Chiccoa: Cranks Can Drive You Blue

After the jumping-overboard mentality of many fans last week, our resident columnist, Charles Chiccoa, provides us a balanced, sane perspective on the UCLA football program heading into the 2005 season...

That was some spectacle we witnessed on Saturday, August 20th. I don't mean the scrimmage at Drake Stadium. I mean the Crank meltdown later.

A few of us BROs had our usual get-together afterwards at the Westwood Brewing Company. These things inevitably have something of a Blue tinge about them. I mean, why would people who were willing to fight L.A. traffic in order to make several practices a year not tend toward a more hopeful nature? Now, all of us were bummed over the injuries to Kevin Brown and Brigham Harwell (Brown's, in particular, since it looked so serious). But nobody was reaching for the razor blades; nobody was ready to write off the season. We all left the restaurant in reasonably good spirits.

When I got home I found a phone message waiting for me… from a friend who might be fairly described as The Arch Crank. He'd finally made it out to a practice (which is what this extended scrimmage was) and, boy, was he pissed. The Kevin Brown incident had gotten me down, too, and I was in no mood to deal with Crank hysteria. An hour or so later the phone rings and, of course, it's him. Now there are certain people with whom you often have problems getting in a word edgewise, especially once they've mounted their soapbox. And so he fired away in rapid succession: "This team is dead! Without Brown, they'll get steamrolled! They can't beat San Diego State! Drew [Olson] still stinks! The offense stinks! The defense stinks! Ben won't even get a shot! The practice reports are just the same ol' crap we hear every year! Nothing's changed! This program's still in the toilet!" Oh mercy nurtz! Finally, when he said that Markey was better than Maurice Drew, I had to reply: "Hey," I yelled, "Mo barely played." Now don't get me wrong, I've always liked Markey… but better than Mo? Not yet… probably not ever. It soon degenerated into an absurd shouting match, something like the spectacle I used to take part in with another friend, before we gave up discussing (accent on cussing) politics. What we had here, I finally figured out, was one more example of Abused Crank Syndrome. Click. Suddenly we got disconnected… he didn't call back. Hmmm… Did The Arch Crank just hang up on me?

BROther Redzone on the BRO premium message board got it exactly right. In the current state of the fractured Bruin Nation (hardcore division), drills, scrimmages and I don't doubt even games have, and will, constitute a kind of Rorschach Test.

Do you want Karl Dorrell uncoupled ASAP? Then: Hey, nothing's changed.

Are you hoping KD succeeds? Do you think the coaching staff is slowly evolving? Then: Hey, things are getting better.

Have you seen enough of Drew Olson? Same old Drew.

Have you, too, been disappointed in Drew's first three years, but, based on what you've seen in pre-season, do you detect some marginal improvement? Uh… yeah.

So this is finally the year of The Marcedes? You finally decide to nose the old Lexus into crosstown traffic and see for yourself. And in two hours he catches, what… three passes? Give me a break.

Yeah, Marcedes Lewis caught three passes, and two went for scores. And how many plays, exactly, did he get?

Look at the way the offense moved the ball. Look at all the scores they gave up. Same ol' crap.

Look at the way the defense held up, even after losing Kevin and Brigham.

And so it goes…

My rule of thumb - especially with regards to college football - is to show a little humility. Leave some room for the unknown. You don't trust the coaches? Fine. But how about applying a little doubt in The World According to You? You think that bad second- or third-year players always become bad fourth-year players? You think that guys who've yet to make an impact are destined always to be "just guys"? Think about Brian Willmer, Tod McBride, Weldon Forde, Matt Clark and God-knows-how-many others. How many of us wanted to see Cade McNown beaten out before the double overtime, 48-41, spectacular vs. SC? You think Tom Ramsey is one of UCLA's great quarterbacks? He likely wouldn't have started his senior year if Jay Schroeder hadn't opted to play baseball. And what were your hopes for Rick Neuheisel, Steve Bono and David Norrie going into their senior years? If hope is the opium of the Blues, cynicism is the cop-out of the Cranks – at least among the obsessive radicals on either side.

