent at quarterback, and on defense. Even with the lack of talent on defense, if UCLA had a better play-making ability at quarterback, it would have won the game. In the first half, Drew Olson, even when given time, didn't throw the ball accurately. When Koral came in, you could actually get a glimpse of what a quarterback with some mobility who could throw the ball accurately could do in the offense. Of course, that didn't last long, as Koral's lucky streak got the best of him as he started to try to do too much. On defense, the squad is under-manned in terms of quality, experienced talent, and it's especially so without Spencer Havner. Trey Brown, who in taking over the cornerback position had played pretty well as a redshirt freshman this season, had a pretty poor game. He looked very inexperienced on many plays, particularly Wyoming's second to last touchdown pass, the underthrown fluke in the endzone. Brown was confused and essentially blocked out his own defenders, setting a basketball-like screen for the Wyoming receiver. Brown, though, has shown enough over this year that he has potential to be a good corner. But, as we said, the defense lacks experienced talent, and Brown is only a redshirt freshman.
Overall, it was a devastatingly demoralizing loss. UCLA fans have been suffering for years with mediocrity in both its football and basketball programs. So, the Sports God then gives UCLA fans a few positives to cling to concerning its football program over the last month, almost knowingly setting us up for then this crushing blow, this bitter taste that many will have in their mouth for nine months.
Oh, how cruel art thou, Sports God.
While we're feeling sorry for ourselves, as overweight, live-vicariously-through-22-year-olds, middle-aged men, who we should really sympathize for are the seniors on this team who have been through a great deal and had to finish their careers with this letdown.
Of particular note is Craig Bragg. Craig Bragg epitomizes the type of student athlete UCLA should always want to represent the university. He's a quality kid, with a great attitude and work ethic, a UCLA record-setter with a champion's heart. The fact that it was him that bungled the punt return that turned the game toward Wyoming in the second half is beyond tragic. You can only hope that Bragg doesn't let it depress him for too long, and that he remembers all of the great moments he provided UCLA football, especially when many of them were the only silver linings at the time.
But UCLA fans want to point blame for the loss and the 6-6 season, and the question is: Who's to blame for it all? Well, UCLA fans are calling for the firing of Dorrell, which is standard operating procedure after such a disappointing loss. Heck, if Dorrell had won a national championship last season and then finished this season 6-6 and with this loss to Wyoming, there still would be fans calling for his head.
But if you can all put aside your emotions, there are a few practicalities about the situation, and about college sports in general, you'd better come to terms with.
There is no chance Karl Dorrell would be fired now. For one thing, firing a coach after two seasons is a tough thing to do. Look at the criticism Notre Dame received for firing Ty Willingham.
The protocol generally is that college head coaches get three seasons. It's not in their contracts, but it's an unwritten law in college sports.
And even beyond the reasoning of proper protocol, or how it looks, or dealing with the inevitable backlash, Dorrell simply doesn't deserve to be fired.
I'm not saying that Dorrell has done an overwhelmingly great job and that everything is right with the program. Obviously, that's not true since his record for the last two years has been 6-7 and 6-6.
But he's done enough right with the program for him to warrant the third year in the unwritten contract.
What has he done right? Mainly, three things. And possibly a fourth.
-- He has established a positive atmosphere in the program, that was much needed after former Head Coach Bob Toledo. The program was in a shambles internally under Toledo. Toledo was not respected or liked in the athletic department, in the football offices, among his fellow coaches, the office workers or his players. Coaches were constantly faxing their resumes to other schools, looking for jobs, to try to get away from Toledo. Players wanted to leave the program. Most associated with the program thought that Toledo's ego had gotten the best of him, and he was out for himself. It started to go downhill with the handicapped parking placard scandal. Toledo was aware of the problem and had tried half-heartedly to clean it up internally. But when it went public, Toledo lost the support of his players when he told the press essentially he hadn't been aware of the situation, putting the blame entirely on the players. The program deteriorated from there. Players didn't want to play for him, coaches didn't want to coach for him.
You can't under-estimate how difficult a task it is for the next coach to then try to re-establish a positive atmosphere, one of respect, work ethic and comraderie. There were holdover bad apples, but also a general holdover approach and attitude that was by far more difficult to get rid of than the bad apples.
If you don't like Dorrell, you can at least concede that he has changed the atmosphere of the program. He has instilled a work ethic, an accountability and a standard of behavior. He has the admiration, respect and affection of the people working in the athletic department, in the football offices, among his players and his coaches. While there is a good case to be made that Dorrell never would have been considered a candidate for the job unless he had played for UCLA, that UCLA connection is also what drives Dorrell to inspire pride in UCLA football among his players. It probably doesn't have as much impact on a program as 10 years of experience as a head coach, but it still has had an impact that is palpable.
-- Dorrell hired Tom Cable. Without that hire, Dorrell was probably doomed. Without the vastly improved offense this year, where would this team be? It provided most, if not all, of the best moments in this year's season. If not for the offense, it's very safe to say UCLA would have had a losing record. So, Dorrell would have followed up a very disappointing 6-7 season with another losing record. Not good. And without the offense, the prospects would have looked pretty bleak for next year. Maybe even the three-year unwritten rule about hiring coaches might have been thrown out. You could also make the case that the offense got UCLA Ben Olson. Certainly without Cable and without this year's offense, Olson goes elsewhere. Dorrell, more than likely, without Cable, would have been going down a path of demise. And you can't just give Dorrell credit for random luck in hiring Cable; he is the guy Dorrell wanted to hire originally, a year ago.
-- Thirdly, and while many might feel that this is being over-emphasized, Dorrell got Ben Olson. It's not that we're blowing up Olson to be this complete savior of the program. But looking logically at UCLA's projected depth chart in the next couple of years, Dorrell was in deep trouble at the quarterback position. After next year, he would have redshirt sophomore Patrick Cowan and redshirt freshman Osaar Rasshan to take over the reins of his offense in 2006. Cowan is by far better than anticipated, but better means that he's capable of being a quality quarterback far down the line, but more than likely not in a year and a half, one good enough to lead this program to 8+ wins. And Rasshan, a raw talent, would be further down the line if he were to pan out. Without a future at quarterback, even if Dorrell did get his 8+ wins in 2005, 2006 was looking bleak. And one wining record (in 2005) in four years isn't the kind of record that gets you retained for a fifth year. Even if Olson isn't a Heisman candidate in two years, he still provides the program a truly elite potential talent at the most critical position on the field, one that was severely lacking of projected talent over the next few years.
-- The fourth possible thing Dorrell has done well the jury is still out on. It's something I was saving for a separate analysis, but it's appropriate here in this one.
In this era of college sports, it's arguable what is the best approach to recruiting. Of course, stockpiling the best talent is the best approach. But today, many times the most talented high school players don't always translate into the best college players. There are so many things along the way in that process that can trip it up. Mostly, academics. Over the last several years we have seen many talented high school players in both football and basketball that never really make it to the high-major college level because their academics stopped them, either in high school or college. Character is also a key. We saw Toledo lose many players to academics and lack of character. We see many programs, namely in the Pac-10, that lose many players because of both, or either. It is an increasing concern in college sports – that more and more high school recruits lack the proper discipline and character to sustain enough success academically and personally to make it as a college player.
So, inadvertently, might it be that Dorrell has fallen into the new successful approach to recruiting? Could it be that, in the next few years, there will be evidence that more and more programs will succeed that have solid kids, with solid academics and character, that stay in a program for four or five years? Because of attrition, UCLA hasn't had a graduating class of seniors that had more than a dozen or so scholarship players. What if Dorrell actually retains 20 or so of the scholarship players he recruits every year – that they make it to their senior years, and he deals with far less attrition? Experience in college football is almost as important as talent, and moreso in college football than college basketball. What if, say, in a few years, Dorrell, with his approach of getting solid kids, starts to have senior- and junior-dominated teams, when other teams are still losing kids to academics and character issues and (as it is now in the Pac-10) rely far too heavily on inexperienced sophomores and freshmen? Again, partially inadvertently, Dorrell might fall into this approach as a result of UCLA's academic standards. A higher academic standard that has forced UCLA to not take kids of lower academic background might actually work to help the program by retaining kids for four or five years, and producing senior- and junior-dominated teams. UCLA is the perfect place for this approach to happen, given its higher academic standards and the fact that at UCLA you have a good chance of sprinkling in some elite talent, too – like the Brigham Harwells and Ben Olsons of the world – just enough to make the program competitive at a higher level fairly consistently.
There are other programs that have gotten very successful very quickly, taking shortcuts in academics and recruiting. And while everyone can be envious of the short-term success, many close to college sports think that approach is a house of cards. One good scandal, one coach who wants to stay a step ahead of the scandal and leaves the program, and it's over. While the short-term success is great, it's not a formula for truly long-term success.
Again, this fourth aspect is something that is purely speculative. But there are signs in both college football and basketball that this could be where the sports are going – and what the consistently successful programs of the future could be built upon. It's currently more evident in college basketball, but there are some distinct signs that it also could be the future successful recruiting approach in college football also.
So, whether you're on the Karl Dorrell bandwagon or not, objectively you have to concede that it's far more complicated than the black-and-white scenarios many like to portray. You hear – "He's 12-13 in his first two years. At UCLA, he should be fired. He never should have been hired with his lack of experience." But the logical, sensible fan realizes that there's far more to it than that – all the issues that we've chronicled here.
Now, might UCLA have been immediately better off hiring a prestigious, big-named head coach? More than likely. But does that mean that Dorrell won't be successful? Not neccesarily. College sports are highly volatile, and the recipe for success can change quickly and dramatically. Given the three primary things Dorrell has done right, and possibly the fourth and even most significant, you have to concede that Dorrell's prospects are more promising now than they were a year ago. Going forward from here, will there be some Wyoming-like speed bumps along the way? Sure. Is it probable that Dorrell becomes consistently successful? It's far too difficult, and probably still too early, to tell. But railing against the hiring of Dorrell, now, this deep into the endeavor, is futile. While there is so much Dorrell has to prove to make this program consistently successful and be considered a good coach, he has succeeded in doing enough to give himself and his program a chance.