So what exactly do we know?: 1) The "KD era" is off to a less than rousing start. His Bruins haven't yet beaten a single formidable opponent, though last year wasn't quite as ugly as the first. 2) Drew Olson hasn't demonstrated he's a legitimate Pac-10 quarterback who can beat good teams… and it's getting way late. 3) The defense was atrocious last year, especially the front four, and even the year before was nothing to write home about. 4) Larry Kerr, though an upgrade from his predecessor, has obviously favored a conservative, vanilla approach (though some believe his personnel dictated this strategy. 5) Tom Cable, though a huge upgrade from his predecessor, has obviously favored a conservative approach in his play-calling (though most believe the quarterback's lack of execution has dictated this approach). 6) Marcedes Lewis has been made to become the weapon that seldom fires (see parenthetical #5).

What would we like to see this year: 1) A lot more than just a winning season. 2) An effective, preferably dangerous quarterback, and a quarterback that won't cost the team a game before he gets yanked. 3) A defense that is not an embarrassment or causes something very like an attack of acid reflux whenever it takes the field. 4) The "attacking" defense that KD promised when he took the job. 5) An aggressive offense and an end, finally, to those infernal stacked boxes. 6) Marcedes Lewis being made to become the weapon we've been waiting to see fired lo' these many years.

All of us, here, are aware of the Bruins sad football history: the national profile that never quite developed. So what's been missing? You know, the Reggie factor, "the straw that stirs the drink"? Player personnel? No. Impact players? Certainly not. Big game losses? Sure. Coaching? Bingo. Whether UCLA coaches are dropping dead on the job, taking off for the NFL, staying too long, or they're just not up to the job… it hasn't been a happy story.

Everyone here, Blues and Cranks alike, are pretty much in agreement this is the "show me" year. We're sitting at strike two. The coaches believe they've got enough personnel to turn this thing around, which is to say at least eight wins. This year there are realistic options for finding an effective quarterback, something no good team can leave home without. After seven straight years of "soft" defensive teams, this one may have possibilities (though they can't afford one more loss comparable to Kevin Brown's, i.e., Justin Hickman, Brigham Harwell, Spencer Havner, or Justin London). There's now some added speed, maturity and valuable experience sprinkled throughout the roster. More positions have become genuinely competitive.

Finally, something about the nature of football practices needs to be clarified: Just because practices are not games does not make them negligible, which misunderstanding seems to be at the heart of much unnecessary howling from the Cranks (at least wait for the first loss). In addition to giving coaches an idea of what they can confidently exploit (or start worrying about), football practices are for teaching… and for establishing a pecking order, a depth chart. How well does this guy understand his assignments? How does he compare to that guy? And what affect does he have on his particular unit? These are judgment calls and, yes, coaches have been known to blow them. Trust the coaches at your own peril, because, like you and me, they're human. Trust your eyes first.

It might also be helpful to remind ourselves that the kind of grueling pressure the quarterbacks, for instance, have faced in the spring, and now pre-season, is nothing compared to what they'll face in games. Drew Olson has yet to succeed in his career; Ben Olson has yet to start his. Does this mean Drew has no chance of succeeding or Ben has no chance of blowing up in his first year? I imagine worse quarterbacks than Drew have salvaged their senior years, and less prepared, less talented quarterbacks than Ben have had great freshman years. Like most of you, I like Ben's chances better than Drew's, but I'm always prepared for the unexpected. And there's still Patrick Cowan.

I could be wrong, but it doesn't seem to me there are a lot of geniuses coaching today. Maybe someone like Urban Meyer, if he can carry over his domination to a real conference. Maybe (though we don't like to think about it) Pete Carroll if he can get similar results less Norm Chow and Ed Orgeron. Bowden and Stoops have lost some luster recently and Joe Pa's shine seems gone for good. There are a few consistently good coaches, lots of average ones, and a few on the "hot seat." We've all got our own ideas which coaches fall into which categories. My point is that the days of Rockne, Leahy, Wilkinson, Blaik… those days are gone. The secrets are pretty much out; the contenders these days are not all that singular. It's been said that Gibbon came along at just the right time when he wrote "The Decline and Fall…" There was just enough information, but not too much. A talented, hard-working guy could more easily get to the top and stay on top.

Today, more than ever, players decide games, influence recruiting and thereby turn programs around. You don't have to be a coaching genius to have a successful season because you're seldom facing a genius across the field. And merely respectable coaches can capitalize on a couple of good years (something Bob Toledo was fatally unable to pull off).

At the risk of being called something like The Resident Blue (please no!) I think it's still premature to declare the Dorrell era hopeless. My friend, The Arch Crank, is pretty sure disaster waits. Like always, except for extreme cases like The Immortal Lav, I think I'll just take it game to game.

Wait, this just in: The Arch Crank just called. He, too, is game to game. Can't we all just get along… at least until the opener?

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